Ottawa spent less than half the cash pledged to Indigenous communities for papal visit by journey's end

Hundreds of Indigenous communities and organizations who were eligible to receive money the federal government promised before this July’s papal visit hadn’t received the cash by the time the pontiff left.

About 250 communities and organizations received payments in time for pilgrimage, records show

Pope Francis sits in his wheelchair at a gravesite at the Ermineskin Cree Nation Cemetery, raising his hand in a prayer motion.
Pope Francis prays at a gravesite at the Ermineskin Cree Nation Cemetery in Maskwacis, Alta., during his papal visit across Canada on Monday, July 25, 2022. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

Hundreds of Indigenous communities and organizations who were eligible to receive money the federal government promised them before this July's papal visit didn't receive the cash by the time the pontiff left, government records show.

Indigenous Services Canada earmarked $30.2 million for local programs, healing initiatives and travel only 11 days before Pope Francis landed in Edmonton. By the time he left Canada, the department released $14.3 million, or less than half that money, says an Aug. 3 spending report.

The breakdown is among 32 pages of censored internal files dealing with the funding obtained by CBC News under access-to-information law. Roughly 250 First Nations, Inuit and Métis communities and organizations received cash in time for the visit, while hundreds more did not, the documents show.

Evelyn Korkmaz, a Cree survivor of St. Anne's residential school, said the money could've helped more survivors bear witness to a much-anticipated moment, had it been delivered in time.

"I waited 50 years to hear this apology. It would have been nice if the government spent most of that money for all of us to hear this apology," she said.

Evelyn Korkmaz, a survivor of the former St. Anne's Residential School, has repeatedly called on the Roman Catholic Church to release all residential school records. (Brian Morris/CBC)

St. Anne's operated from 1906 until 1976 in Fort Albany First Nation in northern Ontario. Korkmaz went to hear Francis speak on the Quebec leg of his trip. What she heard left her feeling dissatisfied.

"When I look back on it, it wasn't really an apology anyway. It was disappointing," she said. "But I would like to know what is happening with the rest of this money. Is it going back into the pot for the healing of my people?"

In a statement on Wednesday, Indigenous Services says its financial system reflects that the rest of the money, totalling $31.5 million, was allocated to communities and organizations.

"The Government of Canada continues to engage with Indigenous communities and organizations to support unanticipated expenditures, including post-visit healing initiatives, through $7.2 million set aside for this purpose," wrote spokesperson Jennifer Cooper.

The released spending report says Ottawa had outstanding commitments totalling $2.5 million on Aug. 3, which the department says was on top of the $14.3 million already distributed.

Other details, including how the money was budgeted across regions and distinct Indigenous groups, were completely censored in the files that were released.

When the cash was announced in mid-July, Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller acknowledged the quick rollout posed problems.

"When people are just waiting to hear the words 'I'm sorry' from the Pope … We want to make sure that that experience isn't prevented ... simply by lack of funds," he said.

'It was just a PR stunt'

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission's 2015 final report urged the Pope to apologize to survivors in Canada for the church's role in the spiritual, cultural, emotional, physical and sexual abuse of Indigenous children in Catholic-run schools.

In April, Francis apologized to a delegation of survivors in Rome for the role some clergy members played. 

"For the deplorable conduct of these members of the Catholic Church, I ask for God's forgiveness and I want to say to you with all my heart: I am very sorry," he said.

In July in Maskwacis, a Cree community in central Alberta, Francis apologized again for the ways many clergy members co-operated in projects of cultural destruction and forced assimilation, which he said governments of the day promoted, culminating in the system of residential schools.

A Cree woman raises her fist as she sings a message to Pope Francis.
Si Pih Ko, also known as Trina Francois, sang a message in Cree to the tune of the national anthem in an unscripted moment during Pope Francis's visit to Maskwacis, Alta., on Monday, July 25, 2022. (Adam Scotti/Prime Minister's Office/Reuters)

It was a moment of healing for many, but some, like Korkmaz, felt the apology's wording ignored the institutional role the church played in committing crimes against children and protecting abusers.

"He did not say, 'I apologize on behalf of the Catholic Church.' Not once. So he didn't really apologize in my eyes. This was not an apology to me," Korkmaz said. "To me it was just a PR stunt, nothing more, unfortunately."

More to be done

The Canadian government estimates 150,000 First Nations, Inuit and Métis children were forced to attend the country's system of church-run, state-funded residential schools, which operated for more than a century.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission spent years travelling the country documenting the system's history and survivors' experiences.

The commission documented widespread reports of disease, malnutrition, neglect, abuse and death. The schools formed a core part of the Canadian government's policy of cultural genocide, the commission said.

The church still has much left to do, Korkmaz said. She felt the Vatican should've been the one to pay money to support survivors, rather than Canadian taxpayers.

Canadian bishops pledged last year to raise $30 million for reconciliation and healing over five years. 

They've raised $9 million so far.


Brett Forester is a reporter with CBC Indigenous in Ottawa. He is a member of the Chippewas of Kettle and Stony Point First Nation in southern Ontario who previously worked as a journalist with the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network.