N.W.T. Catholic Bishop Mark Hagemoen on the Pope and the apology

As the year comes to a close, the CBC's Lawrence Nayally sat down with Bishop Mark Hagemoen to talk about the relationship of aboriginal people to the Catholic church and what an apology from the Pope would mean to Catholics in the N.W.T.

Truth and Reconciliation Commission's final report recommeded that the Pope make formal apology

Mark Hagemoen, Bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Mackenzie-Fort Smith, says he welcomes the idea of an apology from the Pope. 'I certainly welcome it and I know many people here in the diocese would love to see Pope Francis come.' (Mitch Wiles/CBC)

Following the release of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's final report, and its recommendation that the Pope make a formal apology within one year, the CBC's Lawrence Nayally, host of Trail's End, sat down with Mark Hagemoen, Bishop of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Mackenzie-Fort Smith, to talk about what an apology would mean for the people of the N.W.T.

Forty-six per cent of N.W.T. residents identify as Catholic, according to the 2001 census, while 44 per cent of Canadians overall identified as Catholic. 

The following interview has been edited and condensed.

What do you think about the TRC's recommendation that the Pope should visit Canada to apologize to aboriginal people?

I certainly welcome it and I know many people here in the diocese would love to see Pope Francis come. I don't know if the Holy Father will be able to come, or come by the timeframe set out, but I would think he would want to come.

A priority for him is to reach out to areas that need special attention in terms of the [marginalized] and in terms of peoples whom he holds dear to his heart for a range of reasons, because of history, circumstance, etc. So I think he would receive this request quite positively.

What would it take to make arrangements for him to come up here?

Obviously there is a diplomatic kind of relationship between Canada and the Vatican. What it would also take would be the ability of the Holy Father and those who assist him to evaluate that alongside the many other requests.

In 2009, Pope Benedict XVI expressed sorrow to a delegation from Canada's Assembly of First Nations who travelled to the Vatican. What would make this apology different?

What would make this different, I suppose, would be the fact that Pope Francis would be not only coming to our country but it would be following the completion of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which did extensive work hearing the stories of the aboriginal people who were directly or indirectly affected by the Indian Residential School systems. And there were a lot of expressions of stories, sorrow, difficulties and hardship that came out of that. So a meeting with the Holy Father after that kind of great process has happened, I think, would be significantly different.

What's the relationship like between the Catholic church and the aboriginal people here in the N.W.T.?

We are an aboriginal church. The vast majority of people who self-identify as Catholic in this diocese are aboriginal people — Dene, Métis and Inuit — and they do so while, in my opinion, they honour the traditional ways and spirituality of their aboriginal heritage.

So it's safe to say that the relationship is still strong?

I would say yes, it's very strong, and I think it's very strong in large part given the history of the relationship, whether it involves the various priests and sisters that were part of the communities before.

I think recently, my predecessors, Bishop Denis Croteau and Bishop Murray Chatlain, also saw the shift that was happening in the North in terms of the number of priests and sisters. And also, not just because of that but because this should happen anyway, there was a real investment put into calling forth aboriginal people as church leaders and that continues to this day. We meet regularly to discuss a range of practical and pastoral issues that impact different communities across the diocese. I would say two-thirds of people who are part of those meetings are aboriginal people of the North.

Some would say the relationship between the Catholic church and aboriginal people is somewhat damaged. What is the Catholic church doing here to repair this damage?

Even before the TRC, [the Northern dioceses] anticipated the need to repair and restore the relationship. The Return to Spirit process actually brought in people who were formally attending residential schools and did a process of reflection and just allowing people to share their story in that kind of a retreat process. It also brought in people who worked in the schools and then later on brought the groups together. There have been several years of that.

There have also been other opportunities that are linked to broader healing initiatives that we do at Trappers Lake, or now we're looking at doing in particular communities, that also provides a listening opportunity for people to bring forward their hurt or their anger or whatever they wish, so that's been going on for a few years and we need to continue to do those.

There is a bit of a sentiment that I'm hearing, mainly from elders but also from parents, that are saying it's very good that we've done the TRC and now we need to move forward, and we look forward to working with our local churches in reflecting on what that means so that's still a process of discernment and discussion.

If the Pope were to come up here and offer an apology, what would that do to the relationship between the Catholic church and aboriginal people?

I think the people would very much appreciate it. A lot of aboriginal people follow Pope Francis. They like his message. They like his emphasis, as a pope from the southern hemisphere, on aboriginal peoples and issues. I think it will only bless and strengthen the relationships.

I know people are also excited about the possibility of the Pope maybe even coming North. It would be great to receive him if he's able and interesting in coming.

In 1987, Pope John Paul II came to Yellowknife but also to Fort Simpson. Is [visiting a smaller community] also a possibility?

I don't know if this is providence or just coincidence, but the first church that we have ever tried to rebuild in the Diocese is in Fort Simpson and we're hoping to move forward with that church, which is a community building for the people there, perhaps as soon as this coming year. So there's a redevelopment and recommitment of the faith of the Dehcho people in Fort Simpson. It's right next to the site where John Paul II came in '87. I think there'd be a lot of excitement for it, but again, you and I are the first to talk about it, at least in my hearing.