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Pope Francis greets Alexander First Nation Elder Vicki Arcand, a residential school survivor, as George Arcand (left), Grand Chief of the Confederacy of Treaty Six First Nations, watches as Pope Francis arrives in Edmonton , Alberta, Canada, Sunday . The Canadian Press via AP

Pope Francis began a historic visit to Canada on Sunday to apologize to Indigenous peoples for abuses committed by missionaries in residential schools, a key step in the Catholic Church’s efforts to reconcile with and help Indigenous communities. to heal from generations of trauma.

Francis kissed the hand of a residential school survivor as he was greeted at the airport in Edmonton, Alberta by Indigenous representatives, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Mary Simon, an Inuk who is the first governor native general of Canada.

The gesture set the tone for what Francis said is a “penitential pilgrimage” to atone for the role of Catholic missionaries in the forced assimilation of generations of Indigenous children – a visit that has stirred mixed emotions across Canada as survivors and their families come to terms with the trauma of their losses and receive papal apologies long awaited.

Francis had no official events scheduled for Sunday, giving him time to rest before meeting survivors near the site of a former boarding school in Maskwacis on Monday, where he is expected to pray at a cemetery and apologize.

Francis got out of the back of his plane using a walking lift, as his strained knee ligaments required him to use a wheelchair. The simple welcoming ceremony took place in the airport hangar, where indigenous drums and songs broke the silence. As Trudeau and Simon sat next to Francis, a succession of Indigenous leaders and elders greeted the pope and exchanged gifts. At one point, Francis kissed the hand of residential school survivor, Frog Lake First Nations elder Alma Desjarlais as she was introduced to him.

“Right now a lot of our people are skeptical and they are hurt,” said Grand Chief George Arcand Jr. of the Confederacy of Treaty Six First Nations, who greeted the pope. Still, he expressed hope that with papal apologies, “We could begin our healing journey…and change the way things have been for our people for many, many years.”

However, Indigenous groups are looking for more than just words, as they demand access to church records to learn the fate of children who never returned from residential schools. They also want justice for the perpetrators, financial reparations and the return of indigenous artifacts held by the Vatican Museums.

Assembly of First Nations National Chief RoseAnne Archibald, one of the country’s most prominent Indigenous leaders, said several members of her family attended residential schools, including a sister who died at a residential school in Ontario. She described it as “an institution of assimilation and genocide.”

On his flight to Alberta, “I was so overwhelmed with emotion and there were various moments on the plane where I really had to stop myself from bursting into deep tears,” she says. “I realized I was a survivor of intergenerational trauma and there were so many people like me.”

Francis’ week-long trip follows meetings he held in the spring at the Vatican with First Nations, Métis and Inuit delegations. These meetings culminated in a historic apology on April 1 for the “deplorable” abuses committed by some Catholic missionaries in boarding schools.



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