Despite millions in Catholic residential schools reparations, critics seek to end church tax exemptions

Kamloops The former Kamloops Indian Residential School | Bruce Raynor/Shutterstock

Catholic entities had committed tens of millions of dollars in legal settlements for their involvement in the Canadian government’s historic residential schools campaign forcibly to  assimilate indigenous people, even before the rediscovery of graves and cemeteries at the former schools made headlines, renewed the grief of affected communities, and possibly inspired several church burnings.


There are reports about whether the involved Catholic entities made adequate compensation, and questions about a Catholic fundraising effort for residential school survivors that fell short by some $20 million.

Such concerns appear to motivate a petition launched by David Thomason, described by CBC News as a longtime worker in the charitable sector who himself is not indigenous.

“I wanted to help support justice and equity and fairness for Indigenous people in Canada. Why don't we go after the charitable status? That's going to get the attention of the (Catholic) church,” he told CBC News.

About 16,000 people had signed the petition as of Monday afternoon. It calls for “ immediately suspending, for at least 1 year, the charitable status of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops and the 308 Roman Catholic charities.” It does not specify these charities.

A spokesperson for Canada Revenue Agency said a suspension could only take place if an investigation and a hearing proved an organization violated its charitable status conditions.

The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops on its website notes that the Catholic Church structure is decentralized. About 16 of 70 Catholic dioceses were associated with residential schools, as were about three dozen Catholic religious communities. The Oblates of Mary Immaculate ran most of the Catholic residential schools.

“Each diocese and religious community is corporately and legally responsible for its own actions,” the conference said. “The Catholic Church as a whole in Canada was not associated with the residential schools, nor was the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops.”

At the same time, the Canadian bishops’ conference cited its 1993 brief which said that the abuse experienced at some schools “have moved us to a profound examination of conscience as a Church.” In 1991, the Canadian Catholic Bishops and Catholic religious leaders said “we are sorry and deeply regret the pain, suffering and alienation that so many experienced.”

The rediscovery of unmarked graves at government-backed, Catholic- and Protestant-run residential schools for indigenous Canadians has led to grief and reassessment of Canadian colonial policy that coerced indigenous children to attend the schools beginning in the late 19th century. Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which evaluated the history of the schools, has estimated that 4,100 to 6,000 students died as a result of disease, injury, neglect, or abuse over the decades. Tuberculosis especially was a major killer, and students were buried in humble graves near their schools rather than returned to their communities in part due to government pressures to keep costs as low as possible.

Education tended to be substandard, and also stripped the children of their native cultures and languages. Some returned home unable to communicate with their parents, because they had forgotten their native language at the schools.

The Catholic entities involved in the residential schools have repeatedly apologized, some as long ago as 1991, and took part in a settlement agreement.

News reports about the graves appeared to motivate several church burnings and dozens of vandalism attacks—attacks several indigenous leaders themselves denounced as counterproductive.

There are other calls to end tax exemptions for the Catholic Church.

Iqaluit Mayor Kenny Bell has said he will introduce a motion to end land tax exemptions to all churches in his city, the capital of the Canadian territory of Nunavut, whose population is about 7,700. He said he has the support of many Inuit people but some churchgoers and clergy oppose the move.

“Tax exemptions, as a whole, are supposed to be for groups that do the community good. It’s very clear that the Catholic church hasn’t done the community any good,” Bell told Nunatsiaq News in June.

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“We’re not retaliating against them,” he said, contending that the Church has “literally killed thousands of children.”

He said that the move could help pressure the Church to release records and to apologize. He said his measure would target all churches, not just Catholic churches.

Father Daniel Perreault, a priest at Iqaluit’s Our Lady of Assumption Roman Catholic Church said in a July 4 message that his church “stands in solidarity with the Native peoples of Canada.”


The local diocese was the first to apologize to residential school survivors in 1996, and again in 2014, the priest said.

He said “it is sad that the mayor of our community chooses to target the churches of Iqaluit by proposing to cancel the property tax exemption provisions.”

