Catholic Church dedicated nearly $300M for buildings since promising residential school survivors $25M in 2005

In 2015, Catholic officials argued in court they could only fundraise a total of $3.9 million for residential school survivors, but efforts for Catholic cathedrals and other buildings across Canada reached nearly $300 million since November 2005, according to data gathered by CBC News.

CBC compiled Catholic projects announced since promising 'best efforts' to survivors, paying them under $4M

St. Michael's Cathedral Basilica in Toronto celebrated completion of its $128-million renovation in September 2016, one year after Canadian church groups told a judge that $3.9 million was all they could fundraise nationally for residential school survivors. (St. Michael's Cathedral Basilica/Facebook)

WARNING: This story contains distressing details

Catholic officials said in 2015 they could only fundraise a total of $3.9 million for residential school survivors, but efforts for Catholic cathedrals and other buildings across Canada reached nearly $300 million since November 2005, according to data gathered by CBC News.

The actual number may be higher. The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops declined a CBC News request this week to ask its member bishops for the information. The figure of $292 million resulted from searches of individual dioceses' websites and other public sources.

These include a $128-million renovation of St. Michael's Cathedral Basilica in Toronto. The 2016 gala opening — complete with a brass band — was held one year after Canadian church groups went to court to say there was no more fundraising money for survivors.

Critics say these figures throw into question the church's legal claim it gave "best efforts" to help survivors.

Since signing the landmark Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement in 2005, Canadian Catholic dioceses have either spent or are fundraising $292 million for cathedrals and other church buildings, according to a search of public sources by CBC News. Critics say the financial commitment to residential school survivors was largely forgotten. (CBC Graphics)

'Keep your promise'

"They didn't keep their promise. You can't just say, 'Oh we tried. That's too bad,' " Star Blanket Cree Nation Chief Michael Starr said.

"There is a lot of hate, a lot of anger out there. The church has to work with us. It has to be tangible. Keep your promise."

Following the discovery of more than 1,000 unmarked graves in Kamloops, B.C., the Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan and elsewhere in Canada, Starr, survivors and others wanted the church to revive its efforts.

Starr applauded Saskatchewan bishops for agreeing recently to do exactly that. But he said survivors haven't seen anything concrete yet. Starr also called on every bishop in Canada to join the effort.

"You know, survivors being put at the back of that priority list, you know, I don't think that's right. They should move into the first priority and make sure we are funded according to what their promise was," Starr said.

First Nations leaders such as Chief Michael Starr of Star Blanket Cree Nation say helping residential school survivors needs to be the Catholic church's top priority. (CBC/ Tyler Pidlubny )

Toronto diocese declined to participate in 2005 settlement

The Archdiocese of Toronto and all other Catholic groups say they'll join a renewed fundraising campaign launching this fall. Survivors say this is a belated but welcome acknowledgement of responsibility.

Starr, Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations Chief Bobby Cameron and others say they've had 15 years to do what's right — since the 2005 Indian Residential School Settlement — so they aren't sure why officials are only starting to think about it again now.

They said all current Catholic fundraising for buildings must be paused while money is raised for survivors. That includes the Regina diocese's $17-million campaign to renovate its Holy Rosary Cathedral.

Saskatoon and Regina diocese officials declined to give a timeframe or a target dollar amount for survivor fundraising efforts in the province, but a Regina diocese official said more details will be available soon, including the fate of other current fundraising campaigns.

In the landmark 2005 Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement, the Catholic church first agreed to make a lump $29-million cash payment, and did pay most of that. It also agreed to provide $25 million of "in kind services." Officials say that was fulfilled, although the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops declined to provide a list of those services to CBC News. Some critics also questioned why the perpetrator was allowed to provide in-kind services to the victims.

The third Catholic church promise was to give its "best efforts" at fundraising $25 million for survivors.

After a decade, more than $21 million of that fundraising commitment remained unpaid. All other churches involved in the settlement — United, Anglican and Presbyterian — paid their full shares without incident.

The church went to court and pointed to the "best efforts" clause, saying they'd tried their best. On July 16, 2015, the judge agreed and absolved the church of its legal obligation.

The Archdiocese of Toronto had no residential schools on its territory and declined to participate in the 2005 settlement agreement and fundraising. Survivors and First Nations leaders say all Canadian Catholic groups should have participated, just as they did in the United, Anglican and Presbyterian Churches.

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

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