Canada agreed to “forever discharge” Catholic entities from their promise to raise $25 million for residential school survivors and also picked up their legal bill, a final release document shows.
The Canadian Press obtained a signed copy of the 2015 agreement through federal Access-to-Information laws, marking what appears to be the first time the document has been widely publicized.
“That’s a very, very important set of records,” said Ry Moran, an associate librarian at the University of Victoria and founding director of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation.
“Like all questions around accountability, the question is who made the decision? How was that decision made? Who ultimately signed off on this?”
Indigenous leaders and legal experts have long questioned why Ottawa opted to give up an appeal of a court decision that meant Catholic entities didn’t have to pay their remaining financial obligations under the historic Indian Residential School Settlement Agreement.
The actions of the Catholic groups involved and by extension, the Catholic Church as an institution as well as Ottawa, have been under renewed scrutiny since the uncovering of what are believed to be hundreds of unmarked graves at former residential school sites, which First Nations began announcing last year.
The dispute in question arose years before and culminated in a court decision handed down by a Saskatchewan judge in July 2015.
The residential schools settlement obligated the 48 Catholic entities involved to pay $79 million, which was broken into three parts, including making “best efforts” to raise $25 million for residential school survivors.
There was a disagreement between Ottawa and the Catholic entities about one part of their obligations.
At issue was whether lawyers for both sides had struck a deal freeing the church groups from all their financial commitments including the $25 million for survivors in exchange for a payment of $1.2 million, or only had an agreement covering a more narrow part of their financial responsibilities.
Ultimately, Justice Neil Gabrielson ruled the agreement covered all the church’s financial commitments, allowing Catholic entities to walk away from their fundraising promise to survivors after raising less than $4 million.
Records show that a month after that July 2015 decision, federal officials filed a “protective notice of appeal” while negotiating a final release agreement with the Catholic groups.
By Oct. 30, 2015, a final agreement was signed by the former deputy minister in what had been called Aboriginal and Northern Affairs Canada, freeing the Catholic entities of their financial obligations.
“Canada does hereby remise, release and forever discharge the Catholic entities? its directors, officers, shareholders, agents, lawyers, and employees ? of and from all manners of actions, causes of action, suits, debts, dues, accounts, bonds whatsoever against the releasees,” it reads.
It continues: “Canada further covenants and agrees not directly or indirectly to join, assist, aid, or act in concert in any manner whatsoever with any person or entity in making any financial claim or demand whatsoever against the releasees.”
However, Canada’s agreement to “forever discharge” the Catholic entities and the broad language of the signed document raise questions about whether that can happen.
Miller said it belong to Bernard Valcourt, Harper’s former minister of aboriginal affairs.