Published July 24, 2022

Pope arrives in Canada for 'penitential' visit aimed at Indigenous reconciliation

The Pope told reporters on the plane before it landed that the six-day visit must be handled with care.

By Brittany Hobson in Edmonton

Pope Francis arrived in Canada on Sunday to an honour drum song ahead of what he describes as a "penitential" trip aimed at reconciliation with Indigenous people for the Catholic Church's role in residential schools. 

The drum group from Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation sang in front of Francis as he sat between Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Gov. Gen. Mary Simon at an airport hangar in Edmonton. 

The Pope told reporters on the plane before it landed that the six-day visit must be handled with care.

The pontiff is also set to travel to Quebec City and Iqaluit.

"I hope, with God's grace, that my penitential pilgrimage might contribute to the journey of reconciliation already undertaken. Please accompany me with #prayer," said a message on the Pope's Twitter account.

An elevator was used to get the Pope off the plane, and he went for a short ride in a Fiat to the hangar. He then got into a wheelchair and was taken to a red carpet for the official welcome ceremony.  

Treaty 6 Grand Chief George Arcand Jr. gave the Pope a beaded medallion and was handed an unknown item in return. 

Francis kissed the hand of residential school survivor Alma Desjarlais of the Frog Lake First Nation as she welcomed the Pope along with Grand Chief Greg Desjarlais of the Confederacy of Treaty Six First Nations.

Francis was also greeted by other church, Indigenous and political dignitaries.

He was then set to be driven to the St. Joseph Seminary, where he will be staying during the Alberta portion of the trip.

The Pope plans to visit the former Ermineskin Indian Residential School in the community of Maskwacis, south of Edmonton, on Monday. That is where Francis is to deliver his first public statement in Canada and  is expected to apologize to Indigenous Peoples for abuses they have suffered.

An estimated 150,000 Indigenous children were forced to attend residential schools in Canada, where neglect and physical and sexual abuse were rampant. More than 60 per cent of the schools were run by the Catholic Church.

Arcand Jr. said last week that survivors have been carrying unimaginable trauma for many generations. The Pope's acknowledgment of their pain is a crucial step, he said. 

“This is an important historical moment for survivors of the residential school system and the harm caused by the Catholic Church," Arcand Jr. said.

On April 1, after meetings over several days with First Nations, Inuit and Métis groups at the Vatican, Francis apologized for the deplorable conduct of church members involved in residential schools and promised to visit Canada.

Indigenous delegates had told the Pope they wanted an apology on Canadian soil.

First Nations leaders in Alberta said they expect the Pope's presence to open old wounds for Indigenous people and mental health counsellors will be at the sites. But they also hope the visit will be a step toward reconciliation.

"We are here with you and we are supporting you," Louis Bull Tribe Chief Desmond Bull told survivors last week.

The Ermineskin school was one of the largest of the institutions in Canada. Organizers of the papal visit have said they expect about 15,000 people will be at Maskwacis to see the 85-year-old pontiff.

Later Monday, Francis is to meet parishioners of an inner-city church in Edmonton. A large outdoor mass at the city's football stadium is scheduled for Tuesday. The Pope then heads to nearby Lac Ste. Anne to take part in an annual pilgrimage. 

Francis is to travel Wednesday to Quebec City and deliver a public address following meetings with Trudeau and Simon. The following day another large mass is scheduled in Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré.

The visit is set to finish Friday in Iqaluit before Francis heads back to the Vatican.

Organizers have said that due to the Pope’s age and physical limitations he will take part in public events for about an hour and will use a wheelchair throughout the tour. 

Shortly after departing from Rome, the Pope used a cane to help him move around the airplane as he greeted individual reporters.

"I believe I can make it,” he joked.

Thousands have travelled from different parts of the country to take part in the events.

Mabel Brown, a 77-year-old residential school survivor, journeyed to Edmonton from Inuvik to hear the Pope apologize and find forgiveness and healing with other survivors. She hopes it's an opportunity to move forward in a good way.

“This is a very important time in history,” she said. “Better things are yet to come.”

The Indian Residential Schools Resolution Health Support Program has a hotline to help residential school survivors and their relatives suffering trauma invoked by the recall of past abuse. The number is 1-866-925-4419.

Banner image: Pope Francis kisses the hand of residential school survivor Alma Desjarlais of the Frog Lake First Nation as Chief Greg Desjarlais (left) looks on as he arrives in Edmonton on Sunday, July 24, 2022. His visit to Canada is aimed at reconciliation with Indigenous people for the Catholic Church's role in residential schools.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 24, 2022.

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