A mayor in Canada wants to tax the Catholic Church as a result of its role in Canada’s assimilative residential school system—a role currently in the spotlight as more unmarked gravesites at former Catholic-run residential schools are confirmed across the country.
Iqaluit Mayor Kenny Bell’s plan seeks to remove a land tax exemption that churches enjoy.
“Because of the gruesome past and terrifying future we are waiting to see... Because (the Catholic Church is) refusing to apologize, I want to remove their tax exemption,” Bell told CTV News. “I’m hoping for other politicians and other cities to do the exact same thing.”
Calls are mounting for the Catholic Church to be taxed or to hand over money to help Indigenous communities heal after the federal government and churches spent more than a century forcibly assimilating 150,000 First Nations, Métis, and Inuit children in residential schools across Canada and the U.S.
The Roman Catholic Church hasn’t disclosed its net worth. But there’s no doubt it is one of the richest institutions on the planet, considering it’s one of the largest landowners in the world, and enjoys significant investments, and coffers full of gold and priceless original art. The Vatican, which is just a fraction of the Church, is worth $4 billion.
Since May, more than 1,000 unmarked graves have been confirmed at former residential schools, with the first 215 reported by a First Nation in British Columbia. Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation said most of the remains were likely of children, some as young as 3, and the news triggered nationwide mourning, searches for more sites just like it, and unprecedented mainstream attention paid to Canada’s horrific colonial history and its ongoing legacy.
More than half of residential schools were run by Catholics. Sweeping abuses were common, and children were routinely punished for speaking their languages and expressing their cultures. Malnutrition and disease were also widespread, and thousands of children were killed.
Michelle Robinson, an Indigenous activist and podcast host based in Calgary, told VICE World News last month that people need to reach out to governments and pressure them to tax the Church.
The sentiment is all over social media, too. “Tax the Roman Catholic Church immediately to make amends to the survivors,” one tweet says.
In Canada, churches and religious groups enjoy similar tax exemptions to charities for providing a public good. But as Alberta Views Magazine reported, churches don’t need to hit the same standards the many charities and nonprofits do—churches, by nature, can discriminate based on religion. The magazine estimates that Alberta alone misses out on millions of dollars of revenue every year because of the exemptions.
Right now, the Catholic Church is facing scrutiny for failing to raise $25 million to compensate residential school survivors as part of Canada’s Indian Residential School Survivor Agreement (IRSSA), while securing funds to pay for its $28.5 million Holy Family Cathedral, equipped with solar panels, in Saskatoon, CBC News reported.
"The Roman Catholic Church is filthy rich but they're hesitant to do the right thing," a residential school survivor who lives near the cathedral told CBC. "It's not for us. Help the future generations who are paying the price."
Michael Coren, an Anglican cleric and columnist who left the Catholic Church nearly eight years ago, told VICE World News he doesn’t know how Catholic leadership sleeps at night.
“They were asked to pay $25 million to Indigenous people, which is not a lot of money in global terms, and they never paid it,” Coren said. “If you're not going to pay what is being estimated then there should be some sort of consequence to that.”
Coren admitted that if and when governments increase taxes on places of worship, it may make it more difficult for smaller, community-centred spots that help newcomers, fight food insecurity and homelessness, to serve their communities, and that it would also likely apply to all denominations and religions. But given the Catholic Church’s “size and wealth,” they have to address the issues “now.”
“It may well be the time has come,” Coren said. “It’s particularly blatant considering the wealth and money the Catholic Church holds.”
Another issue is that two provinces, Alberta and Ontario, publicly fund Catholic school systems.
“It’s extraordinary that one religion is singled out for school funding. In Ontario, with changing demographics, what about Muslim parents, Jewish parents, reform Protestant?” Coren said, adding that there is precedent for provinces to stop funding Catholic schools. Quebec and Newfoundland and Labrador stopped funding Catholic schools in 1997.
VICE World News previously reported how many lifelong Catholics are now rejecting the Church. Coren has noticed the same thing and he’s not surprised.
“With some exceptions, the response from Catholic leadership has been dreadful,” Coren said. He said responses from Catholic leaders range from “quite grotesque” to moot.
While J. Michael Miller, Catholic Archbishop in Vancouver, broke away from his colleagues to issue an apology, Richard Gagnon, archbishop of Winnipeg and president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, said he believes that the Church is being “persecuted” over residential schools.
The Archbishop of Toronto, Cardinal Thomas Collins, went on CBC’s Rosemary Barton Live on Sunday and defended the Church. “I don't know whether seeking always some big, dramatic thing is really the way forward. I think step by step is better,” Collins said.
Pope Francis himself voiced sorrow for residential school survivors, but stopped short of issuing an apology—again. In 2017, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau personally asked the pope to apologize, but the request was denied. He has plans to meet with Indigenous leaders in the fall. Anglican, United, and Presbyterian churches apologized in the 90s.
According to Coren, it’s simple: “Even when they're not denying, they're not doing anything,” he said.
Indigenous leaders and settlers alike want to see Canada and the Catholic Church tried for crimes against humanity and genocide. The International Criminal Court has opened a file and is still considering whether to investigate.
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