Trudeau says Catholic officials must 'step up' morally, financially for residential school survivors

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is chastising Roman Catholic Church officials for failing to honour their commitment to residential school survivors.

Catholic bishops say they're 'fully committed' to healing and reconciliation

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, speaking Monday in B.C., said Roman Catholic officials must do more to honour their commitments to residential school survivors. (CBC News)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is chastising Roman Catholic Church officials for failing to honour their commitment to residential school survivors.

Trudeau visited Tk'emlúps te Secwe̓pemc Nation in B.C. Monday. He apologized for not responding to an invitation to join the community for the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation on Sept. 30.

Trudeau was also asked about the Catholic Church's failure to meet its $79 million compensation promise to survivors. A CBC News investigation recently revealed new details of the Catholic claims.

Survivors, First Nations leaders, academics and others are now calling for action.

Trudeau said that as a Catholic himself, it's particularly disappointing to see the Church continuing to refuse to do the right thing.

"We have seen, unfortunately, from the Catholic Church, a resistance to taking on responsibility, either financial or moral, for its role in residential schools," Trudeau said.

Trudeau said the other Christian churches — United, Presbyterian and Anglican — that signed on to the landmark 2005 Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement have taken "extraordinary steps as partners on this path of reconciliation," but the Catholic Church has not.

"I think the millions of Catholics like me across this country expect the church to step up and fulfil its moral responsibilities, its legal and economic responsibilities, its historic responsibilities, but also to practise what it quite literally preaches," Trudeau said.

The Roman Catholic Church operated the majority of residential schools, such as St. Augustine Residential School (Smoky River), located on the north shore of the Peace River northwest of Edmonton. Survivors and others are calling for action following a CBC News investigation revealed new details about Catholic compensation efforts. (Deschatelets-NDC Archives)

Following Trudeau's comments, University of British Columbia law professor and Muskeg Lake Cree Nation member Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond appeared on CBC's Power & Politics. She said asking the Catholic Church to do the right thing isn't enough. She said action is needed.

Turpel-Lafond and others are calling for an independent investigation into the actions of the Catholic Church, the federal government and the courts in the settlement agreement.

"They need to get their act together," Turpel-Lafond said.

Catholic bishops issued an apology last month and are promising a renewed fundraising campaign. Its goal is $30 million over the next five years. Survivors say they're skeptical because other promises have been broken.

In an email Tuesday, an official with the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops said bishops are "fully committed" to healing and reconciliation efforts.

Consultation efforts continue with First Nations leaders, elders and knowledge keepers, as do efforts to provide records for those affected by the discoveries of unmarked graves, the email said.

The organization also said it's continuing to plan for a visit to the Vatican later this year "where First Nations, Métis and Inuit participants will tell their stories to the Pope, giving him the opportunity express his heartfelt closeness and address the Church's role in the residential school system." 

Promises under 2005 agreement

The Catholic Church made three promises under the 2005 agreement. The first pledge was to provide $29 million in cash, but this was not met after millions were spent on lawyers, administration and other unapproved expenses.

The second was to give "best efforts" to fundraise $25 million nationally. It raised less than $4 million, during a time period Catholic officials devoted more than $300 million to church and cathedral building projects.

The third was to provide $25 million worth of "in-kind services" to survivors. CBC News recently obtained the list of services, and survivors say most of the amount claimed was for inappropriate, colonial religious services such as bible study courses, or sending priests and nuns to preach in Indigenous communities.

In 2015, Saskatchewan Court of Queen's Bench Justice Neil Gabrielson approved the Catholic lawyers' buyout proposal of less than $2 million. The federal government appealed, but then began talks with the Church. The reason for the change in position is unclear.

The buyout was finalized during the "caretaker period" after Stephen Harper's Conservative government was defeated, but before the new Trudeau Liberal cabinet was sworn in, according to government officials.

The official papers to withdraw or "abandon" the appeal were filed in a Saskatchewan court six days after Trudeau appointed Canada's first Indigenous Justice Minister, Jody Wilson-Raybould. According to a source, Wilson-Raybould was not consulted by her department on the file.


  • An earlier version of this story said the Catholic Church promised to provide $25 worth of "in-kind services" to survivors. In fact, the promise was $25 million.
    Oct 19, 2021 1:47 PM CT