Pope Francis leaves on Sunday for a visit to Canada, where he is expected to renew his plea for forgiveness for the church’s role in the tragedy of indigenous schools.
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The pope’s plane left Rome shortly after 9 a.m. (0700 GMT). The 85-year-old Argentine pontiff, who is in a wheelchair and suffers from pain in his right knee, had to use a lifting platform to board, an AFP journalist on board said.
With a flight time of over ten hours, this is the longest journey since 2019.
Notably, François was accompanied by his diplomatic chief, Cardinal Pietro Parolin.
Before his departure, the Pope sent a message on Twitter to his “beloved brothers and sisters of Canada.”
“I have come among you to meet the tribal people. With God’s grace, I hope that my penitential journey will contribute to the path of reconciliation already undertaken. Come with me in prayer,” he wrote.
The visit will be primarily dedicated to Aboriginal people, who make up 5% of Canada’s population and whose ancestral aboriginal people identify with three groups: Indians or First Nations, Métis and Inuit.
Between the end of the 19th century and the 1990s, about 150,000 Aboriginal children were forcibly enrolled in more than 130 boarding schools.
They were cut off from their families, their language and their culture and were often victims of violence.
Up to 6,000 children died there. A “cultural genocide” in a country where more than 1,300 anonymous graves were discovered in 2021 has created an intergenerational shock wave, according to a national commission of inquiry.
The visit is causing great anticipation among indigenous people, who hope the pope will renew the historic pardon given at the Vatican in April.
Argentine Jesuits may also make symbolic gestures, for example by bringing back indigenous artefacts that have been kept in the Vatican for decades.
“This historic journey is an important part of the journey of healing” but “much more remains to be done,” George Arcand Jr., Grand Chief of the Confederation of Treaty 6 First Nations, said Thursday at a news conference in Edmonton.
“Next week’s events could open wounds for survivors,” warned Irwin Bull, chief of the Lewis Bull Cree tribe.
After a day of rest on Sunday, François is due to meet with members of the indigenous population for the first time on Monday morning, where up to 15,000 people are expected in Maskwazi, about a hundred kilometers south of Edmonton.
Alberta was the province with the largest number of residential schools.
“I want a lot of people to come to hear that it’s not found,” said AFP Charlotte Rohn, 44, sitting on a bench in Maskwacis.
Others view the phenomenon as bitter. “For me, it’s too late because so many people are affected,” laments Linda McGilvary, 68, near Saint-Paul (200 km east of Edmonton), who spent eight years of her childhood in boarding school.
“I lost my culture, my ancestry, it’s a loss of many years,” laments the woman from the Cree Nation of Saddle Lake, who “wouldn’t take a detour” to see the pope.
On Monday afternoon, the spiritual leader of 1.3 billion Catholics is scheduled to deliver a second address at Edmonton’s Church of the Sacred Heart of First Pope. On Tuesday, he is due to celebrate mass at the Edmonton grounds before traveling to Lac Sainte-Anne, the site of an important annual pilgrimage.
He then planned to reach Quebec from July 27 to 29, then stop at Iqaluit (Nunavut), a city in the Canadian far north in the Arctic Archipelago.
In the stopping cities, several roads will be closed for the visits of the Sovereign Pontiff, some of them in his Popemobile. In total, Francis is scheduled to deliver four speeches and four sermons, all in Spanish.
Francis is the second Pope to visit Canada after John Paul visited three times in 1984, 1987 and 2002. In this country, where 44% are Catholics, the Church is facing a crisis with a serious decline. Practice in recent years.
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