“Placing an additional financial burden on the parish does not harm the Canadian or world-wide Catholic church, which is not responsible for our financial viability,” he said.

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The Iqaluit church on July 18 reported that its total collection the previous Sunday was $805.

Other indigenous leaders have said they will take action against church funding. Near Vernon, British Columbia, the Okanagan Indian Band Chief Byron Louis will propose ending a $17,000 subsidy to the local Catholic diocese for church maintenance and upkeep.

As part of the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, approved in 2006, Catholic entities were required to provide three kinds of reparation: to pay $29 million out of their own funds, to deliver $25 million of “in-kind” contributions primarily aimed at survivors and their families, and to run a $25 million “best efforts” capital fundraising campaign.

The “in-kind” contributions consisted of community projects, family counseling, and reconciliation work. These services were vetted and approved by indigenous leaders, Archbishop Gerard Pettipas of Gruard-McLelland told Canada’s Catholic Register newspaper in July.

“These proposals, I guess you would call them, had to be signed off by some Indigenous leadership — either a chief in council or a friendship center board or some other group like that,” Archbishop Pettipas said.

Archbishop Pettipas headed the Catholic Entities Party to the Indian Residential Schools Settlement, the corporation which represented the 48 Catholic entities. This corporation was dissolved after the agreement was fulfilled in 2014.

In this area, as Archbishop Pettipas remembers, Catholics gave more than was asked. “We reached $30 million in much less than 10 years,” he said. “Because it was costing us money to count that, we stopped at $30 million.”

The Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations in Saskatchewan has asked for an accounting of these “in-kind” contributions. The release of the relevant ledger from the Saskatchewan Provincial Court could take months, and Archbishop Pettipas is seeking for the copy held by the Catholic entities. This copy’s location is unclear because Pierre Berribeau, the lawyer who headed the corporation to manage the settlement, has since died. This has left Archbishop Pettipas to search for the records.

Critics have alleged that the Catholic entities involved in the settlement used high-price lawyers to escape responsibility.

Archbishop Pettipas, however, emphasized that the settlement was “a legal agreement.”

“And even though I understand that lots of people were frustrated by how many lawyers had to be involved in this as it went on through history, it was a legal agreement. Whenever you have a legal agreement it’s both written by lawyers and it’s supervised by lawyers.”

While United, Anglican and Presbyterian ecclesial communities were able to make their commitments under the settlement, the Catholic side of the “best efforts” fundraising campaign of 2007 to 2013 is considered a failure.

In 2015 bargaining, a judge agreed with lawyers for Catholic entities and approved a $1.2 million buyout of its responsibilities in the deal, about $21 million short of the original goal. The federal government decided not to appeal that decision.

Various Catholic entities, including the Diocese of Saskatoon, have said they will again seek to raise funds for indigenous communities.

A CBC News report negatively depicted the successful $28.5 million fundraising effort for the new Holy Family Cathedral in Saskatoon, compared to the Saskatoon diocese’s ability to raise only $34,650 for the previous settlement fund.

“The story was similar in other cities. Canada's 12 million Catholics donated less than $4 million of the promised $25 million — roughly 30 cents per person,” CBC News reported June 29. Other reports appear to fault the Catholic Church or individual Catholics for successfully raising $300 million for building campaigns in various dioceses, and not the settlement.

While the Catholic bishops of Canada have sought to emphasize the decentralized nature of the Catholic Church across dioceses, religious orders, and other bodies, CBC News attempted to estimate the combined wealth of all Catholic entities in communion with Rome. It cited the $6 billion held at the Institute for the Works of Religion, cited an estimate that Catholic Church holdings worldwide total 177 million acres, and quoted an indigenous person who described the Catholic Church as “filthy rich.”

A Globe and Mail report has claimed Catholic institutions in Canada had net assets of $4.1 billion in 2019. With about 12 million Catholics in Canada, that would come to about $342 per Catholic.

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