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Archbishop Richard Gagnon followed up with the Globe regarding the Catholic Church's response to the Cowessess First Nation's discovery of 751 unmarked graves.Diana Nethercott/The Globe and Mail

The following is a transcript of a portion of an interview with Archbishop Richard Gagnon, president of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops and archbishop of Winnipeg. He spoke by phone with The Globe and Mail on June 21, before the Cowessess First Nation in Saskatchewan announced that 751 unmarked graves were discovered in the Roman Catholic cemetery at the site of the former Marieval Indian Residential School. This week, The Globe asked the CCCB if the president would like to add anything further, and received no reply. The interview covered a range of topics related to the church’s responses to its role in running residential schools; in this part of the interview, he is asked about a papal apology and what his organization is doing to secure one.

Marieval, Kamloops residential schools: What we know about the unmarked graves, and Canada’s reaction so far

On a papal apology and a planned delegation to Rome with Indigenous leaders: will the CCCB itself ask for an apology from the Pope?

I think I would approach it this way. The Holy Father, he is very much looking forward to this encounter with those delegates. Now, the delegates … it’s really a pastoral encounter, with residential school survivors, with knowledge keepers, elders, youth. And so he’s looking very much forward to this … He wants to enter into a dialogue with the various people that are representing the three Indigenous components [First Nations, Métis, Inuit]. He wants to listen carefully to what they have to say, he wants to learn from them. And then he’ll make a response to them.

And so I cannot tell you precisely what the words the Pope will use. But I think I can probably tell you what he would say. And [referring to Bolivia in 2015], the recent trip to Bolivia where the Holy Father spoke to Indigenous people in South and North America; and in that encounter, he mentioned the past histories and mixed histories, the encounter with Europeans, colonization, etc. But he did, he offered an apology to Indigenous people, and he asked for their forgiveness very humbly.

So this is Francis, this is his approach. And I don’t think he would say anything different in Canada, other than the fact that in Canada, you have specific situations that are particular to Canada. And I’m thinking of the residential school question, which was at the heart of the TRC, of course, but also too, he is speaking with the Métis, and with the Inuit. And each of those three components, Indigenous realities in Canada, they have their own particularities and relationship with the church and history. So that’s why the Pope, he has actually done something very extraordinary, he has allowed a considerable amount of time to this dialogue, meeting with each group on three different days.

And then there’ll be a joint gathering at the end of it. So it’s quite an extraordinary amount of time that he’s spending with the Indigenous people in this context. And so I’m looking forward very much to being able to witness at least this dialogue that he will have. I’ve seen him do this before with different groups. And it’s very, very moving. And very engaging, actually.

Will the Conference commit to directly requesting that the Pope apologize?

As I said before, the Holy Father will respond in an appropriate way. And I think that he is going to say, he doesn’t need the CCCB to say this, he knows that it’s important for reconciliation, to recognize past wrongs and speaking for the church, in his position as a very symbolic position, that would be an important thing. So I think that whole picture will be shared with the Pope, for sure.

We’d been told that the initiation of a formal apology would have to come from the CCCB; what is its position on this and will it commit to recommending an apology?

Well, the recommendation of the Conference is for the Holy Father to encounter the Indigenous people and to respond to them, and as I said, already, he has already indicated how he would respond to these situations. So we would encourage him as a Conference, to respond likewise, to the needs of the past. And the reason why I’m telling you in this particular way, because the Pope has his own way of doing this. And the Conference doesn’t tell the Pope what to say. The Conference obviously shares with him the importance of the process of reconciliation. And offering apologies is an important aspect of it, that that’s an important part, but it’s not the only part of it, but it’s an important aspect of it.

But in the past, he said he couldn’t personally respond, back in 2018, after requests to apologize. So would the CCCB say now that it’s the right thing to do, to come to Canada and apologize?

So if I could just maybe help you with that a little bit. What the Pope did say at that particular time was that he could not personally respond to the TRC, which is absolutely appropriate. The Pope cannot respond to the TRC, the Pope will respond to the invitation of the bishops. And so in this particular case, the Pope has never said he would not offer an apology, he’s never said that, at all. I think that sometimes people have said that the Pope has refused to apologize, because he hasn’t responded personally to the TRC – no, the Pope has never said he will not offer an apology. It’s appropriate that that’s within the context of reconciliation. That’s what he does. That’s not a difficulty. But there’s more to it than an apology, the whole thing has to do with reconciliation as a process in Canada to establish relationships with Indigenous people, hear what they have to say. So I just wanted to correct the record for that, that the Holy Father did not say that he would not apologize. He said he could not personally respond to the TRC. And it’s true, he couldn’t.

It sounds like you’re not committing that the Conference will ask him to come to apologize, but you’re enabling this dialogue to happen later this year.

We are facilitating the dialogue to happen, and we are expecting the dialogue to be very, very fruitful. And we are expecting the Holy Father to respond appropriately to the Indigenous people. And when you talk about reconciliation, apologies are part of it. The important thing here is the encounter and the dialogue. It’s not ticking off a box. If there’s going to be reconciliation, there has to be truth, there has to be acknowledgment. Obviously, the Pope has done that already in Bolivia, and he would do nothing different in Canada. The difference in Canada would be the specifics that we have here in Canada, which may differ from other countries.

It just sounds like there would be more weight to the request, if the CCCB joined in as well and said we are also recommending for him to come to Canada to apologize.

The Pope has not said he would not come to Canada at an opportune time. And this particular encounter in Rome is a very important one in establishing relationships here, and (about) what the Indigenous people have to say, the Pope responding to them appropriately. The post delegation is something now under discussion that has not been fine tuned yet. So that post delegation very much depends on and is enriched by this encounter in Rome, obviously. Unfortunately, the planning for this had to be postponed because of COVID, but now we’re back on board. There’s a new national chief coming and so on. So now we’re back on board with it.

This has been condensed and edited

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