Francis arrived in Edmonton on Sunday, where he was greeted by representatives of Canada’s three major Indigenous groups – First Nations, Métis and Inuit – as well as political and religious dignitaries. The pope spent the rest of the day resting in a seminary in the provincial capital.
The Canadian government has admitted physical and sexual abuse was endemic in state-funded Christian schools that operated from the 19th century to the 1970s. Some 150,000 Indigenous children were taken from their families and forced to attend in the goal of isolating them from the influence of their homes, native languages and cultures and assimilating them into the Christian society of Canada.
Francis’ six-day trip – which will also include other sites in Alberta, Quebec and Iqaluit, Nunavut, in the Far North – follows meetings he held in the spring at the Vatican with delegations from First Nations, Métis and Inuit. These meetings culminated in a historic apology on April 1 for “deplorable” abuses committed by some Catholic missionaries in residential schools.
Thousands of children died from disease, fires and other causes. The discovery of hundreds of potential burial sites in former schools over the past year has drawn international attention to the legacy of the schools in Canada and their counterparts in the United States.
Francis is now following through on his commitment to deliver this apology on Canadian soil.
Maskwacis, about an hour south of Edmonton, is the hub of four Cree nations.
Event organizers said they would do everything possible to ensure survivors could attend the event. Many will travel from park-and-ride lots, and organizers recognize that many survivors are elderly and will need accessible vehicles, diabetic-friendly snacks and other amenities.
Catholics operated the majority of Canadian schools, while various Protestant denominations operated others in conjunction with the government.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who apologized last year for “incredibly harmful government policy” in organizing the residential school system, will also attend the Maskwacis event with other government officials.
In Maskwacis, the old school that Francis visits has been replaced by a school system operated by the four local Cree Nations. The program affirms the once suppressed indigenous culture.
Chief Greg Desjarlais of Frog Lake First Nation in northern Alberta, a survivor of the school, said after the Pope’s arrival on Sunday there were “mixed emotions across this country” at the during his visit.
“I am thinking today of the young people who have not returned home and who are buried around the boarding schools,” he said during a press conference after the welcome ceremony at the airport. But he expressed optimism that the visit can begin to bring reconciliation.
“I know when two people have apologized, we feel better,” he said. “But our people have been through a lot. … Our people have been traumatized. Some of them did not return home. Now I hope the world will understand why our people are so hurt.
On Monday afternoon, Francis is scheduled to visit the Church of the Sacred Heart of the First Peoples, a Catholic parish in Edmonton oriented toward Indigenous peoples and culture. The church, whose sanctuary was dedicated last week after being restored after a fire, incorporates indigenous language and customs into the liturgy.
“I never thought in my life that I would see a pope here at Sacred Heart Church,” said Fernie Marty, who holds the title of elder in the church. “And now we have this opportunity.”
During Francis’ visit, the church will display the clothing, bread and other supplies it regularly provides to those in need, including much of Edmonton’s urban Aboriginal population estimated at 75,000.
The visit will be a “meeting” that will help “people know what we are, who we are”, said its pastor, the Reverend Jesu Susai.
Associated Press reporters Nicole Winfield in Edmonton and Rob Gillies in Toronto contributed to this report.
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