Skip to main content

Ed Upland, left, and Ashley Sparvier, right, work to make a medicine wheel garden at the Ermineskin Residential School memorial in Maskwacis, Alta., on June 27. The garden will have quarters of red, green, yellow and white flowers with an orange perimeter.Amber Bracken/for the Globe and Mail

With only 10 days to go until the first papal visit to Canada in 20 years, organizers of the papal visit are scrambling to prepare for his arrival as thousands of people expect to attend.

In Alberta – the first stop in the six-day tour beginning July 24 – organizers estimate up to 15,000 people will attend a public event at Maskwacis, home of four First Nations, located south of Edmonton. Another 25,000 are expected to participate at the pilgrimage at Lac Ste. Anne, said Shane Schreiber, assistant deputy minister for the government of Alberta, at an Edmonton press conference Thursday. A mass at Edmonton’s Commonwealth Stadium on July 26 has capacity for roughly 65,000 people.

Pope Francis’s visit, with the slogan “Walking Together,” will focus on healing and reconciliation with Indigenous people and the devastating legacy of the residential school system. The papal visit is also expected to draw thousands of practising Catholics from across the country. After arriving in Edmonton, the Pope will attend several events before travelling to Quebec City and ending his trip in Iqaluit.

Confirmation of the visit came six weeks after Pope Francis apologized at the Vatican on April 1 to almost 200 Indigenous delegates and survivors for abuses against children in the schools. Many survivors want to see the Pope issue a stronger apology when he is in Canada for the Catholic Church as a whole, rather than for the harms inflicted by individuals.

Ottawa commits more than $35-million for supports during Pope’s visit to Canada

The Catholic Church ran about 60 per cent of the government-run residential schools that operated for over a century and inflicted harms and abuse against Indigenous children. In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission called upon the Pope to apologize, in Canada, to survivors and their families for the abuses in the schools.

The Pope is expected to expand on his previous apology to residential school survivors at his first stop at the former Ermineskin Residential School in Maskwacis.

Anne Wildcat, the papal visit’s Maskwacis site co-ordinator, said organizers need to be mindful of emotions and trauma for survivors in their planning and logistics.

“This is really a solemn and emotional event, and so we’re trying to be very careful with our survivors, to ensure we have ample supports available at the event,” said Ms. Wildcat.

“We’re really hoping for the Holy Father’s visit is that it will be simple, meaningful and beautiful for those who will be able to view the events,” said Marion Haggarty-France, the papal visit’s Alberta sites co-ordinator, at the press conference.

Ms. Haggarty-France said they have had to plan the visit on a shorter than normal time frame. “Normally these events have years to plan for; we’ve had about four months,” Ms. Haggarty-France said.

The Alberta government is co-ordinating park and ride services for those who’ve registered for the events to help minimize traffic and is expecting temporary road closures and detours. Organizers are encouraging people to arrive early.

While organizers have assured several Indigenous communities that survivors will not be turned away from events, they said Thursday that capacity limits at each event will need to be taken into account. Prioritization will be given to survivors, particularly elders.

Ms. Wildcat said that Maskwacis is doing their best to manage expectations, capacity limits and safety, knowing a large number of people want to hear the apology in person. “We don’t want to turn anyone away, we don’t … specifically survivors, because this is for them and they’re our focus,” she said.

In Quebec City, organizers said last week that use of public transport is encouraged by anyone wishing to attend events there from July 27-29. Public viewing will be available on the Plains of Abraham, which has a capacity of 140,000 people. Indigenous survivors and their families will be given priority seating at all Quebec City events and the public viewing location.

The papal visit will cost Alberta between $10-million and $20-million, said Mr. Schreiber, amid infrastructure upgrades and road pavings.

The federal government said this week it will contribute more than $35-million during the visit to support survivors and Indigenous communities. This will include money for travel for survivors, community-led activities and translation of events in Indigenous languages.

Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.