Canada’s bishops have pledged $30 million “to walk with the Indigenous peoples of this land.” The question is how the money will be spent. CNS photo/Jennifer Gauthier, Reuters

Fr. Raymond de Souza: Money will be raised, but how to spend it?

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  • October 8, 2021

The Catholic bishops of Canada have made a “financial pledge” with a “target of $30 million” over five years “as a tangible expression of their commitment to walk with the Indigenous Peoples of this land.” Local parishes will be “encouraged” to take up special collections “to support healing and reconciliation initiatives for residential school survivors, their families and their communities.”

It’s a fair question to ask what the money will achieve. Not that money doesn’t matter. It does. But a lot has already been spent. The federal government spent $4 billion in the original 2005 residential schools’ settlement and has announced over $600 million in just the last two years. The Catholic target will likely be no more than one-half of one per cent of all the monies spent to date on residential schools reconciliation.

Whatever money can achieve in terms of reconciliation has already been achieved. If more than $4 billion is not sufficient, another $30 million from the Catholic faithful won’t help.

No, the money is not really about the money, but rather a sign of renewed repentance, contrition and purpose of amendment. It is a sort of penance.

It would be very difficult to raise money with only vague sentiments about how to spend it. Few would give to such a campaign. The bishops know that, and thus “ongoing conversations with local leadership will be instrumental in discerning the programs that are most deserving of support. Funding for projects will be determined locally, in consultation with First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples in each region.”

The bishops “have committed and tasked themselves to develop national principles and strategy, timelines and the public communication of these collective initiatives this November.”

Those “ongoing conversations” about how to spend the money will be delicate. The climate is not favourable. And November is just next month.

In the days after the bishops’ announcement two major news stories — one in the CBC and another in The Globe and Mail — made the case that what the Catholic entities involved in the settlements of 15 years ago did was unworthy and dishonest. “Legal trickery” was the Globe’s take.

The CBC report dealt with the “in-kind services” that the Catholic entities committed to provide. Those services, a log of which was recently published, were denounced as “nothing more than attempts to evangelize and convert Indigenous people.”

Particularly shocking were “Bible-study programs, placement of priests and nuns in remote northern communities” as well as activities characterized by “religiosity.”

Objections to “conversion” activities are odd, given that most Indigenous Canadians are already Christian. And if Scripture study, evangelization and “religiosity” are off the table, then the only acceptable programs would be ones that are altogether indistinguishable from what the government or another secular agency would provide.

So what kind of projects might be agreeable to fund?

For example, would a joint study of St. François de Laval, Canada’s founding bishop and a defender of Indigenous peoples, be a worthy initiative? But Laval was part of the European colonial expansion, and was rather fervently committed to evangelization. Holy man or accomplice to genocide? It’s hard to square that circle, so he would likely be out.

But even if it was approved at a local level in consultation with Indigenous leadership, what is to prevent it from being denounced in the national media — leading to more acrimony and distrust?

What if a local Indigenous leadership requests funding for a project to study those aspects of traditional Indigenous spirituality which are incompatible with Catholic doctrine? Obviously the bishops would never approve such a project, but resulting tensions from such a refusal would not be difficult to foresee.

That a task is difficult is not a reason for not doing it. It takes courage for the bishops to recommit themselves, given that Catholic efforts 15 years ago have now been determined to be lacking. It might be easier to raise the money this time. But how to spend it will be more complicated.

(Fr. de Souza is founding editor of Convivium and a pastor in the Archdiocese of Kingston.)

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