Pope Francis’ first public ceremony in Canada brought him to Maskwacis Park (“Bear hills” in the Cree language) on Monday, where he addressed some 2,000 residential school survivors, Chiefs, leaders, elders, knowledge keepers and youth from First Nations, Métis, and Inuit communities.
The place is deeply symbolic for the Indigenous peoples, and the pope made several stops, including at a cemetery that likely contains the remains of Indigenous children, and the memorial site of one of the largest residential schools in the country — Ermineskin — in the presence of leaders of nations from all provinces of Canada.
The day after his arrival in Canada, the pontiff traveled to the green countryside of Alberta, about 60 miles (100 kilometers) from Edmonton, where some 2,000 residential school survivors, including many elders and knowledge keepers, converged to meet him.
The pope first visited the local Catholic community church, Our Lady of Seven Sorrows, served by an Indigenous priest, Father Gary Laboucane.
Accompanied by a traditional hand drummer, the pontiff then went — in a wheelchair — to the large Ermineskin cemetery, where he prayed in silence for a few minutes. In this cemetery, which houses marked and anonymous graves, most likely lie the remains of former students of residential schools, the organizers of the event noted.
The third stop at the site was the first building of the large residential school established on these lands. Now gone, the building is commemorated by five teepees, four for the nations present at Maskwacis (Louis Bull, Montana, Samson and Ermineskin) and the fifth symbolizing the entrance to the school.
Still in a wheelchair, the 85-year-old pope continued on to a circle arbor, a traditional native pow wow area, where his guests were waiting. As the head of the Catholic Church looked on from a podium, Indigenous leaders marched in traditional garb, wearing feathered headdresses, entering through the east gate and symbolically moving with the sun. Behind them, dozens of people carried a huge red banner with the names of 4,120 children who died in residential schools.
After words of welcome from Cree Chief Wilton Littlechild, a residential school survivor and figure in Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation process, Pope Francis gave his first speech of the trip, during which he asked for forgiveness “with shame and unambiguously” for “the evil committed by so many Christians against the Indigenous peoples.”
His words, translated into English by an interpreter, were greeted by several rounds of applause from the crowd.
In response to his speech, a traditional Indigenous song was sung, presented by the organizers as “a gesture of openness and, for some, of acceptance of the Holy Father’s apology.” The participants also prayed the Our Father in Cree.
And, in a symbolic gesture that drew much applause, the pope presented children’s moccasins to Marie-Anne Walker-Pelletier, former chief of the Okanese First Nation in Saskatchewan.
The Bishop of Rome had received the moccasins from delegations that came to see him at the Vatican last March, asking him to bring them back in person from across the Atlantic.
The meeting concluded with a “healing dance,” and one of the Chiefs placed a traditional headdress on the Holy Father, to much applause.
The end of the morning was also marked by the heart-rending song of a woman, in tears, who wanted to express to the pope the suffering of her people.