Pope to apologize to Canadian Indigenous school survivors

Publicado: 25/07/2022

Edmonton (Canada) (AFP) -

Pope Francis will make a historic personal apology Monday to Indigenous survivors of child abuse committed over decades at Catholic-run institutions in Canada, at the start of a week-long visit he has described as a 'penitential journey.'

The leader of the world's 1.3 billion Catholics arrived Sunday in Edmonton, in western Alberta province, to visit one of the largest former residential schools where the abuse of First Nations, Metis and Inuit children took place.

The 85-year-old pontiff's trip is primarily aimed at apologizing to survivors for the Church's role in the scandal that a national truth and reconciliation commission has called 'cultural genocide.'

In Maskwacis, an Indigenous community south of Edmonton where the Ermineskin residential school was located until its closure in 1975, several hundred people dressed in traditional clothing gathered Monday morning, two hours ahead of the pope's arrival.

'I'm happy, it's a miracle. I am humbled,' 50-year-old Gilda Soosay -- one of the residents who was set to meet the pope in person -- told AFP, adding: 'I wish my mom was here.'

'I'm going to ask him to pray for me, my family, my people healing,' she added.

From the late 1800s to the 1990s, Canada's government sent about 150,000 children into 139 residential schools run by the Church, where they were cut off from their families, language and culture.

Many were physically and sexually abused by headmasters and teachers, and thousands are believed to have died of disease, malnutrition or neglect.

A delegation of Indigenous peoples traveled to the Vatican in April and met the pope -- a precursor to Francis' trip -- after which he formally apologized.

But doing so again on Canadian soil will be of huge significance to survivors and their families, for whom the land of their ancestors is of particular importance.

After a silent prayer at the site's cemetery, Francis will deliver a first speech, in Spanish, to an estimated crowd of 15,000, expected to include former students from across the country.

Later in the day, at 4:30 pm (2230 GMT) Francis will travel to the Sacred Heart Catholic Church of the First Peoples in Edmonton, one of the city's oldest churches, where he will deliver a second speech to Indigenous communities.

Since May 2021, more than 1,300 unmarked graves have been discovered at the sites of the former schools, sending shockwaves throughout Canada -- which has slowly begun to acknowledge this long, dark chapter in its history.

'I hope that this visit is the beginning of a change in history, a change in the way business is going to be done, and a way for us to begin our healing journey,' George Arcand Jr, the grand chief of the Confederacy of Treaty Six First Nations, said on national television.

'I asked the pope to walk with us and create this new road that needs to be created.'

- 'Healing journey' -

The flight to Edmonton was the longest since 2019 for Francis, who has been suffering from knee pain that has forced him to use a cane or wheelchair in recent outings.

The pope was in a wheelchair Sunday and used a lifting platform to board the plane in Rome, and was also in a wheelchair on the tarmac in Edmonton.

The papal visit, though highly anticipated, is also a source of controversy for some survivors and their families. Many expect Francis to make symbolic gestures, such as returning some of the Indigenous artifacts that have been held in the Vatican for decades.

'It means a lot to me' that he came, said Deborah Greyeyes, 71.

Greyeyes, an Edmonton resident, is a member of the Muskeg Lake Cree Nation, the largest Indigenous group in Canada.

'I think we have to forgive, too, at some point,' she told AFP. But 'a lot of stuff was taken away from us.'

After a mass before tens of thousands of faithful in Edmonton on Tuesday, Francis will head northwest to an important pilgrimage site, the Lac Sainte Anne.

Following 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 the largest Inuit population in Canada, where he will meet again with former residential school students, before returning to Italy.

Francis is the second pope to visit Canada, after John Paul II, who did so twice in the 1980s and again in 2002.

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