By Chadd Cawson Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Pope Francis will be in Canada starting next week and will make stops in and around Edmonton, Quebec City, and Iqaluit. The 85-year-old Pope, who suffers knee pain and sciatica, will be starting off his visit meeting with residential school survivors at the Ermineskin Indian Residential School in Alberta. He will then attend an Indigenous church in Edmonton, which has the second-largest number of Indigenous peoples in an urban area in Canada. Indigenous leaders across the nation hope these visits will include a stronger apology and further action from the Catholic Church to address the harmful legacy of residential schools.
“The Pope’s visit will provide an opportunity for him to express to Indigenous peoples his heartfelt condolences and to address the impact of residential schools here in Canada,” said Archbishop Richard Smith of Edmonton, who is the general co-ordinator of the trip at a press conference last month.
This will be the first time in two decades a pope has visited Canada, with the last being in July 2002, when Pope John Paul II came to the Toronto area for World Youth Day. Due to the Pope’s limited mobility, the choice was made to have minimal stops on his tour, which is dubbed Walking Together. There is much disappointment from First Nations leaders in B.C. that the province is not on the itinerary, since the first unmarked graves were announced in Kamloops, B.C., and sparked calls for action. It’s not just B.C. that feels left out. Leaders have also urged the pope to visit Muscowequan Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan, where unmarked graves were also uncovered last year, with Saskatchewan being the province with one of the highest numbers of such schools in Canada.
“It’s disappointing to say the least,” said Terry Teegee, regional chief of the British Columbia Assembly of First Nations in a recent news release. “There should have been more involvement with our First Nations leadership and speaking to survivors and actually visiting a residential school site.”
The Pope’s visit to Canada was confirmed six weeks after Pope Francis made the public apology to almost 200 Indigenous delegates at the Vatican in April. Indigenous people waited decades for the apology. “For the deplorable conduct of those members of the Catholic Church, I ask for God’s forgiveness, and I want to say to you with all my heart: I am very sorry,” Pope Francis said in his apology.
Residential schools were designed to strip Indigenous people of their identity, culture, and language. More than 150,000 Inuit, Métis and First Nations children were removed from their homes to attend residential schools. The former residential schools are still being searched for more unmarked graves. The first phase of scanning has started at the Alberni Indian Residential School site in Port Alberni. According to the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, current numbers show that more than 4,100 children died and/or were abused, neglected, and suffered from disease and malnourishment during times at residential schools.
“If the Pope had time and the ability to travel to any of the unmarked graves that have been discovered … that would be important because those places are extremely powerful, and moving to visit,” said Métis National Council president Cassidy Caron in a new release last month.
Seven years ago, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission called upon the Pope to apologize to survivors and their families in Canada, for the abuses Indigenous children faced and survivors still carry today from their time in government-funded residential schools under the hands of the Catholic Church. The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishop (CCCB) said they are very grateful Pope Francis will be in Canada to continue healing and reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples. While there are mixed feelings across the country that no formal consultations were made with national Indigenous organizations about locations the Pope will visit, those who will see his presence are pleased. The Pope was invited to Iqaluit by Inuit representatives. Iqaluit has the highest population of Inuit people in Canada. He also received an invitation to Quebec City, which is home to one of the oldest and largest pilgrimage sites in North America.
“We are pleased to be able to welcome him in Iqaluit in July for a visit centred on truth, justice, healing, reconciliation and hope,” said Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, an organization that represents 65,000 Inuit in Canada, in an e-mailed statement last month.