Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations Marc Miller.
New Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller says he wants to find out why Ottawa has dropped its appeal of a ruling freeing the Catholic Church from its settlement obligations to residential school survivors.
“I am as puzzled as everyone,” he told The Canadian Press in a recent high profile interview.
“I don’t know what to do yet. “
The ruling, handed down by a Saskatchewan judge in July 2015, found that an agreement had been reached between the federal government and a corporation of Catholic entities. This agreement released religious groups from their remaining obligations in the $ 79 million in in-kind payments and services owed to survivors under the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, approved in 2006.
This included, for example, a fundraising campaign “of every effort” to generate $ 25 million, for which the court heard that the groups had raised only about $ 3 million since the entry into force of the agreement in 2007.
Today, efforts by Catholic organizations to offload their responsibilities under the historic arrangement come under scrutiny as First Nations excavate former residential school sites confirm the discovery of what hundreds of unmarked graves of indigenous children are believed to be forced to visit them.
Thousands of people have told the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada that they have been neglected, starved, and physically and sexually assaulted in church-run and government-funded institutions.
Several questions have been raised as to why the survivors did not receive more compensation from the Catholic Church, including why the federal government ended its appeal filed shortly after the 2015 ruling.
“I wonder why this denial of appeal took place,” Miller said.
“Like everyone else, I’m stunned. In the end, the whole problem was about compensation. “
At the heart of the court ruling was a dispute between a government lawyer and a lawyer for the Catholic entities over whether they had agreed to let the groups opt out of all of the obligations outlined in the settlement in exchange for $ 1.2 million. dollars, or had only solved a more specific problem. part of these obligations.
The disagreement occurred as they were traveling back and forth to communicate the details of the arrangement. It was ultimately up to the court to resolve the issue, with the Catholic entities claiming they had reached an agreement covering the entire settlement and Ottawa claiming that was not true.
After the federal government lost its case, it filed a notice of appeal in August 2015. At the time, a federal election campaign devoured the country, which ended in October with the former Conservative government slipping away. to current Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. .
In November, a government lawyer submitted another document to the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal. This time it contained a single sentence saying that he was dropping the call.
Miller, who was then a rookie MP from Quebec not yet invited to cabinet, said he had not seen the final deal freeing Catholic organizations from their obligations, but wanted to take a look. .
“I absolutely want to see him. I want to get to the bottom of it, ”he said.
Miller enters the Crown-Indigenous Relations office after critics and First Nations leaders demanded the release of former minister Carolyn Bennett.
She has been criticized both for a text she sent to then-independent Indigenous MP Jody Wilson-Raybould whom the former justice minister called racist, as well as for not doing enough to do advance the ministry’s mandate of establishing a new nation-to-nation relationship with Indigenous communities.
Hours after taking the oath of office in his new role, Miller said last week that the earth was at the center of this relationship and it was time to “give back the earth.”
“It’s sort of unfair to have sketchy examples of particular parcels that might be returned,” he said, describing how his department has to work alongside other federal departments, like defense, to find ways to buy back land.
“It must be clearly established in the minds of the people that the relationship that was broken with indigenous peoples began with the land, and it will be resolved by returning the land. “
The Liberals’ commitment to reconciliation has been tested over the past six months, not only by the discovery of unmarked graves, but also by the ongoing legal battle over compensation for First Nations children. who lived on a reserve without adequately funded child and family services or who were separated from their families through foster care.
More tension arose after Trudeau traveled to Tofino, British Columbia, to spend time with his family on September 30, the country’s first National Truth and Reconciliation Day. The stated purpose of the new holiday is to honor residential school survivors by taking the time to reflect and attend the commemorations in person.
Trudeau said traveling that day was a mistake and has since visited the Tkemlups te Secwépemc Nation of British Columbia after failing to respond to their initial invitation to do so on September 30.
When asked what the Prime Minister’s trip did to the government’s process of building trust with First Nations, Miller said it “doesn’t help.”
“I think the Prime Minister would be the first to recognize it. ”