'Do what's right': Outrage at Catholic Church's use of millions meant for residential school survivors

The Catholic Church spent millions supposed to go to residential school survivors on lawyers, administration and unapproved loans.

'I don't think there's any excuse for this,' said Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett

Melissa Parkyn, a worker with the Saskatoon Indian and Metis Friendship Centre, said residential school survivors 'feel like they know they're not respected and listened to.' (Jason Warick/CBC)

WARNING: This story contains distressing details.

The revelation that the Roman Catholic Church spent millions of dollars earmarked for residential school survivors on lawyers and unapproved loans has drawn harsh condemnation from the federal minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations. 

"I don't think there's any excuse for this. I have heard from Catholics coast to coast to coast that they want their church to do better," said Minister Carolyn Bennett in a statement on Thursday.

As part of the landmark 2005 Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, the Roman Catholic Church agreed to make a $29-million payment to programs directly benefitting survivors.

Instead, documents obtained by CBC News show the church spent at least some of the money on other expenses.

That includes $2.7 million on lawyers, $1.8 million on unapproved loans and $2.3 million on administration, while $8.4 million was credited as money paid for previous lawsuits.

Those who work with residential school survivors say the Catholic Church should be ashamed of its actions. 

Documents show the Catholic Church spent money meant for residential school survivors on other expenses. (CBC)

They say the money could've done a lot to assist those who still suffer from a federally operated system that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission described as a structured plan to "regulate Aboriginal life."

"I feel like they're not being responsible for these survivors. These survivors feel like they know they're not respected and listened to," said Melissa Parkyn, a support worker with the Saskatoon Indian and Métis Friendship Centre.

'We hope there is some type of investigation'

The Anglican, United and Presbyterian churches — all of which were part of the 2005 settlement — paid the full amounts agreed to years ago. 

The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops declined a request for an interview. They noted the organization was not a party to the settlement. Individual dioceses and orders created a corporation to oversee the deal.

In an email, an official says they are committed to engaging and listening. 

Chief Bobby Cameron of the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations said he feels angry and disappointed with the Catholic Church. 

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Cameron says the money needs to be paid immediately and called on the federal government to intercede. 

"Obviously, we hope there is some type of investigation, and right away. Do it now. Don't wait six months to find every excuse in the book to delay or prolong an investigation," he told CBC News in a video call on Tuesday. 

In her statement, Bennett did not commit to an investigation.

Instead, she said those who were part of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement had a "moral responsibility" to support healing and closure and fulfil their commitments. 

"Canadians are expecting us all to meaningfully engage in reconciliation, recognize the ongoing intergenerational trauma and support healing for survivors, families and communities," Bennett said. 

$25M fundraising came up short

The Catholic Church never had to justify its use of the money, despite a 2015 legal challenge by the federal government.

On the eve of the 2015 hearing on the matter, Saskatchewan Court of Queen's Bench Justice Neil Gabrielson approved the church's buyout proposal, and the case was closed.

The $29 million cash payment was in addition to a failed $25 million fundraising campaign that was meant to benefit survivors.

As reported by CBC News, that fundraising campaign only brought in $3.9 million. Instead, the church was allowed to meet its financial obligation with "in-kind services." 

As part of the 2015 lawsuit, a Catholic Church accountant testified that $25 million worth of services were provided "even though he has not audited these records and accounts, has no basis on which to value these services, and relies only on minutes of meetings" supplied by Catholic officials.

LISTEN | Residential school survivors demand Sask. court release Catholic compensation document:

Catholic bishops in Saskatchewan, Calgary and Toronto announced earlier this month that they would restart efforts to fulfil the $25-million fundraising pledge. 

In her statement to CBC News, Bennett said she was encouraged by that decision. 

Cameron had a simple message to the Catholic Church. 

"Do what's right," he said.

Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools, and those who are triggered by these reports.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for residential school survivors and others affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.

Do you know of a child who never came home from residential school? Or someone who worked at one? We would like to hear from you. Email our Indigenous-led team investigating the impacts of residential schools at or call toll-free: 1-833-824-0800.


Alexander Quon was born and raised in Regina, Saskatchewan. He has an interest in data reporting and political coverage. You'll find him reporting on COVID-19, Regina city council and provincial politics. He started at CBC Saskatchewan in 2021 after spending the first four years of his career in Atlantic Canada.

With files from Jason Warick, Omayra Issa