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Pope Francis is welcomed after arriving at Edmonton International Airport, near Edmonton, Alberta, Canada July 24, 2022. REUTERS/Guglielmo MangiapaneGUGLIELMO MANGIAPANE/Reuters

It was, by design, a quiet and understated beginning to a tour of penance and reconciliation generations in the making.

Pope Francis touched down in Alberta just after 11 a.m. on Sunday, after making the 10-hour flight from Rome to Edmonton for an historic Canadian visit. He was met by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Governor-General Mary Simon, Canada’s first Indigenous Governor-General, for a brief ceremony and greeting.

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Flanked by Mr. Trudeau and Ms. Simon, in a trio of chairs on a thin red carpet, Pope Francis shared private words with a procession of local and national political, Indigenous, and church leaders, including Grand Chief George Arcand Jr. of the Confederacy of Treaty Six First Nations, Assembly of First Nations Chief RoseAnne Archibald, Métis Nation of Alberta president Audrey Poitras and Natan Obed, president of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami.

Pope Francis kissed the hand of Elder Alma Desjarlais, a residential school survivor, and received a beaded medallion as a gift from Grand Chief Arcand. The Pope passed out gifts of coin medallions in small red boxes to those he met.

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He has described the trip as a “penitential pilgrimage,” intended to foster healing and reconciliation in the wake of a legacy of physical, sexual and emotional abuse suffered by Indigenous children at Catholic-run residential schools.

“It’s a long time coming for the people that suffered in the schools,” Ms. Desjarlais told media after her meeting with Pope Francis. “But I’m glad to live to the day that I’ve seen it, and meet the Pope.”

The Pope, who has recently cancelled trips to both Africa and Lebanon for health reasons, appeared energetic and in good spirits.

Dressed in his white papal cassock, and transported by wheelchair to a modest reception spot inside an airplane hangar at the Edmonton International Airport, the pontiff was greeted with both a military honour guard and a traditional Indigenous honour song, performed by the Logan Alexis Singers, from the Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation.

It is Pope Francis’s first visit to Canada, and only the fourth papal visit in Canadian history.

Pope Francis landed in Canada on Sunday to begin a tour focused on reconciliation with Indigenous people for the Catholic Church’s role in residential schools. The Pope met Indigenous representatives, including a residential school survivor, as well as Gov. Gen. Mary Simon and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau at a ceremony at Edmonton airport.

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Despite an extensive security detail and a significant papal entourage, which includes medical and security staff as well as the seguito – an inner circle from the Vatican that travels with the Pope – the arrival event was subdued and brief. The Pope then travelled by road to St. Joseph Seminary in Edmonton, where he will be staying during the Alberta portion of his visit.

The remainder of the day on Sunday was reserved for the 85-year-old pontiff to rest, and to prepare for what is anticipated to be a significant and emotional day on Monday.

Organizers involved with the papal visit said it was deliberate that Pope Francis was not making public comments or celebrating mass on Sunday, and instead reserving his first public words for his visit to Maskwacis on Monday, where he is expected to offer an apology for the church’s role in the systemic abuse of Indigenous children at residential schools.

Maskwacis, which is located south of Edmonton and made up of the Samson Cree Nation, Ermineskin Cree Nation, Montana First Nation and the Louis Bull Tribe, was once the site of the Ermineskin Indian Residential School, one of the largest in the country. It will be the Pope’s only visit to a former residential school location during his time in Canada.

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A message posted in English on the Pope’s Twitter account before his arrival addressed brothers and sisters of Canada, saying, “I come among you to meet the indigenous peoples. I hope, with God’s grace, that my penitential pilgrimage might contribute to the journey of reconciliation already undertaken.”

He asked people to join him with prayer.

Thousands of Indigenous people from around the country are expected to make the journey to see Pope Francis during his visit, travelling in organized buses or individually from communities to attend his stops in Alberta, Quebec and Iqaluit.

“This is a very important time in history,” said Mabel Brown, a 77-year-old residential school survivor, who says she travelled to Edmonton from Inuvik to hear the Pope apologize, and find forgiveness and healing with other survivors.

“Better things are yet to come,” she said.

The theme of the Pope’s visit is, “Walking toward forgiveness.”

The papal visit to Canada was announced in May, about six weeks after the pontiff met with a delegation of First Nations, Métis and Inuit people and residential school survivors in Rome, and received renewed invitations from them to make the trip.

During the April visit, Pope Francis said the stories of abuse of Indigenous children had filled him with shame, and he apologized to the delegation then for the role some Catholics had played in their suffering.

“For the deplorable conduct of those members of the Catholic Church, I ask for God’s forgiveness and I want to say to you with all my heart: I am very sorry,” he said then.

But for many, the April apology – which failed to address the systemic and institutional nature of the myriad abuses suffered by Indigenous children in residential schools – did not go far enough, and was not the same delivered from another country.

More than 150,000 First Nations, Inuit and Métis children were taken from their families and communities to attend federally funded and Catholic-run residential schools, where they were intentionally stripped of their language and culture, in what the Truth and Reconciliation Commission has called a campaign of cultural genocide.

In its 2015 report, the commission called on the Pope to apologize in Canada for the “spiritual, cultural, emotional, physical and sexual abuse” suffered by Indigenous children in residential schools.

The May announcement of the papal visit presented a tight timeline for arranging an event of this magnitude, and has involved intensive planning and logistical considerations, including choosing where Pope Francis would go, who he would meet with, and making significant security and safety arrangements for the pontiff. Owing to his health, organizers have said he would be using a wheelchair throughout the visit, and would be limiting appearances to between 60 and 90 minutes in length.

The visit has also required intensive planning within Indigenous communities, where it has been met with conflicting and complicated reactions, and is expected to bring up a lot of emotion for survivors and their families in the days and weeks to come.

About 300 cultural support workers will be in Alberta to help residential school survivors during and after this week’s visit.

After his time in Maskwacis on Monday, Pope Francis will continue on to Sacred Heart Church, an Indigenous church in downtown Edmonton. On Tuesday, he will be hosting a mass at Commonwealth Stadium and visiting Lac Ste. Anne, an historic pilgrimage site for Métis and First Nations people.

He will leave Alberta for Quebec on Wednesday, where he will visit the Plains of Abraham and participate in Holy Mass at the National Shrine of Ste. Anne de Beaupré, outside Quebec City. On Friday, Pope Francis will travel to Iqaluit to meet with former residential school students before returning to Rome.

The last papal visit took place exactly 20 years ago, in July, 2002, when Pope John Paul II attended World Youth Day.

Assistance is available to help residential school survivors and their relatives through the National Indian Residential School Crisis Line, 1-866-925-4419.

With a report from The Canadian Press

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