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Pope Francis’ historic trip to the Indigenous People in Canada: What you need to know

Pope Francis is about to embark on what he has called “a penitential pilgrimage” to Canada. From July 24 to July 29, he will meet with Indigenous People there to apologize and ask forgiveness, on their land, for abuses perpetrated in largely Catholic Church-run residential schools at the hands of clerics and consecrated religious women and men.

Indigenous People inhabited present-day Canada thousands of years before Europeans, mainly from France and England, arrived in the 1500s. Now, Canada—among the most ethnically diverse and multicultural nations in the Western hemisphere, and the second largest country in the world by total area—will be the 56th country Pope Francis will visit since the start of his papacy.

Indigenous People account for approximately 1.7 million of Canada’s 38.8 million population, about 5 percent of the total population, according to Statistics Canada. They are the fastest growing segment of people living in Canada, more than quadrupling in number since 2006.

Pope Francis is visiting Canada to honor the explicit request made by a delegation of 32 First Nations to denounce the church’s shameful history in Canada’s residential schools.

Francis’ visit will be his first to Canadian soil as pope but not the first time any pope has visited the land and its Indigenous People. Pope John Paul II visited the North American nation—which is believed to be about 44 percent Catholic—three times. In 1984 and 1987 he visited the country and met with Indigenous People; and in 2002 he visited Toronto, where he celebrated his final World Youth Day as pope.

But unlike his Polish predecessor, Pope Francis is visiting Canada to honor the explicit request made by a delegation of 32 First Nations, Métis and Inuit People when they met with him at the Vatican from March 28 to April 1, 2022, to denounce the church’s shameful history in Canada’s residential schools over a 100-year period.

An entourage of 35 Vatican staffers will join the pope on his 37th visit to a foreign nation. Two Canadian cardinals, Marc Ouellet and Michael Czerny, S.J., will be onboard the ITA Airways plane that leaves Rome for Edmonton, Canada, on Sunday, July 24, along with three senior clerics from the Holy See’s Secretariat of State: Cardinal Pietro Parolin (secretary of state), Archbishop Edgar Peña Parra (chief of staff) and Archbishop Paul Gallagher (foreign minister). The pope’s doctor, a nurse, his security detail—composed of Swiss Guards and Vatican City police—journalists and other media personnel will fly with him.

Who are the “Indigenous People” the pope will visit and apologize to?

Indigenous People is a collective term used to refer to the original people who inhabited the land that is today Canada. It is used to refer principally to three segments of people: First Nations, Métis and Inuit.

The largest of these is the First Nations, now almost one million people, who predominate in the southern part of the country; and the Métis, some 600,000 descendants of the union of Indigenous and European settlers, who live mostly in the Anglophone west of the country. For this reason, the first two legs of Pope Francis’ pilgrimage will be to Edmonton and then to Quebec, the heart of French-speaking Canada, to meet with the large population of First Nations and Métis people who live in these parts.

The first two legs of Pope Francis’ pilgrimage will be to Edmonton and then to Quebec to meet with the large population of First Nations and Métis people.

The Inuit live across the northern parts of this vast land and make up a much smaller segment of the country’s Indigenous population, about 65,000 people. Nonetheless, Francis will travel to the city of Iqaluit, situated just south of the Arctic Circle, to meet with them as his final stop before returning to Rome.

The context for the pope’s visit

According to Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Canada had for many decades a network of 139 government-funded residential schools that focused on “civilization” and “assimilation,” and the Catholic Church managed more than half of them in partnership with the federal government. Others were similarly administered by the United, Anglican and Presbyterian churches. About 150,000 Indigenous children were removed from their families, required by federal mandate to attend these schools from the mid-1800s to the late 1990s. Once at the schools, children were forced to abandon their traditional languages, religion, dress and Indigenous ways of life.

Children were taken from their families and put in residential schools to learn “how to be a white person; which we cannot be,” Martha Greig, an Inuit representative, told reporters in Rome after meeting with the pope. “We are Inuit!”

Ms. Grieg and others shared their stories with Pope Francis in their historic meetings with him at the end of March. On April 1, Pope Francis, standing before Ms. Greig and an extended delegation of some 200 Indigenous People, bishops and Canadian faithful, denounced “the colonization that lacked respect for you, tore many of you from your vital milieu and tried to confirm you to another mentality.”

“Great harm was done to your identity and your culture,” the pope said.

“Great harm was done to your identity and your culture,” the pope said. “Many families were separated, and great numbers of children fell victim to these attempts to impose uniformity through ideological colonization, following programs devised in offices rather than [with] the desire to respect the lives of people.”

Francis went on in that same speech to speak of the “indignation,” “shame” and “sorrow” he felt for the harm perpetrated by Catholics through the residential school system.

“All these things are contrary to the Gospel of Jesus Christ,” he said. “For the deplorable conduct of these members of the Catholic Church, I ask God’s forgiveness, and I want to say to you with all my heart: I am very sorry. And I join my brothers, the Canadian bishops, in asking your pardon.” Then he promised them he would come to Canada to apologize and ask again for pardon for the church’s abuses on their own lands and to promote healing and reconciliation through concrete actions.

