TORONTO -- The Assembly of First Nations and other Indigenous advocates are skeptical of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) pledging $30 million for residential school survivors.

AFN National Chief RoseAnne Archibald says the CCCB’s announcement Monday to support Indigenous reconciliation projects is welcomed and is "long overdue," but says the Indigenous community needs further assurances about how the funds will be spent.

“We're no longer accepting hollow apologies,” she said in a statement. “The Assembly of First Nations is looking for further assurances that these funds, each and every dollar, will go directly to the healing initiatives for the survivors and intergenerational survivors.”

Archibald cautions that “due to previous financial promises by the church not being met, I am sure the bishops will understand First Nations skepticism and mistrust about their commitments.”

On Monday, the CCCB said in a news release that they are looking to dole out the money within five years, funding initiatives at the local level. Parishes across Canada are encouraged to participate and amplify the effort.

"There was universal consensus that Catholic entities needed to do more in a tangible way to address the suffering experienced in Canada's residential schools," Raymond Poisson, president of the CCCB said in the statement. "Comprised of local diocesan initiatives, this effort will help support programs and initiatives dedicated to improving the lives of residential school survivors and their communities, ensuring resources needed to assist in the path of healing."

The announcement comes days before the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation, which will be marked for the first time on Sept. 30. Although stories of unmarked burial sites were included in a 2015 report from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, it’s only recently that the federal government implemented the day which was one of the commission's calls to action.

The day is a statutory holiday for all federal employees and federally regulated workplaces.


But advocates note that financial promises made by the church in the past have long fallen short and left many calling for more accountability.

One of the biggest examples of this is the landmark Indian Residential Schools Settlement in 2005, in when the church pledged at least $25 million for Indigenous communities. But advocates such as the Federation of Sovereign Indian Nations say that despite nearly two decades going by, that figure has fallen severely short.

Indigenous education advocate Charlene Bearhead says she and lots of other First Nations, Metis and Inuit people share Archibald’s skepticism.

“Here's a novel concept: Do what you say you're going to do. That’s what it basically that comes down to,” Bearhead, director of reconciliation at the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, told in a phone interview.

“Let’s see what you do.”

But Bearhead says the promise of $30 million alone will not mend the relationship between the church and Canada's Indigenous population.

“It's a start. If they think they’ll put out $30 million, then they're out, I think that's a concern,” she said, cautioning that while it’s tempting to say ‘it’s too little too late,’ “I think we also need to look at better late than never.”

Bearhead says people need to demand regular updates from the CCCB, and that it’s also crucial to have members of Christian congregations hold their leadership to their commitments.

Having spent decades as a teacher in both in First Nations communities and in the Alberta and Manitoba public school systems, she says following through on promises is “the only way that they can change who they are in the history of the country.”

This year, the demand for concrete steps from government and churches has only intensified as several Indigenous communities across Canada find unmarked graves in or around the grounds of former residential schools sites.

In the wake of those discoveries, Archibald and other Indigenous leaders have called on Pope Francis to come to the country to visit with survivors and formally apologize for the role the Catholic church played in Canada's residential school system, which many advocate say is tantamount to cultural genocide.

Back in June, the CCCB said national Indigenous leaders would be meeting with the Pope at the Vatican in December.

As for Monday’s announcement, the CCCB says funding for projects will be determined in consultation with First Nations, Metis and Inuit populations in each region.

Archibald says she’ll be “reaching out to the bishops of Canada to ensure that First nations are part of the development of the national principles and strategy, timelines, and the public communication as stated in their announcement.”

“I appreciate that they understand the principle of ‘nothing about us, without us.’”


If you are a former residential school student in distress, or have been affected by the residential school system and need help, you can contact the 24-hour Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line: 1-866-925-4419

Additional mental-health support and resources for Indigenous people are available here.

With files from writer Anthony Vasquez-Peddie