Pope Francis arrived in Canada on Sunday, where he is expected to personally apologize to indigenous survivors of abuse committed over decades in residential schools run by the Catholic Church.
The head of the world’s 1.3 billion Catholics landed at Edmonton International Airport shortly after 11 am (5 pm GMT).
He was welcomed by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Mary Simon, the country’s first indigenous governor general, as well as indigenous leaders at an airport ceremony that began with drums and chanting.
Afterwards, Francis received welcoming gifts from indigenous leaders, shaking or kissing their hands and talking to each one before the short ceremony ended.
During the 10-hour flight from Rome, Francis told journalists traveling with him that “we must be aware that this is a penitential journey.”
The 85-year-old pontiff’s visit to Canada is primarily to apologize to survivors for the church’s role in the scandal that a national truth and reconciliation commission called “cultural genocide”.
From the late 1800s through the 1990s, the government of Canada sent about 150,000 First Nations, Metis, and Inuit children to 139 Church-run residential schools, where they were isolated from their families, language, and culture.
Many were physically and sexually abused by principals and teachers.
Thousands of children are believed to have died from disease, malnutrition or neglect.
As of May 2021, more than 1,300 unmarked graves have been discovered at the sites of the former schools.
A delegation of indigenous peoples traveled to the Vatican in April and met with the pope – a precursor to Francis’ six-day trip – after which he formally apologized.
But doing it again on Canadian soil will be of great importance to the survivors and their families, for whom the land of their ancestors is of particular importance.
The flight was the longest since 2019 for the pope, who has been suffering from knee pain that has forced him to use a cane or a wheelchair on recent trips.
The pope was in a wheelchair on Sunday and used a platform lift to board the plane in Rome, and he was also in a wheelchair on the Edmonton runway, an AFP correspondent accompanying him said.
After resting on Sunday, the pope will travel on Monday to the community of Maskwacis, about 100 kilometers south of Edmonton, and address an estimated crowd of 15,000 that is expected to include alumni from across the country.
“I wish a lot of people would come,” said Charlotte Roan, 44, interviewed by AFP in June. The Ermineskin Cree Nation member said she wanted people to come “to hear it wasn’t made up”.
Others see the pope’s visit as a little too late, including Linda McGilvery of Saddle Lake Cree Nation near Saint Paul, about 200 kilometers east of Edmonton.
“I wouldn’t go out of my way to see him,” said the 68-year-old.
“For me it’s too late, because so many people have suffered, and the priests and nuns have already passed away.”
McGilvery spent eight years of his childhood in one of the schools, from age six to 13.
“Being in residential school, I lost a lot of my culture, my ancestry. It’s many years of loss,” she told AFP.
After a mass before tens of thousands of worshipers in Edmonton on Tuesday, Francis will head northwest to a major pilgrimage site, Lac Sainte Anne.
After a July 27-29 visit to Quebec City, he will end his trip in Iqaluit, capital of the Northern Territory of Nunavut and home to Canada’s largest Inuit population.
There, he will meet with former students from residential schools, before returning to Italy.
In total, Francis is expected to deliver four speeches and four homilies, all in Spanish.
Francis is the second pope to visit Canada, after John Paul II, who visited him three times (1984, 1987 and 2002).