Pope Francis has landed in Canada. Here’s how Day 1 went and what he’s doing next
EDMONTON—It was a solemn start to Pope Francis’s highly anticipated Canadian tour as he was pushed in his wheelchair, out of the midday sun and into the shade of an airplane hangar in Edmonton, flanked by Gov. Gen. Mary Simon and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, to meet the waiting crowd on Sunday.
But once he’d settled into a chair to greet a small crowd of politicians and Indigenous leaders, the personal warmth for which he’s known began to shine through.
He appeared to speak animatedly with Treaty 6 Grand Chief George Arcand Jr., the first to greet him, firmly clasped the hand of Natan Obed, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, and kissed the hand of residential school survivor Alma Desjarlais of the Frog Lake First Nation.
Arcand Jr. called it a humbling experience to welcome the Pope, adding he’d asked him to join a path of healing by speaking with survivors of residential schools.
“I asked the Pope to walk with us in this new journey,” Arcand Jr. said.
Vicki Arcand, a survivor, called meeting Francis a “lifetime experience,” but said she has mixed emotions.
“I think this visit is kind of long overdue,” she said. “Maybe it’s something that should have happened many, many years ago. Maybe the start of reconciliation would have started then.”
What is sure to be an emotional six-day papal visit is officially underway, with Francis expected to further apologize for the Catholic Church’s role in the residential school system where thousands of First Nations, Métis and Inuit children were neglected and abused.
Francis arrived in Edmonton, his first stop, Sunday morning aboard a royal blue plane, supplied by the Italian national airline and flying the Vatican and Canadian flags. While in the air, he told reporters this was a “penitential voyage” and he urged prayers in particular for elderly people and grandparents, according to The Associated Press.
The 85-year-old Pope, who has been dealing with mobility issues significant enough to cancel a recently planned trip to Africa, was visibly frail. Notably, he didn’t speak publicly — or conduct mass, despite arriving on a Sunday — as spokespersons said his first words spoken in Canada will be at his visit to a former residential school on Monday in Maskwacis, just south of Edmonton.
It’s a visit expressly meant to engage Indigenous peoples across the country, to address the Catholic Church’s role in the residential school system, and to take steps toward reconciliation.
“Dear brothers and sisters of #Canada, I come among you to meet the Indigenous peoples. I hope, with God’s grace, that my penitential pilgrimage might contribute to the journey of reconciliation already undertaken. Please accompany me with #prayer,” reads a post on the Pope’s Twitter account.
The trip was put together in a relatively rushed four months, after Francis spoke out about residential schools in Rome this spring, and then announced his intention to expand on his words in Canada. There is an awareness, observers say, of the Pope’s advancing age and the need to act with urgency.
He used a special mechanized lift to get off the plane, and is expected to use a wheelchair for much of the trip. His public appearances are relatively limited and planned to last no more than 60 to 90 minutes.
Shortly after departing from Rome, the Pope used a cane to help him move around the airplane as he greeted individual reporters. “I believe I can make it,” he joked.
The trip has raised complicated feelings for many survivors and their families. For those who associate the church with the abuse inflicted by the priests who ran residential schools, the visit has reopened old wounds. Mental health support has been made available to survivors at each event, many of whom have travelled across the country.
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For many Indigenous Catholics, the visit is an opportunity to heal. “I feel a lot of emotion because I never, ever thought Pope Francis would come here,” Mary Kootenayoo, of the Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation, said last week.
Kootenayoo, now a grandmother herself, was raised in the Catholic faith by her mother, a residential school survivor, who died last summer.
“I can tell you right now, my mom probably is smiling from heaven,” she said.
Speaking prior to the Pope’s arrival, Arcand Jr. stressed the importance of making sure survivors had the opportunity to attend the public events and see the Pope, should they so wish.
“I think in order for us to move in another direction, and in the right direction, people need to be able to somewhat forgive and move on to dealing with the future,” he said. “I think this apology gives us an opportunity to do that.”
For more than a century, until the 1990s, about 150,000 children are known to have been put through the residential school system, which ripped Indigenous children from their families and placed them in institutions meant to destroy their culture and traditions. Many suffered emotional, physical and sexual abuse.
The schools were funded by the government and largely operated by religious organizations, with about 60 per cent run by the Catholic Church.
In April, the Pope apologized from the Vatican for the church’s role in the system, but an apology in Canada is seen as more meaningful and is expected to be made during the visit.
Pope Francis will meet with a number of Indigenous groups during his trip, including survivors of the residential school system.
After Edmonton, he will head to Quebec City and then to Iqaluit.
During the visit, Pope Francis will also lead mass at both Edmonton’s Commonwealth Stadium and at the National Shrine of Ste-Anne-de-Beaupré in Quebec City.
He will also visit Lac Ste. Anne, northwest of Edmonton, to attend what is regarded as the largest pilgrimage for Catholics in Western Canada.
This is the first visit by a pope to Canada since 2002, and Francis is only the second pontiff to visit the country. All three previous visits were made by Pope John Paul II.
The Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line is available 24 hours a day for anyone experiencing pain or distress as a result of a residential school experience. Support is available at 1-866-925-4419.
July 24, 2022 — Correction: This story has been updated from a previously published version to correct that Chief RoseAnne Archibald of the Assembly of First Nations was at the airport to greet Pope Francis.
With files from The Canadian Press
Alex Boyd is a Calgary-based reporter for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @alex_n_boyd
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