Pope Francis arrived in Canada on Sunday to begin a week-long journey that will center on his apologies on behalf of the Roman Catholic Church for the abuse suffered by indigenous children in mostly church-run residential schools.
“This is a trip of penance. Let’s say that is its spirit,” the pope told reporters after his flight took off from Rome.
The Pope landed in Edmonton, Alberta’s western province, where he will tour a former residential school and meet with indigenous peoples on Monday. He is also in Quebec City and Iqaluit, the capital of the Nunavut territory. He’ll go on Friday.
More than 150,000 indigenous children were taken from their families and sent to residential schools between 1881 and 1996. Many children were fed, beaten, and sexually assaulted in a system described as “cultural genocide.” by Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
The Canadian and Vatican flags flew outside the cockpit windows as the papal jet taxied. The pope boarded a white Fiat 500X, which dropped him off at the hangar after he disembarked using a lift. He then rode in a wheelchair.
The first person to receive Pope Francis was Governor General Mary Simon, who represents Canada’s head of state, Queen Elizabeth. Justin Trudeau, the Prime Minister of Canada, followed.
The pope stood between the two Canadian officials for a brief performance of four drummers and native song before greeting and exchanging gifts with many indigenous chiefs, several of whom wore ornate headdresses.
“I asked today the pope to walk with us,” Grand Chief George Arcand of the Confederacy of Treaty Six First Nations told the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. “It was a very humbling experience to talk to your holiness.”
RoseAnne Archibald, national chief for the Assembly of First Nations, who also received the pope, attacked the trip’s “unilateral” organizing and the church’s “archaic” nature, which has no women in senior positions.
“We don’t feel that it has been about survivors” she told reporters at the airport. “It has been more about the church promoting the church’s idea, fundraising for the church.”
After the brief ceremony, the pope departed in a wheelchair to chat privately with Trudeau and other officials before proceeding to St. Joseph Seminary, where he is scheduled to relax until Monday’s celebrations.
Because of a knee issue that has recently compelled him to use a wheelchair and a cane, the 85-year-old Pope canceled a trip to the Democratic Republic of the Congo and South Sudan in early July.
Earlier aboard the papal plane, the pope expressed a desire to visit Ukraine in order to help stop the five-month-old conflict that he has consistently condemned.
When asked about a possible future trip to Ukraine, Pope Francis stated, “I have a great desire to go to Kyiv,”
Earlier this month, the pontiff told Reuters in an exclusive interview that he intended to visit Moscow and Kyiv soon after his trip to Canada.
While Canadian politicians have been aware of a significant number of children dying at residential schools since 1907, the issue was brought to light last year with the discovery of suspected unmarked graves at or near former residential school sites.
In response to the criticism generated by such revelations, the pope apologized for the Catholic church’s role in schools earlier this year during a visit to the Vatican by indigenous representatives.
He is currently planning to apologize on Canadian soil. Survivors and indigenous leaders, though, have told Reuters that they want more.
Many have called for financial restitution, the return of indigenous artifacts, the publication of school records, support for extraditing an accused abuser, and the repeal of a papal bull, or edict, from the 15th century that justified colonial displacement of indigenous people.