OTTAWA (CCN) — The House of Commons motion to invite Pope Francis to apologize for Indian residential schools is unlikely to change the pope’s decision, revealed in March, says Archbishop Richard Gagnon.
“I don’t think the situation has changed any,” said the vice-president of the CCCB in an interview. The March 27 letter of CCCB President Bishop Lionel Gendron to the indigenous peoples of Canada “pretty well spells out the reality of the pope’s view of this matter,” Gagnon said.
In the letter, Pope Francis said: “As far as Call to Action #58 is concerned, after carefully considering the request and extensive dialogue with the bishops of Canada, he felt that he could not personally respond.”
NDP MP Charlie Angus has written the Speaker of the House of Commons, asking him to write a letter to Pope Francis requesting the apology after his motion passed May 1 by a vote of 269 to 10.
“This motion transcends the partisan realities of the ordinary process of government,” Angus wrote Speaker Geoff Regan after the vote. “It is not about the politics of the day, but about who we are as a country, and how serious we are as representatives from coast to coast to coast about making reconciliation with indigenous peoples a reality.”
“As this vote expressed the will of Parliament and not the particular policy of the government of this day, I believe this message will be most effective coming from you, as the custodian of the Parliament’s traditions and the collective voice of its members,” Angus said.
“I don’t have anything further to say about the motion,” Gagnon said.
Angus has blamed the CCCB for the pope’s decision not to come to Canada, and an earlier version of his motion called on the CCCB to invite the pope. It failed to get unanimous consent April 18 when a lone Tory dissented on religious freedom and separation of church and state grounds.
“There’s certainly division within the bishops depending where they are in the country because the overwhelming population of Catholics I think were appalled at the bishops’ position of not stepping up on reconciliation,” Angus told journalists after his motion passed.
“All the bishops do is bring to the table their experiences in different parts of Canada,” Gagnon said. “Just like there are a variety of views, both among indigenous and non-indigenous people, the bishops bring forward their experience of the people they serve regarding this question. That’s all the bishops had done.”
“They’ve shared that with the Holy Father as well,” he said. “There’s a variety of opinions about this matter.”
Different parts of Canada have had differing experiences. The province of Quebec, for example, never ran any residential schools and the history of the encounter with indigenous people by French settlers is different than that in other parts of Canada. “In the Maritimes, indigenous people were in contact with the church for over 400 years,” Gagnon said. “The majority of the residential schools were in Western Canada, where the indigenous population is much greater.”
“You might find a bit more consensus on [the papal apology] in the west,” he said. “I can’t speak for all of Western Canada. There is probably more of an openness or consensus on that issue in the west.”
Gagnon pointed to differences among indigenous people as well.
He referred to the point of view of the vice-president of the Canadian Catholic Aboriginal Council, Irving Papineau, a Mohawk from Akwesasne, who joined the CCCB president and vice-president at an April 18, news conference on Parliament Hill.
“Irving Papineau said what we hear all the time,” Gagnon said. “The issue of an apology is not the prime issue on peoples’ minds. Talk of an apology is not high on the list, but the issues they face every day.”
These are “questions of poverty, unemployment, crime, addiction,” and so on, the archbishop said.
Fear of more litigation if the pope apologizes is not a primary consideration among the bishops, Gagnon said.
Contrary to news reports, the pope has not refused to apologize, nor has he refused to come to Canada, the archbishop said. “The Holy Father has not responded to that narrow Call to Action.”
“In response to the principles involved, he has not closed the door,” he said. “It seems odd in my mind someone like the Holy Father, Pope Francis, who has done so much for indigenous people around the world, would turn his back on the indigenous people of Canada. There must be something wrong with the way it is understood.”
As for the cost of a papal visit, and how much of the tab the government would pick up, “discussions have not proceeded that far,” he said.
“The pope just doesn’t climb on a plane and fly to Canada,” he said. “A lot of factors are involved here. Obviously there are heavy costs involved as well.”
The most recent papal visit was for World Youth Day in Toronto in 2002. The bishops were left with a $36 million deficit.
“For World Youth Day there’s a kind of template for those events, the things that are required, the events that occur in the diocese,” he said. “It takes years of planning. But that’s a whole different thing.”
“Something like this, it’s a notion; it’s without plans, structure and organization,” he said.
“If the pope did decide to come to Canada at some point, there would have to be a whole planning mechanism involved,” he said. “I’m not sure what that would look like.”
“There are many Catholics in Canada,” he said. “Would he not encounter others in the country as well? It would be a shame for the Holy Father to come to Canada for only one thing.”
The Catholic Church’s “efforts continue to connect with First Nations people in urban settings, in rural areas,” Gagnon said. “That ministry continues to work, the willingness to be available to people regardless of what happens in Parliament.”