Calls for Roman Catholics to boycott Sunday mass spread beyond Saskatchewan

First Nations leaders in Canada are calling on the Catholic Church to pay the full $25 million promised to residential school survivors in 2005 as part of a settlement. So far, just $4 million has been raised by the church.

First Nations leaders demand church pay full $25M promised to residential school survivors

The front doors of St. Paul's Co-cathedral in downtown Saskatoon are again marked with red handprints on Friday morning following the recent discoveries of more than 1,000 unmarked graves at residential school sites in Kamloops, B.C., Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan and elsewhere. (Jason Warick/CBC)

WARNING: This story contains distressing details

Percy Miller stopped during his walk in downtown Saskatoon on Friday morning to look at the signs, children's shoes and red handprints on the doors of St. Paul's Co-cathedral, a Roman Catholic church.

Miller, a member of Shoal Lake Cree Nation, said he's saddened by the recent discoveries of more than 1,000 unmarked graves at residential school sites in Kamloops, B.C., Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan and elsewhere.

He said the Catholic Church needs to do the right thing and pay the full $25 million promised to residential school survivors in 2005 as part of a settlement. So far, just $4 million has been raised by the church across the country. Church lawyers argued in 2016 that their deal only obligated them to give "best efforts," so a judge ruled they could stop raising money.

When asked about the growing calls for Catholics to boycott mass this Sunday, Miller shrugged his shoulders and said he's not optimistic.

"It'd be good, just show they support Indigenous people," said Miller, who has several family members forced to attend residential schools. "It's up to them. But you know, it is what it is."

Parishioners can be the 'greatest champions'

Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations Chief Bobby Cameron, Kinistin Saulteaux Nation Chief Felix Thomas and others are calling on Catholics to stay home this Sunday, and every Sunday, until the money is paid to help survivors.

They also want the church to release all residential school documents and Pope Francis to come to Canada and apologize for the church's role in operating the schools, as stated in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's calls to action.

"They can still pray at home in silence. That would send a strong message," Cameron said.

Saskatoon police vehicles are parked outside St. Paul's Co-cathedral on Friday morning. Officers said it was part of their regular patrol and not related to recent suspicious fires at churches in parts of Western Canada and Nova Scotia. (Jason Warick/CBC)

Thomas said survivors need everyone to fight for them.

"We need more champions. The greatest champions on this can be the congregation. This is something they can do, show that solidarity and not show up for church on Sunday," Thomas said last month.

Other Indigenous leaders agree.

Okanagan Indian Band Chief Byron Louis said the boycott message "would get up to the bishops, the archbishops and then up, up, up through the layers."

Louis said it's upsetting that church officials are claiming they don't have money for survivors while they build and renovate churches across Canada.

"Is that what Jesus would do?" he said.

Louis said his fellow chiefs of the region feel the same way. The Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs issued a statement this week that included calls for the church to pay the remaining $21 million to survivors.

Louis said he also plans to introduce a motion removing the annual $17,000 subsidy his First Nation gives to the local Catholic diocese for church maintenance and repair costs.

Unclear if bishops intend to raise more money

Andre Bear, a University of Saskatchewan First Nations law student who spoke at orange shirt events supporting survivors in downtown Saskatoon on Thursday, said the primary focus needs to remain on the federal government.

But Bear said Catholics can make a big difference.

"I know it must be hard for them, hard to acknowledge their church participated in genocide," he said.

"If they want to stand with us, make this right, that would be welcome."

Saskatoon Catholics raised $28.5 million to build Cathedral of the Holy Family, a second cathedral, in 2012, while critics say a promise to compensate residential school survivors was largely ignored. The story was similar across Canada. (Jason Warick/CBC)

In a statement emailed to CBC News on Friday afternoon, an official with the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops said it's unclear whether bishops intend to resurrect efforts to raise the remaining $21 million.

"The bishops of Canada have been working very intently with Indigenous peoples and communities on many levels. There is a genuine willingness to look at options and priorities together so that any action taken, any commitment made in this collaborative journey truly corresponds to the needs and desires of Indigenous peoples with whom they work," the statement read.

In downtown Saskatoon on Friday, in a park just 100 metres from the co-cathedral, Nancy Greyeyes and her friends took down the teepee and other tents set up for the July 1 event.

"It's a monolithic thing," she said of the Catholic Church. "But they can start to change it from inside. Don't just say sorry. Do something to make it right."

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.

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.