Pope lands in Edmonton to begin 6-day ‘penitential’ journey aimed at Indigenous reconciliation

Pope Francis arrived in Canada on Sunday for a drumming song of honor ahead of what he describes as a “penitential” trip aimed at reconciliation with Indigenous peoples for the Roman Catholic Church’s role in residential schools.

The Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation Drumming Group sang to Francis as he sat between Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Governor General Mary Simon in an airport hangar in Edmonton.

The pope told reporters on board the plane before it landed in Edmonton that the six-day visit had to be conducted with care.

The pontiff should also visit Quebec and Iqaluit.

“I hope, with the grace of God, that my penitential pilgrimage can contribute to the path 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 took 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 welcoming ceremony.

Grand Chief George Arcand Jr. of Treaty Six gave the Pope a beaded medallion and received an unknown item in return.

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

Francis was also welcomed by other religious, indigenous and political dignitaries.

He was then to be taken to St. Joseph’s Seminary, where he will stay during the Alberta leg of the trip.

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

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

Pope Francis greets Arcand, left, and others during a welcome ceremony at the Edmonton airport hangar on Sunday. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

“It is an important historical moment”

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 historic moment for survivors of the residential school system and the damage caused by the Catholic Church,” Arcand Jr.

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

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

First Nations leaders in Alberta said they expected the pope’s presence to open old wounds for Indigenous peoples and for mental health counselors to be on the scene. But they also hope that this visit will be a step towards reconciliation.

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

WATCH | What a Pope’s Apology in Canada Could Mean for Reconciliation:

What a Pope Apology in Canada Could Mean for Reconciliation

Pope Francis will arrive in Canada, and some survivors are hoping for an apology for the Roman Catholic Church’s role in residential school abuse. From resources for healing to the return of Indigenous artifacts, First Nations, Métis and Inuit leaders explain what visitation and apology mean for reconciliation.

The Ermineskin School south of Edmonton was one of the largest institutions in Canada. Organizers of the papal visit said they expect around 15,000 people to be in Maskwacis to see the 85-year-old pontiff.

Later Monday, Francis is scheduled to meet with parishioners at a church in downtown Edmonton. A large outdoor mass at the city’s football stadium is scheduled for Tuesday. The pope then heads for Lac Ste. Anne to participate in an annual pilgrimage.

Francis is scheduled to travel to Quebec City on Wednesday and deliver a public speech following meetings with Trudeau and Simon. The next day, another great mass is planned in Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré.

The visit is scheduled to end Friday in Iqaluit before Francis returns to the Vatican.

Organizers said that due to the pope’s age and physical limitations, he will attend public events for about an hour and use a wheelchair throughout the tour.

Shortly after leaving Rome, the pope used a cane to help him navigate the plane as he greeted individual reporters.

“I believe I can do it,” he joked.

Thousands of people traveled from different parts of the country to take part in the events.

Mabel Brown, a 77-year-old residential school survivor, traveled to Edmonton from Inuvik to hear the Pope’s apology and find forgiveness and healing with other survivors. She hopes this is an opportunity to move in the right direction.

“It’s a very important moment in history,” she said. “Better things are yet to come.”

Support is available for anyone affected by the lingering effects of residential schools and those triggered by the latest reports. The Indian Residential School Survivor Society can be contacted toll free at 1-800-721-0066.

A National Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line has been established to provide support to former students and those affected. Access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour National Crisis Line: 1-866-925-4419.

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