It sounds like a joke but, sadly, it’s not. And the punchline is the irony of a politician getting on a high horse over the issue of broken promises.
Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett kicked off May with yet another attack on the Church, painting Catholic leaders as charlatans who negotiated their way out of an obligation to raise millions of dollars to further help former students who suffered in the Indian residential schools of years past.
What occurred in residential schools was beyond awful. And there’s plenty of blame to go around; Catholic and Protestant churches, the legal system, the Government of Canada and more. Indeed, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission said many times that the residential schools were part of the Canadian government policy of “cultural genocide.”
On CTV and reported at the top of the front page of the Globe and Mail on May 2, Bennett chastises Church leaders and says that Catholics “from coast to coast are embarrassed” that the Church is not fulfilling its obligations. “There’s actually a moral obligation to get on with this and let the healing begin,” she said.
It’s all rather rich, especially coming from a politician. Beyond the assumption she knows what all Catholics from coast to coast are thinking, the honourable minister is not exactly telling the entire story, either. A politician twisting facts to fit her narrative? Incredulous.
First, she is confusing the Catholic Church with the 50 Catholic entities — such as some dioceses and religious orders — which signed the Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement (IRSSA). Many of these entities are near bankrupt. This is not an excuse, just a fact; they don’t have money falling from Rome or the rest of Canada that they can give away.
The 50 Catholic signatories to the IRSSA made three financial commitments to help the healing and reconciliation process by supporting indigenous communities impacted by the residential school system. These commitments were: $29 million in cash, $25 million of in-kind support services and a best-efforts campaign to raise a further $25 million.
The first two commitments were fulfilled and it is the third that has drawn the ire of Bennett and others in Ottawa and the media. The Catholic entities did run a campaign but raised only $3.7 million.
The former government recognized that the Catholic entities had run a best-efforts campaign and released them of further financial obligations. Even Phil Fontaine, former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, told the Globe the Catholic entities made their best effort and it is Ottawa who should make up any shortfall in funds for healing and reconciliation.
But Bennett told the Globe on April 19 her government sees things differently and said the Church should not get off on a “technicality.” Others would not term it a technicality, but Bennett clearly wants to frame this as Catholics pulling a fast one.
“I think we want to explain to the Catholic Church that we’re serious about them honouring this obligation and we will apply deeper pressure,” Bennett told the Globe.
Those are fighting words. Perhaps taxpayers should apply deeper pressure to Bennett and her government for breaking many promises; such as saying there would be a $10-billion deficit during the election and then delivering a $29.4-billion deficit budget?
Speaking of broken promises, generations of indigenous people have seen governments of all stripes break promises and ignore treaty obligations. Many native peoples believe a major barrier to reconciliation are these broken promises.
This is a serious and important issue; perhaps the Government of Canada should look in the mirror before flinging mud at these Catholic entities and Catholic leaders.
In a letter to the Archdiocese of Grouard-McLennan, the chair of the board of the 50 Catholic entities, Archbishop Gerard Pettipas, said: “It is my contention that we did exercise best efforts to try to raise these funds. I was, and I still am, deeply upset that we did not raise more money.”
I first met Archbishop Pettipas 40 years ago. I can count on one hand the number of times I’ve spoken with him over the past 20 years, but I take him at his word. I believe he is deeply troubled by these events and being falsely labelled as someone who would try to weasel out of a deal.
It may be politically charged to bash the Catholic Church on this issue, but it does nothing for healing and reconciliation. Instead of sabre-rattling, why not use the coast-to-coast statement in a positive way?
Here’s an idea to revisit: Another special “residential school collection” in every parish from St. John’s to Victoria. The Church should do it not because Catholics legally or morally have to, but because it shows Catholics care and want healing and reconciliation. All money from such a collection would go to the 50 Catholic entities who in turn would put it to good use.
Given all the negative publicity heaped on Catholics on this issue lately, a second collection might stir greater donations than the first. Maybe Protestant churches would join in, too. It’s more important to stand together to find solutions than posturing and playing the blame game.
(Brehl is a writer in Port Credit, Ont., and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or bbrehl on Twitter.)