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Chief Wilton Littlechild, centre, with Chief Randy Ermineskin, left, and Chief Vernon Saddleback during a press conference in advance of Pope Francis’s visit to the community in Maskwacis, Alta. on June 27. Chief Littlechild is a survivor of that institution and has been instrumental in laying the groundwork for the papal visit.Amber Bracken/The Globe and Mail

Over 6½ years, listening to more than 7,000 testimonies from residential school survivors at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Chief Wilton Littlechild heard over and over the need for survivors to have a meaningful, personal apology from the Catholic Church for the abuse they suffered.

Next month, after years of effort by Mr. Littlechild and others, Pope Francis is expected to extend that apology in person on First Nations territory, when he visits a former residential school site in Maskwacis, south of Edmonton. It will be the Pope’s only visit to a former residential school site in Canada.

“It was with very mixed emotion that I personally received the news that His Holiness Pope Francis was coming to Maskwacis,” said Mr. Littlechild, an international chief and former member of Parliament from Maskwacis, who spent 14 years in residential school.

Pope Francis apologizes to Indigenous delegation for residential school abuse in Canada

He said he received the news of the Pope’s visit with joy and gratitude, “but also with a sense of great responsibility to the students, survivors who went ahead on their spirit journey” and are not alive to hear the apology.

Pope Francis hosted an Indigenous delegation in Rome this spring, and apologized then for the conduct of some members of the Catholic Church. But many had hoped for a broader apology for the myriad and systematic abuses perpetrated against Indigenous children, and the Pope is expected to speak again about that harm while in Canada.

Ed Upland works to make a medicine wheel garden at the Ermineskin Residential School memorial in Maskwacis. The garden will have quarters of red, green, yellow and white flowers with an orange perimeter.Amber Bracken/The Globe and Mail

At a press conference in Maskwacis on Monday, Mr. Littlechild said he learned only last week the community had been chosen to play host to Pope Francis. Maskwacis is made up of four Nations – Samson Cree Nation, Ermineskin Cree Nation, Montana First Nation and the Louis Bull Tribe – and was the site of the Ermineskin Indian Residential School, once one of the largest residential schools in the country.

The visit to Maskwacis is complex in every way, from the logistics of accommodating an unknown number of visitors – the current estimate is 15,000 or more – to making the most of the Pope’s very limited time there, and protecting the ailing 85-year-old’s health and safety. But the Maskwacis Cree Tribal Council chiefs say they are also preparing for – and dealing with – highly complex and conflicting feelings around the historic visit.

“When I listen to our survivors in our community right now they’re just deciding: ‘I don’t want to go, maybe I’ll go,’ ” Ermineskin First Nation Chief Randy Ermineskin said. “They’re undecided and it’s triggering a lot of things and feelings and emotions, and we need to support them.”

Louis Bull Tribe Chief Desmond Bull said he believes the Pope’s visit is important to all First Nations, Métis and Inuit people, and will offer closure to some. But he added there are those in his community who are “kind of on the fence.”

“And that’s understandable,” he said. “Because this is opening up old wounds.”

A photo of the Ermineskin Residential School is displayed behind Chief Ermineskin, left to right, Chief Littlechild and Chief Saddleback.Amber Bracken/The Globe and Mail

A black and white photograph of the Ermineskin residential school building was projected on a screen behind the chiefs as they spoke.

“For me, healing begins, reconciliation begins … when we start speaking truth,” said Samson Cree Nation Chief Vernon Saddleback, a former altar boy who attended residential school for four years. “And truth begins with an apology.”

Pope Francis is expected to arrive in Edmonton on July 24 and will travel to Maskwacis the next day for a visit slated to last less than an hour.

During the visit, he will meet with survivors and community members, visit the former residential school site, and pray alone inside Our Lady of Seven Sorrows Catholic Church.

Mr. Littlechild said an apology delivered in Maskwacis could be an important step in reconciliation, healing and justice, offering something he says has been missing for survivors so far: The chance to forgive.

“I know not everyone will agree with me, and I know not everyone agrees with His Holiness,” Mr. Littlechild said. “But at least for those that have a desire and want to forgive, they’ll be given that opportunity.”

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