Pope Francis arrived Sunday in Canada, where he is expected to personally apologize to Indigenous survivors of abuse committed over a span of decades at residential schools run by the Catholic Church.
The head of the world’s 1.3 billion Catholics landed at Edmonton’s international airport shortly after 11 am (1700 GMT).
He was welcomed by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Mary Simon, the country’s first Indigenous governor general, as well as Indigenous leaders in an airport ceremony that began with drums and chanting.
Afterwards Francis received welcome gifts from Indigenous leaders, shaking or kissing their hands and making conversation with each before the short ceremony ended.
During the 10-hour flight from Rome Francis told journalists travelling with him that “we must be aware that this is a penitential journey.”
The 85-year-old pontiff’s Canada visit is primarily to apologize to survivors for the Church’s role in the scandal that a national truth and reconciliation commission has called “cultural genocide”.
From the late 1800s to the 1990s, Canada’s government sent about 150,000 First Nations, Metis and Inuit 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.
Thousands of children are believed to have died of disease, malnutrition or neglect.
Since May 2021, more than 1,300 unmarked graves have been discovered at the sites of the former schools.
A delegation of Indigenous peoples travelled to the Vatican in April and met the pope — a precursor to Francis’ six-day trip — after which he formally apologized.
But doing so again on Canadian soil will be of huge significance for survivors and their families, for whom the land of their ancestors is of particular importance.
The flight constituted the longest since 2019 for the pope, 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, an AFP correspondent accompanying him said.
After resting Sunday, the pope will travel Monday to the community of Maskwacis, some 100 kilometres (62 miles) south of Edmonton, and address an estimated crowd of 15,000 expected to include former students from across the country.
“I would like a lot of people to come,” said Charlotte Roan, 44, interviewed by AFP in June. The member of the Ermineskin Cree Nation said she wanted people to come “to hear that it wasn’t made up”.
Others see the pope’s visit as too little too late, including Linda McGilvery with the Saddle Lake Cree Nation near Saint Paul, about 200 kilometres east of Edmonton.
“I wouldn’t go out of my way to see him,” said the 68-year-old.
“For me it’s kind of too late, because a lot of the people suffered, and the priests and the nuns have now passed on.”
McGilvery spent eight years of her childhood in one of the schools, from age six to 13.
“Being in the residential school I lost a lot of my culture, my ancestry. That’s many years of loss,” she told AFP.
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.
There he will meet with former residential school students, before returning to Italy.
In total, Francis is expected to deliver four speeches and four homilies, all in Spanish.
Francis is the second pope to visit Canada, after John Paul II, who visited three times (1984, 1987 and 2002).