Nova Scotia

Halifax archbishop willing to push for papal apology for residential schools

The head of the Roman Catholic Church in Halifax says he's willing to work with other church leaders across the country to ask the Pope to apologize to survivors of residential schools.

Plaque commemorating 1984 papal visit spray-painted with '215'

Archbishop Brian Joseph Dunn apologized during a mass on Sunday in Halifax for 'harm, violence and abuse' at the Shubenacadie Residential School. (Steve Lawrence/CBC)

The head of the Roman Catholic Church in Halifax says he's willing to work with other church leaders across the country to ask the Pope to apologize to survivors of residential schools.

Archbishop Brian Dunn says those discussions are already underway, and Pope Francis's response was to ask bishops and archbishops to work with their local Indigenous communities first to ensure there is a willingness to accept an apology.

"To work with Pope Francis to get an apology, I'd certainly be on board with that," said Dunn.

Two weeks ago, what are believed to be the unmarked burial sites of children's remains were found at the site of a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C. Preliminary findings suggest the site could contain the remains of 215 children, according to the Tk'emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation.

Since then, pressure has mounted for an official apology from the Pope, who has called for healing, but stopped short of apologizing.

A plaque at a Halifax park commemorating Pope John Paul II's visit in 1984 was recently spray-painted with the number 215 and turned into a makeshift memorial.

Halifax Regional Police say they're investigating the incident, which came to their attention Friday. The municipality said the graffiti was removed Friday afternoon.

A plaque on the Halifax Common commemorating Pope John Paul II's visit in 1984 was spray-painted with '215,' a reference to the recent discovery near the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia. (Steve Lawrence/CBC)

Unlike the Anglican Church or United Church in Canada, the Roman Catholic Church does not have one leader representing the institution in the country. Rather, there are 80 dioceses, each with its own leader. 

Dunn said the Canadian Catholic Conference of Bishops will discuss the matter of a papal apology at the next conference.

He pointed out that Pope John Paul II made a special visit to Canada in 1987 to meet with Indigenous leaders and make a speech affirming the right to self-government, a land base and adequate resources to develop a viable economy.

His successor, Pope Benedict, expressed sorrow for the suffering of residential school students in a 2009 statement, Dunn said.

"Maybe it's not an apology in the same sense as people would expect, but we hope that Pope Francis would move in that direction," Dunn said.

In 2018, Dunn, who was then bishop of the diocese of Antigonish, and his predecessor, Archbishop Anthony Mancini, personally apologized for the church's conduct at the Shubenacadie Residential School in Nova Scotia.

The Shubenacadie Residential School operated from 1929 to 1967 in Shubenacadie, N.S., about 45 minutes northeast of Halifax. (CBC)

Dunn apologized again for the "harm, violence and abuse" at residential schools during a mass on Sunday at Saint Mary's Cathedral Basilica in downtown Halifax.

"People need to hear, I guess, over and over that we're really sorry and that we want to express a real desire to be in solidarity with the people and especially to provide any kind of assistance we can," he told CBC News in an interview Friday.

Asked whether he would be willing to fund reconciliation projects, Dunn said, "We'd have to talk about that and see what it means for both sides."

The Shubenacadie Residential School was managed by the Archdiocese of Halifax and Yarmouth and staff of the Sisters of Charity. Dunn said any records pertaining to the school were given to the Department of Northern and Indian Affairs in 2008 and again to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Dunn said he had planned to meet with Mi'kmaw leaders to understand how the church can support them, but the meeting got cancelled when the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

He said he hopes that meeting will take place as soon possible, likely this fall. Dunn said he also aims to visit all the First Nations reserves in the diocese.

With files from Gareth Hampshire