Pope Francis began a fraught visit to Canada on Sunday to apologise to Indigenous peoples for abuses by missionaries at residential schools, a key step in the Catholic Church’s efforts to reconcile with Native communities and help them heal from generations of trauma.
Francis kissed the hand of a residential school survivor as he was greeted at the Edmonton, Alberta, airport by Indigenous representatives, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Mary Simon, an Inuk who is Canada’s first Indigenous governor general.
Francis had no official events scheduled on Sunday, giving him time to rest before his meeting on Monday with survivors near the site of a former residential school in Maskwacis, where he is expected to deliver an apology.
Francis, in a wheelchair, exited the back of his plane with the help of an ambulift before being driven in a compact white Fiat to an airport hangar where he was greeted by Trudeau, Simon and other dignitaries.
Indigenous drums and chanting broke the silence as the welcome ceremony began. A succession of Indigenous leaders and elders greeted the pope and exchanged gifts.
Aboard the papal plane, Francis told reporters this was a “penitential voyage” and he urged prayers in particular for elderly people and grandparents.
Indigenous groups are seeking more than just words, though, as they press for access to church archives to learn the fate of children who never returned home from the residential schools.
They also want justice for the abusers, financial reparations and the return of Indigenous artefacts held by the Vatican Museums.
Grand Chief George Arcand Jr, of the Confederacy of Treaty Six, said: “This apology validates our experiences and creates an opportunity for the church to repair relationships with Indigenous peoples across the world.”
But he stressed: “It doesn’t end here – there is a lot to be done. It is a beginning.”
Francis’s weeklong trip – which will take him to Edmonton; Quebec City and finally Iqaluit, Nunavut, in the far north – follows meetings he held in the spring at the Vatican with delegations from the First Nations, Metis and Inuit.
Those meetings culminated with a historic apology for the “deplorable” abuses committed by some Catholic missionaries in residential schools.
The Canadian government has admitted physical and sexual abuse were rampant in the state-funded Christian schools that operated from the 19th century to the 1970s.
Some 150,000 Indigenous children were taken from their families and forced to attend in an effort to isolate them from the influence of their homes, Native languages and cultures and assimilate them into Canada’s Christian society.
Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2015 had called for a papal apology to be delivered on Canadian soil, but it was only after the 2021 discovery of the remains of around 200 children at the former Kamloops residential school in British Columbia that the Vatican mobilised to comply with the request.
Raymond Frogner, head archivist at the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation, which serves as an online resource for research into the residential schools, said: “I honestly believe that if it wasn’t for the discovery… and all the spotlight that was placed on the Oblates or the Catholic Church as well, I don’t think any of this would have happened.”
Mr Frogner has just returned from Rome, where he spent five days at the headquarters of the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, which operated 48 of the 139 Christian-run residential schools, the most of any Catholic order.
After the graves were discovered, the Oblates finally offered “complete transparency and accountability” and allowed him into its headquarters to research the names of alleged sex abusers from a single school in the western Canadian province of Saskatchewan, he said.
While there, he found 1,000 original black-and-white photos of schools and their students, with inscriptions on the back, that he said would be of immense value to survivors and their families hoping to find traces of their loved ones. He said the Oblates agreed on a joint project to digitise the photographs and make them available online.
The Inuit community, for its part, is seeking Vatican assistance to extradite a single Oblate priest, the Rev Joannes Rivoire, who ministered to Inuit communities until he left in the 1990s and returned to France. Canadian authorities issued an arrest warrant for him in 1998 on accusations of several counts of sexual abuse, but it has never been served.
Inuit leader Natan Obed personally asked Francis for the Vatican’s help in extraditing Rivoire, saying in March that it was one specific thing the Vatican could do to bring healing to his many victims.
“This is a part of the reconciliation journey that we are on together,” he said then.
The Rev Cristino Bouvette, national liturgical co-ordinator for the papal visit, who is partly of Indigenous heritage, said he hopes the visit is healing for those who “have borne a wound, a cross that they have suffered with, in some cases for generations”.