He is expected to do that in the coming days, but it remains to be seen what words and gestures he will use to show the church’s contrition. But his first stop offers a clear indication of the perspective he will privilege over his week-long stay.

The pope’s visit also responds to a demand made by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in its final report:

We call upon the Pope to issue an apology to Survivors, their families, and communities for the Roman Catholic Church’s role in the spiritual, cultural, emotional, physical, and sexual abuse of First Nations, Inuit, and Métis children in Catholic-run residential schools. We call for that apology to be similar to the 2010 apology issued to Irish victims of abuse and to occur within one year of the issuing of this Report and to be delivered by the Pope in Canada” (No. 58).

Francis could not make the visit “within one year” as requested for various reasons. Chief among these were his already full agenda, a lack of consensus within the Catholic bishops’ conference of Canada and the Covid-19 pandemic. Although individual Catholic bishops and religious orders in Canada had issued apologies for the church’s involvement in the residential schools’ system, it was not until Sept. 24, 2021, that the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops apologized as a national body for “the grave abuses” committed at schools run “by some members of our Catholic community.”

It was not until Sept. 24, 2021, that the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops apologized as a national body for “the grave abuses” committed at schools run “by some members of our Catholic community.”

There was some fear that the pope’s Canadian trip might not happen as planned. The 85-year-old pope has also been suffering from severe knee pain and has been undergoing intense therapy. This led him to postpone his visit to South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo weeks before his Canadian visit. But, even though he may need to move around in a wheelchair at times, his visit to Canada will go ahead.

Day 1: Arrival in Edmonton

Pope Francis is expected to arrive at Edmonton International Airport around 11:20 a.m. local time, after a 10-and-a-half hour, 5,238-mile flight. It is planned that he will be greeted on arrival by Governor General Mary Simon, the first Indigenous person to hold this office, and Justin Trudeau, Canada’s prime minister.

He will be greeted on arrival by Governor General Mary Simon, the first Indigenous person to hold this office, and Justin Trudeau.

After the official welcome, he will be driven to St. Joseph’s major seminary in Edmonton, where he will rest for the remainder of that first day, just as John Paul II rested when he arrived on Strawberry Island, in Ontario, on exactly the same day 20 years ago. The pope will reside at the seminary for the duration of his stay. It is also expected that the 85-year-old pope, who has problems with his right knee and has been undergoing intensive treatment in anticipation of his visit to Canada, will have to use a wheelchair on occasion.

Edmonton is home to the largest concentration of Indigenous People in the country—just over one million total inhabitants. This capital city of Alberta Province is also the place where the most residential schools were operated from. It is fitting, therefore, that the pope’s pilgrimage should begin in this fifth-largest city in Canada.

Day 2: Maskwacis—the penitential pilgrim’s first stop

The pope begins this “penitential pilgrimage” on July 25, driving 45 miles south of Edmonton to Maskwacis (the name means “Bear Hills” in Cree, a dialect of the Algonquian language). There, he will be received by elders of First Nations, Métis and Inuit People. Accompanied by the sound of drums, they will drive to a cemetery where he will pray in private.

Afterward, the pope will join chiefs of Indigenous People from all over the country at Bear Park Pow-Wow Grounds to deliver the first of his nine planned discourses: five talks and four homilies. The talks will be delivered in Spanish, the pope’s mother tongue, which would appear to make it easier for him to express himself on profoundly sensitive subjects. This first talk is likely to contain the apology and offer a preview of key elements he will expound upon over the week.

The pope begins this “penitential pilgrimage” on July 25, driving 45 miles south of Edmonton to Maskwacis. There, he will be received by elders of First Nations, Métis and Inuit People.

Toward the end of his first day, the pope will visit the century-old site of the Sacred Heart Church of the First Peoples, which was devastated by a fire in August 2020 and re-dedicated just a week before the pope’s visit. The spacious shell of the old French Gothic Revival church was largely preserved but the interior has been redecorated with elements and art that are representative of the Indigenous People who worship there, including an Indigenous teepee that now frames the altar.

Pope Francis will enter the church to the sound of drums and greet representatives of the Indigenous People and members of the parish community. There, he will pray with them and deliver his second talk. He will also bless a new statue of Kateri Tekakwitha, the first Indigenous saint of North America.

Day 3: Lac Ste. Anne—a sacred lake

On July 26, the feast of St. Anne, the grandmother of Jesus, the pope will drive only three miles from the seminary to celebrate Mass and give a homily in the “Commonwealth Stadium,” which was built in 1978 for the Commonwealth games and is the largest open-air stadium in Canada, with a capacity of 56,000 spectators.

Later that afternoon, he will drive 50 miles to the largest lake in the province of Alberta, long known as a place of healing that the Nakota Sioux originally called “the Lake of God” and the Cree People named “the Lake of the Spirit.” It was renamed Lac Ste. Anne in 1842 by the first missionary priest to establish a mission in Alberta.

