In the fall of 2015, someone in the federal government decided to drop a multimillion-dollar residential school compensation case against Catholic Church groups.
CBC News recently reached out to more than a dozen current or former ministers and senior bureaucrats. No one would say who gave the order, although several admit they likely have relevant information and documents that they refuse to share.
That includes both current Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller and Bernard Valcourt, who served as minister of aboriginal affairs and northern development in the Conservative government from February 2013 until his defeat in the October 2015 federal election, won by the Liberals.
Miller’s director of communications, Renelle Arsenault, wrote in an email that a document requested by CBC News would not be provided because “it’s secret.” When asked to elaborate, she did not respond. Miller declined repeated interview requests.
Valcourt, reached this week by phone at his home in New Brunswick, was asked to provide his notes or emails from that period, but he declined.
“It’s filed far, far away,” he said.
Advocates say survivors, their families and the public have a right to this information immediately. They say it’s the latest slap in the face to survivors by the federal government, the courts and the Catholic Church.
“Everybody is covering their butts. You have a conspiracy of silence from mostly white males. It’s so disappointing,” said Tom McMahon, the former general counsel for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Angela White, executive director of the Indian Residential School Survivors Society, agreed.
“Survivors have a right to know what happened and exactly why it happened — and why their voices are not being heard,” she said.
Government abandons appeal
Catholic entities made three promises totalling $79 million under the landmark Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement of 2005. A recent CBC News investigation has led many survivors, lawyers and First Nations leaders to say the church reneged on all three.
The first pledge was to provide $29 million in cash, but this was not met after millions of dollars were spent on lawyers, administration and other unapproved expenses.
The second was to give “best efforts” to fundraise $25 million nationally. Less than $4 million was raised during a period when Catholic officials spent more than $300 million on church and cathedral building projects.
The third was to provide $25 million worth of “in-kind services” to survivors. CBC News obtained the list of services, and survivors say most of the money provided was for inappropriate colonial religious services such as Bible study courses or sending priests and nuns to preach in Indigenous communities.
In July 2015, the Catholic Church asked for a buyout. The federal government refused, and the matter went to court. Saskatchewan Court of Queen’s Bench Justice Neil Gabrielson approved the Catholic buyout proposal of less than $2 million.
The federal government appealed the decision, claiming Gabrielson had made “palpable and overriding errors in his assessment of the facts.” Ottawa then asked that the July decision be quashed.
But for some unknown reason, someone in the federal government decided to abandon the appeal. The case was then closed.
Ex-deputy minister denies making decision
In October, CBC News asked officials in the Department of Crown-Indigenous Relations for an explanation. In an email, they said the decision to drop the appeal was made by the deputy minister when it was known as the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development.
But speaking publicly for the first time to CBC News, that former deputy minister, Colleen Swords, denied making the decision.
In an interview, Swords said it appears the decision to abandon the appeal was made during the “caretaker period” after the 2015 federal election. Stephen Harper’s Conservative government had just lost the election to Justin Trudeau’s Liberals.
Valcourt and other ministers remained responsible until the new cabinet was installed. But during this transition period, bureaucrats and ministers “generally practised restraint whenever possible” in deference to the incoming regime, Swords said.
That’s why she isn’t sure why the appeal was dropped at that time.
“I would assume this was considered significant…. This would have been major,” she said. “They wouldn’t do that. Not if they could wait.”
Lori Turnbull, director of the Dalhousie University’s school of public administration, agreed. She said no major decisions should be made during the caretaker period.
“If there was nothing urgent here, nothing pressing. You could have waited another month,” Turnbull said.
Swords suggested contacting Andrew Saranchuk, the assistant deputy minister at the time who was in charge of the residential schools file. Saranchuk is now a senior official in the Department of Justice, but an official said he would not be available for an interview.
Church says it fulfilled obligations
After CBC News informed Crown-Indigenous Relations that Swords denied involvement, they issued an amended statement. The statement now points in general to “the Harper government.”
CBC News then requested an interview with Peter MacKay, who was Harper’s justice minister at the time.
“Just got this. What can I do for you ?” MacKay replied by email.
A detailed explanation and questions were then sent to MacKay, but he did not reply. David Lametti, the current justice minister, also declined an interview request.
As for Valcourt, he said he respects Swords.
“You can trust her. She’s a very straight person,” he said.
But while Valcourt said he likely has emails and documents relevant to the appeal, he’s not interested in reliving those events.
“I’m afraid I cannot help you on that. I have resolved to never mingle or comment on the past,” he said.
Jonathan Lesarge, government and public relations adviser with the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, said its officials dealt with the minister, deputy minister and assistant deputy minister on the compensation file during the relevant period, but it’s unclear who made the specific decision to abandon the appeal.
Lesarge added that the bishops are “confident” they fulfilled all obligations under the compensation agreement.
Meanwhile, McMahon and White say these refusals, changing stories and conflicting accounts are not acceptable. They say Canada’s 150,000 residential school survivors and their descendants are again being traumatized by ongoing secrecy and that someone needs to be held accountable.
“Have we not promised to stop treating survivors this way?” McMahon said.