Pope Francis on Sunday began a tense visit to Canada to apologize to indigenous people for the wrongs committed by missionaries at boarding schools.
This is a key step in the Catholic Church’s efforts to reconcile with indigenous communities and help them heal from generational trauma.
The head of the world’s 1.3 billion Catholics was greeted at Edmonton International Airport by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Francis described his visit as a “penitent pilgrimage” to ask for forgiveness on Canadian soil for the “evil” done to indigenous peoples by Catholic missionaries.
This follows his April 1 apology at the Vatican for the trauma inflicted on generations of indigenous peoples as a result of the Church’s policy of destroying their culture and assimilating them into Canadian Christian society.
Francis’ tone of personal remorse signaled a marked change in the papacy, which had long acknowledged abuses at boarding schools and strongly championed the rights and dignity of indigenous peoples.
But past popes have also hailed the dedication and holiness of the European Catholic missionaries who brought Christianity to the Americas – something similar did Francis but is not expected to emphasize on this trip.
The 10-hour flight was the longest for the 85-year-old aircraft since 2019.
He suffered from knee pain that required him to use a cane or a wheelchair on recent walks, but he says he was determined to make the journey for reconciliation and healing.
He will also visit Quebec and Iqaluit, the capital of the Territory of Nunavut.
“So it’s primarily a pilgrimage,” says Richard Smith, Archbishop of Edmonton.
“But he clarified it further and called it a penitential pilgrimage.
“He is deeply shocked by the fact that terrible things have happened in the past, in many cases committed by people who were representatives of the church,” he adds.
While His Holiness hopes to unite the faithful at an open-air mass at Commonwealth Stadium on Tuesday, for some Canadians the Catholic Church’s involvement in the scandal is the final punishment.
Since last year, archaeologists have discovered about 1,300 unmarked graves at several boarding schools across the country.
“I am working with Indigenous peoples to study the areas around boarding schools,” said Kisha Supernant, director of the Institute of Prairie and Indigenous Archeology at the University of Alberta.
“We are using technologies such as ground penetrating radar to try to find the possible location of the unmarked graves of children who died at school or did not return home and fell out of the records.
“The thought of these children dying far from home, often ill, perhaps they were buried in a grave with a wooden cross, but sometimes their parents did not even know that they had died.
“They only found out about it when their child didn’t come home in the summer or didn’t come home years later.
“They had no idea where their resting place was or what had happened to them.
“As for me, I think a lot about the people who also had to go through this.
“So there was a child who died, but then a family that never had that sense of completion, that never had the answers they deserved.
“They didn’t even know where their child was buried,” she concludes.
About 150,000 indigenous children were forced to attend these institutions from the 1800s until the end of the 20th century.
The last of Canada’s 139 boarding schools for Indigenous children closed in 1998.
According to the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission, more than 70% of students have experienced physical and sexual abuse in some schools.