Pope Francis will travel to Canada at the end of July, where he is expected to meet Indigenous survivors of abuse committed at church-run residential schools, the Vatican said Friday.
The 85-year-old, who will travel to the cities of Edmonton, Quebec and Iqaluit, apologised last month to Indigenous delegations who visited him at the Vatican over a scandal that has rocked the Catholic Church.
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Numerous investigations into the former residential schools are underway after the discovery of mass unmarked graves, with more than 4,000 children believed to be missing.
Further details on the July 24-30 visit will be published in the coming weeks, the Vatican said.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Friday that “a formal in-person apology” from the head of the Roman Catholic Church to survivors and their families would be an important step “to advance meaningful reconciliation for Indigenous Peoples in our country”.
Francis had earlier said he was keen to visit Canada, but the trip was far from certain due to a painful knee problem that has forced him to begin using a wheelchair.
A visit to Lebanon initially planned for June was postponed earlier this month over health concerns.
The Argentine pontiff confirmed Friday however that he would be travelling to South Sudan “in a few weeks’ time”, along with the Church of England’s most senior cleric, Archbishop Justin Welby.
– ‘Healing’ –
The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops said Friday that picking three communities to visit would limit travel for the ageing pope, while “still allowing for intimate and public encounters” with people from all regions of the country.
Edmonton is home to the second largest number of Indigenous Peoples living in urban Canadian centres, and some 25 residential schools were located in Alberta, the most of any province or territory in Canada, it said.
Quebec is home to Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupre, one of the oldest and most popular pilgrimage sites in North America.
Iqaluit, on vast Baffin Island, is the capital of the Nunavut territory, home to many native Inuit.
It is also an area in the country’s Arctic region where climate change — a priority for the pope — is taking effect three times faster than the global average.
Edmonton Archbishop Richard Smith, who is coordinating the papal visit on behalf of the Canadian bishops, said the pontiff will visit a former residential school site “and other locations of significance”.
The pope’s trip will also coincide with Canada’s St Anne’s Feast Day on July 26, dedicated to Jesus’ maternal grandmother.
Bishop Raymond Poisson said Canada’s bishops were “immensely grateful” the pope will visit to “continue the journey of healing and reconciliation”.
Francis is expected to repeat his apology to school abuse survivors and relatives of victims.
Smith commented that Francis understands Indigenous peoples’s deep connection to the land — culturally, spiritually and historically — and why it is so important to them for him “to deliver those words of apology here on their lands.”
Some 150,000 First Nations, Metis and Inuit children were enrolled from the late 1800s to the 1990s in 139 residential schools across Canada, as part of a government policy of forced assimilation.
They spent months or years isolated from their families, language and culture, and many were physically and sexually abused by headmasters and teachers.
In April, Francis slammed the “ideological colonisation” of which “so many children have been victims”.
“Your identity and culture have been wounded, many families have been separated,” he said.
Thousands are believed to have died of disease, malnutrition or neglect. More than 1,300 unmarked graves have been discovered since May 2021 at the schools.
A truth and reconciliation commission concluded in 2015 that the failed government policy amounted to “cultural genocide”.
Ella IDE with Michel COMTE in Ottawa