Pope Francis heads to Canada to make amends for Indigenous school scandal

Pope Francis left Rome on Sunday for Canada for an opportunity to apologize in person to Indigenous survivors of abuse committed over decades in residential schools run by the Catholic Church.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will meet the leader of the world’s 1.3 billion Catholics at Edmonton international airport.

The Pope’s plane took off from Rome shortly after 9:00 local time (0700 GMT).

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The 10-hour flight is the longest since 2019 for the 85-year-old Pope, who has been suffering from knee pain that has forced him to use a cane or wheelchair during recent trips.

The Pope was in a wheelchair on Sunday and used a raised platform to board the plane, said an AFP correspondent who was with him.

Francis’ visit to Canada is primarily to apologize to survivors of the Church’s role in the scandal that called a national truth and reconciliation commission “cultural genocide”.

Before leaving, the Pope said on Twitter that he was making a “pilgrimage of repentance” that could “contribute to the journey of reconciliation already made”.

His diplomatic chief, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the second most senior official in the Vatican, will accompany him on the visit.

From the late 1800s to the 1990s, the Canadian government sent approximately 150,000 First Nations, Metis and Inuit children into 139 Church-run boarding schools, where they were cut off from their families, language and culture.

Many were physically and sexually abused by masters and teachers.

Thousands of children are believed to have died from disease, malnutrition or neglect.

As of May 2021, more than 1,300 unmarked graves have been discovered on former school sites.

A delegation of Indigenous Peoples traveled to the Vatican in April and met the Pope – a precursor to Francis’ six-day visit – after which he formally apologized.

– ‘Too late’ –

In the community of Maskwacis, about 100 kilometers (62 miles) south of Edmonton, the Pope will address an estimated crowd of 15,000 expected to include former students from across the country.

“I want a lot of people to come,” Charlotte Roan, 44, told AFP in an interview in June. The member of the Ermineskin Cree Nation said she wanted people to “come to hear it wasn’t made up”.

Others see the Pope’s visit as too late, including Linda McGilvery of the Saddle Lake Cree Nation near St. Paul, about 200 kilometers east of Edmonton.

“I wouldn’t go out of my way to see him,” said the 68-year-old.

“For me it is too late, because many of the people have suffered, and the priests and nuns have now moved on.”

McGilvery spent eight years of her childhood in one of the schools, from the age of six to 13.

“When I was in boarding school I lost a lot of my culture, my ancestry. That’s a lot of lost years,” she told AFP.

After mass before thousands of faithful in Edmonton on Tuesday, Francis will head northwest to an important pilgrimage site, Lac Sainte Anne.

After visiting Quebec City from July 27-29, he will end his trip in Iqaluit, home to Canada’s largest Inuit population, where he will meet former residential school students, before returning to Italy.

Francis is the second Pope to visit Canada, after John Paul II, who visited three times (1984, 1987 and 2002).

About 44 percent of the Canadian population are Catholics.

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