The campaign that fell well short

By 
  • June 26, 2021

Catholics can raise money. Pilgrims to St. Joseph’s Oratory in Montreal drop more than $15 million into the donation box every year. St. Paul’s, the big Catholic hospital in Vancouver, pulls in more than $20 million a year.

But a 2008-13 Catholic fundraising effort to support reconciliation with residential school survivors, their descendents and their communities failed miserably. That failure is being brought up again and again as Canadians re-examine the Church’s role in running residential schools and its commitments to survivors since the system was exposed and shut down in the 1990s.

Over five years, a campaign to raise $25 million to fund reconciliation efforts managed to actually raise only $3.7 million. The history of that $25-million fundraising effort is not well known.

The commitment arose from the 2005 agreement in principle to consolidate and finalize lawsuits against the federal government and churches that ran the schools, known as the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement. All together, the lawsuits represented about 15,000 complainants, but the governments’ and the churches’ liability stretched to more than 85,000 survivors of the school system.

The 2005 agreement obligated the 50 Catholic Church entities (mainly religious orders, but also a few dioceses) to pay $29 million in cash, set up a $25-million set of community services and programs and to organize a “best efforts” fundraising campaign to raise another $25 million.

The campaign was called Moving Forward Together. The Catholic groups taking it on kicked in $2 million to hire a team of fundraising professionals. A board was set up to oversee the fundraising effort. It included former Assembly of First Nations Chief Phil Fontaine, then-Winnipeg Archbishop James Weisgerber, Sr. Donna Geernaert of the Sisters of Charity of Halifax and Inuit leader Mary Simon. The high-priced fundraising professionals went out to corporate Canada and philanthropists to get the fund going.

After five years and just $3.5 million, Weisgerber and his board colleagues pulled the plug on the consultants and tried going directly to the people in the pews. Envelopes were printed and bishops mostly got behind a voluntary collection on the weekend of Dec. 8, 2013. That added the final $200,000.

When the Catholics went back to Judge Neil Gabrielson and explained just how badly things had gone, the judge deemed the best efforts requirement fulfilled.

In the wake of the failure, Moving Forward Together co-ordinator Gerry Kelly went from diocese to diocese to get them involved in reconciliation. This yielded scholarships at Memorial University of Newfoundland and Concordia University in Montreal, funds for Kateri Native Ministry in Ottawa, support for Returning to Spirit retreats across Canada and setting up the Talitha Cum Society to help Indigenous women in Vancouver’s downtown.

The money raised by Moving Forward Together went to the Indigenous-led Legacy of Hope Foundation, which organizes and supports education about the residential school system and Canada’s history of colonization.

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