When Francis met with the delegation of Indigenous People at the Vatican in March, he expressed his desire to be in Canada for the feast of St. Anne.

The founding of the Mission at Lac Ste. Anne was the beginning of the long relationship of Indigenous and Métis People with Catholicism in what is now called Treaty Six territory. The Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate have continued their mission here and since 1889 have welcomed pilgrims to the lake. Long known as a place of faith and healing, people came from near and far to wash in the waters of this lake, especially around the feast of St. Anne, who is also greatly venerated by Indigenous People.

When Francis met with the delegation of Indigenous People at the Vatican in March, he expressed his desire to be in Canada for the feast of St. Anne.

On Tuesday, he will be welcomed at the church run by the Oblates there. Again accompanied by the sound of drums, he will be driven to the lake. On arrival there, following an Indigenous tradition, he will make the sign of the cross in the four cardinal directions and then bless the waters of the lake and the people with water from the lake, before participating in a prayer service.

Pope Francis is expected to deliver a homily at the holy lake centered on the intergenerational experience and transfer of wisdom between grandparents and grandchildren. The grandmother is at the heart of Indigenous culture. Visiting Lac Ste. Anne on the day of the feast of Jesus’ grandmother is no small detail on the pope’s pilgrimage.

Returning from the lakeside, he will bless a statue of Our Lady, Untier of Knots.

Day 4: Meeting Authorities in Quebec

On July 27, Francis will take a four-hour flight to Quebec. Situated along the St. Lawrence River, this city with over 500,000 inhabitants is the heart of Francophone Canada and was once the country’s Catholic heartland. Even today, though some 70 percent of Quebecans are baptized in the Catholic Church, only around 2 percent attend Mass regularly.

Francis will stay at the residence of Cardinal Gerald Lacroix, who is the archbishop of Quebec and primate of Canada. The cardinal is also a close friend of Pope Francis. He speaks fluent Spanish and will be with the pope from the moment he steps onto Canadian soil.

Even today, though some 70 percent of Quebecans are baptized in the Catholic Church, only around 2 percent attend Mass regularly.

That afternoon, Mary Simon, the governor general, will welcome the pope with full state honors at the fortified Citadelle de Quebec, her official residence and an active military base which dates back to the mid-1800s. After a private conversation with her, and later with the prime minister, the pope is expected to deliver a keynote address to some 100 representatives, among them Indigenous People, Canadian civil authorities and members of the diplomatic corps.

Day 5: Shrine of Sainte-Anne-De-Beaupré and Notre Dame Cathedral

The National Shrine of Sainte-Anne-De-Beaupré, built in 1658, is the oldest Catholic pilgrimage site in North America. It is known as a place of healing because one of the shrine’s builders, who suffered from severe scoliosis, is said to have made a full recovery, without need of crutches to walk, once the building was completed. Down the centuries, many pilgrims claimed to have been miraculously healed here and left here. The original church was destroyed by fire in 1922 but was rebuilt.

The National Shrine of Sainte-Anne-De-Beaupré, built in 1658, is the oldest Catholic pilgrimage site in North America.

Francis will celebrate Mass in the morning, in French and Latin, with some prayers in English. Significantly, he will use the second Eucharistic Prayer for Reconciliation.

That afternoon, he will preside over vespers at Notre-Dame de Québec Basilica-Cathedral. This was the first parochial church to be established north of Mexico and was dedicated to Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception. It was recognized as a cathedral in 1674, when St. Francis de Laval became the first bishop of the newly erected diocese of Quebec City, and was established as a basilica 200 years later by Pope Pius IX.

The church of Notre-Dame de la Paix (Our Lady of Peace), as it was first established, was destroyed during the British siege of 1759 and rebuilt, only to be destroyed again by a fire in 1922 and rebuilt in record time, a year later. At the prayer, Francis is expected to give a homily to a congregation of mainly bishops, priests, deacons, consecrated persons, seminarians and pastoral workers.

He will then end the day with a prayer at the tomb of de Laval.

Day 6: Iqaluit

The pope’s final day in Canada will begin with a meeting with the Jesuits of Canada at the archbishop’s residence. He will then meet a delegation of Indigenous People living in Quebec, before boarding a three-hour flight to Iqaluit.

Pope Francis will have a private meeting with former students of the residential schools, pray with them and bless them.

Iqaluit, in the Inuktitut language, means “place of many fishes.” Located on Baffin Island, 186 miles south of the Arctic Circle, it is home to the largest Inuit community in Canada, about 4,000 people, and has about 8,000 total inhabitants. There in the city’s Nakasuk Elementary School, Pope Francis will have a private meeting with former students of the residential schools, pray with them and bless them.

The pope’s final act before heading back to Rome is expected to be a meeting with young and old in the school’s square. He is expected, as has come to be the norm, to hold a press conference with journalists aboard the plane during the return flight.

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