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Crown-Indigenous relations minister 'absolutely open' to review of survivor compensation deal

Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller says he's "absolutely open" to an independent review of the residential school compensation deal reached between the federal government and Catholic Church.

Advocates demand immediate disclosure of key government documents

Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller is seen during a news conference in Ottawa on March 19, 2021. In an interview with CBC News, he said he's 'absolutely open' to the prospect of an independent review of the residential school compensation agreement between the Catholic Church entities and the federal government. (Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press)

Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller says he's "absolutely open" to an independent review of the residential school compensation deal reached between the federal government and Catholic Church.

"I would say we're absolutely open to the idea; we have to get to the bottom of what we've done," Miller said in a phone interview Monday. "The job I've been given is to get to the bottom of these things.… This is not the end of the story."

Advocates say while that's encouraging news, Miller could show good faith by immediately releasing key government documents related to the deal he admits are already in his possession.

"We expect the federal government to release everything. This is a necessary step for many survivors in their own healing journey," Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations Chief Bobby Cameron said.

Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations Chief Bobby Cameron says he was 'disgusted' to hear the federal government is still not releasing all documents related to residential school survivor compensation by the Catholic Church. (Bryan Eneas/CBC)

In recent months, a CBC News investigation has revealed new details of the Catholic Church's three key promises to compensate survivors under the landmark Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement (IRSSA).

Back in 2005, it had promised $29 million in cash, but this commitment was not met after millions of dollars were spent on lawyers, administration and other unapproved expenses.

The Church had also promised to give "best efforts" to fundraise $25 million, but that effort came up $21 million short during a period when Catholic officials devoted more than $300 million to church and cathedral building projects.

Finally, the Church promised to provide $25 million worth of "in-kind services" to survivors. CBC News obtained the list of those services, and survivors say most of the money provided was for inappropriate colonial religious services, such as Bible study courses or sending priests and nuns to preach in Indigenous communities.

Other denominations, such as United, Anglican and Presbyterian denominations, paid without incident. But 10 years later, the Catholic Church had not.

Former ministers, bureaucrats still hold documents

Government officials took the church to court and told them to pay. A Saskatchewan judge sided with the Catholic Church, approving a buyout of less than $2 million.

The government appealed, but then dropped or abandoned it and the case was closed. Survivors and advocates have been trying for years to find out exactly who dropped the case and why.

CBC News recently reached out to more than a dozen current or former ministers and senior bureaucrats; several admit they likely have relevant documents but they refused to share them.

That includes both current Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller and Bernard Valcourt, who served as the Conservative minister of Aboriginal affairs and northern development from February 2013 until his defeat in the October 2015 federal election.

St. Albert Residential School (Youville) operated from 1873 to 1948 and was located just northwest of Edmonton. Advocates for residential school survivors are pushing for an independent inquiry into the controversial compensation deal between the federal government and Catholic Church. (Deschatelets-NDC Archives)

Miller said it was Valcourt who made the decision to abandon the appeal just before the new Liberal government took power. He said he has a document proving it, but declined to share it.

The document was marked "secret" by officials in the former Conservative government, Miller said, and is therefore subject to cabinet confidence, meaning it can't be shared.

"There may have been some — I'm only speculating — political motivation for it at the time. I'll be working with my team to see if we can declassify it so that people that want to see it can get a copy of it," Miller said.

Institutions, including the federal government, have often hidden behind claims of confidentiality and solicitor-client privilege, Miller acknowledged.

It's been "invoked too broadly to withhold a wide swath of documents, which, if provided, could give some element of closure," he said.

When reached this week by phone at his home in New Brunswick, Valcourt was asked to provide his notes or emails from that period. He declined. "It's filed far, far away," he said.

When told of Miller's accusation, Valcourt said: "I don't know anything about this particular case. If [Miller] feels good saying that, good for him. I could care less."

'I keep an open mind'

As for a possible independent review, Miller said while discussions are still "in their infancy," he is already talking with experts on the best course of action.

There may not be any more relevant documents or testimony to discover, Miller said, but "things keep popping up, so I wouldn't be surprised."

"I keep an open mind with these things," he said.

Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, academic director of the Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre at UBC, says any review of the compensation deal must include full, public document disclosure and the power to compel witnesses to testify. (Mike McArthur/CBC)

Any review or inquiry must include full, public document disclosure and the power to compel witnesses to testify, said Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond, academic director of the Indian Residential School History and Dialogue Centre at the University of British Columbia.

"It has to be all or nothing. We need accountability. That's what survivors want. We owe it to them," Turpel-Lafond said. "A lot of this still doesn't add up."

Cameron said the fact there are relevant documents still not shared makes him sick. There is no higher moral or legal imperative than providing truth to Canada's 150,000 survivors, their families and their communities, he said.

"This is disgusting, frustrating and we're angry," said Cameron. "These are our grandmothers, our grandfathers, our mothers and fathers, our sisters and brothers, our family members that they're disrespecting.

"Again, our survivors get a slap in the face."

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