A family member of residential school survivors says the minimum $55-million price tag for the Pope’s visit to Canada last year feels like another slap in the face for Indigenous people.
“Think of all the money that could have gone to survivors, all of the money that could have gone to healing, all of the money that was rightfully supposed to be given to folks who survived genocide,” said Michelle Robinson, who is Sahtu Dene, said from Calgary.
Documents obtained by The Canadian Press under freedom of information laws show the federal government spent a minimum of $55,972,683 for the leader of the Roman Catholic Church to visit Canada over six days last July.
Pope Francis apologized for the Catholic Church’s role in residential schools during stops in Alberta, Quebec and Nunavut.
Indigenous Services Canada earmarked about $30 million. Those funds were to be used for travel, local programs and healing initiatives.
Crown-Indigenous Relations spent $5.1 million, the majority for a $3.9-million contract to broadcast the papal tour’s stops, as well as translation services into Indigenous languages and French.
RCMP said, as of Feb. 24, 2023, it had spent more than $18 million, which included overtime pay, travel expenditures and accommodation costs. Global Affairs Canada spent about $2 million on travel, meetings and accommodations, plus an additional $35,728 on communication and media relations.
Public Safety Canada redacted all costs from documents obtained through access-to-information requests.
“I think all costs should be public knowledge,” said Lori Campbell, the associate vice-president of Indigenous engagement at the University of Regina, in an email.
Campbell said it’s difficult to put a dollar amount on the harm residential school caused those who attended and the intergenerational effect felt now.
An estimated 150,000 Indigenous children were forced to attend residential schools over a century, and the Catholic Church ran about 60 per cent of the institutions.
David Chartrand, Manitoba Métis Federation president, said in a statement that the apology was necessary to address historic wrongs.
“There is always a cost associated with hosting any foreign head of state, including Pope Francis, and it’s generally considered as part of the cost of maintaining diplomatic relations,” Chartrand said.
“Regardless, the logistical costs for the apology will never outweigh the price paid by our survivors and their families.”
Heather Bear, vice chief of the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations in Saskatchewan, agreed that the apology was important for many people, but it cannot come at the expense of funding for Indigenous people.
“We paid enough. We paid enough with our lives,” Bear said.
Survivors had asked for the Pope to apologize for decades leading up to the visit, including during a trip to the Vatican by Indigenous leaders in 2009 and last April. The call became heightened after thousands of possible unmarked graves were located at the sites of numerous former residential schools.
The visit was intended to be a result of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s calls to action, Campbell said. The commission investigated the legacy of residential schools.
“Although it was important to some that the Pope follow through on the call to action, I don’t know any Indigenous individual personally, old or young, who feels that this was money well spent,” Campbell said.
Some survivors and Indigenous people have said the Pope’s apology on Canadian soil was important to their healing and the process of reconciliation. Others said it fell short.
Francis begged for forgiveness for abuses committed by some members of the Catholic Church as well as for cultural destruction and forced assimilation, but only said residential schools amounted to genocide when asked about it by reporters on his flight back to Rome.
Robinson’s grandmother, aunt and uncle attended residential schools. She said the church has already not met its commitments under the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement.
In 2006, 49 Catholic entities agreed to use their “best efforts” to raise $25 million as part of a compensation package to former students. After raising less than $4 million, a court released the Catholic corporations from their financial obligations.
The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, which was not a party to the original agreement, made a commitment in 2021 to raise $30 million in up to five years after the previous campaign’s shortcomings were reported.
The Canadian bishops organized the papal visit and previously said it cost the organization about $18.6 million.
Robinson said she understands there would be a cost with the Pope’s visit and to some people the apology was important. However, she believes security heightened the costs due to anti-Indigenous concerns over protests or violence.
Robinson added the Catholic Church has not upheld its financial obligations and now has cost Canada millions more through the Pope’s visit — so it should hold the bill.
She said Canada’s money would be much better spent on language and culture revitalization, anti-racism training, education and supporting Indigenous people.
“That money absolutely could have been spent in that better way and it wasn’t.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 23, 2023.