Pope Francis visits site of former residential school in Alberta

·3 min read

MASKWACIS — Pope Francis held his face as he was brought in a wheelchair to a graveyard in Maskwacis, Alta., ahead of an expected apology for the Roman Catholic Church's role in residential schools.

Francis is to speak publicly for the first time during his Canadian visit in front of First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples in the community south of Edmonton.

On Monday, the Pope first visited the Ermineskin Cree Nation Cemetery for a moment of silence, prayer and reflection. Organizers say there are likely remains of residential school students among the graves.

The nearby Ermineskin Indian Residential School was one of the largest institutions in the country. There are five teepees set up at the location — four representing the nations of the land and the fifth as symbol of the entrance to the former school.

Francis then went to an area known as Bear Park, or Maskwa Park, which is often used for powwows. Thousands of survivors, elders and their family were there.

There is to be a traditional grand entry of chiefs before the Pope is welcomed by Chief Wilton Littlechild, who attended residential school for 14 years.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Gov. Gen. Mary Simon, as well as other political and Indigenous leaders, were scheduled to attend.

Francis is expected to speak in Spanish, his first language, which will be translated into English by a priest.

Organizers say that a sacred fire will be burning in communities throughout the country in solidarity.

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.

Francis is set to speak later Monday with Indigenous Peoples and parish members at the Church of Sacred Heart in Edmonton.

Later in the week, the Pope plans to host a large outdoor mass at the city's football stadium and take part in a pilgrimage in nearby Lac Ste. Anne, before travelling to Quebec City and Iqaluit.

Francis arrived Sunday for the six-day trip that is aimed at reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples.

A small crowd of dignitaries at the Edmonton airport included Trudeau, Simon and Indigenous leaders. The Pope made brief private remarks with organizers saying he has reserved public statements for Monday's events.

Treaty 6 Grand Chief George Arcand Jr. said many people in the Indigenous community are skeptical and hurt, but an apology could be the start of a new journey.

"Many people have always felt that an apology was nothing but hollow words. But when the Pope made an announcement to come to Alberta and talk to our people, people started feeling like there was a sense of hope," he said.

Arcand Jr. said an apology doesn't erase the past but sets the way for communities to rebuild and work with the church, if necessary.

Indigenous leaders have said they are concerned the visit will open old wounds. Arcand Jr. called for more mental health supports to be put in place.

"I hope that when we hear an apology, we have the tools and the support necessary to help put people back together again."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 25, 2022.

— With files from Kelly Geraldine Malone in Winnipeg

Brittany Hobson, The Canadian Press

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