Papal Visit To Canada 2022

Pope Francis’s visit to Canada is the first step on the long road needed for truth and reconciliation.

This was the apology offered by the Pope, which drew mixed reactions from residential school survivors, politicians and Indigenous leaders this past summer in the first papal tour of Canada since Pope John Paul II visited the country in 2002. The visit was billed as an apology and reconciliation tour for the Catholic Church’s role over many decades in the Canadian Indian residential school system, which just ended in 1996.

The visit was announced in May after Pope Francis had met with a delegation of Canadian Indigenous leaders and residential school survivors at the Vatican six weeks earlier. During that meeting, he apologized for the conduct of church members involved in the Canadian residential school system and the horrors of the unmarked children’s graves since discovered, and received invitations by members of the delegation to make an apology on Canadian soil. Despite his age, health and mobility issues, the pontiff agreed to make a five-day tour of Canada from July 24 to July 29, with stops in Alberta, Quebec and the territory of Nunavut.

Not seen through the filter of national or international media coverage, the papal visit was an entirely different experience on the ground and up close to His Holiness, according to Sharan Kaur, a logistics expert and political strategist brought in just weeks earlier, part of an enormous team tasked with pulling off the tour.

“Everyone I talked to was very respectful,” says Kaur, in a recent interview with City Life. “But a lot of the Elders and survivors brought their grandchildren as it is a part of their trauma, and it was sad to hear their stories, as it’s not talked about often. You can see the pain in their eyes, but a lot of them still turned to their faith in showing up, and it was very emotional to see.”

The day after the official welcome in Edmonton by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Governor General Mary Simon, the Pope made his way south to the community of Maskwacis to deliver his apology. A ceremony was then held near a former residential school where Francis apologized to residential school survivors. One of the highlights of the visit occurred when Chief Warren Littlechild presented Pope Francis with a traditional Indigenous headdress. Littlechild is a residential school survivor and former member of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada.

In his remarks at Maskwacis, the Pope acknowledged the “devastating” policy of residential schools and asked for forgiveness “for the evil committed by so many Christians” against Indigenous peoples. He also said an apology was only the first step, and that a serious investigation should be conducted into what happened in the past.

“I am here because the first step of my penitential pilgrimage among you is that of again asking forgiveness, of telling you once more that I am deeply sorry. Sorry for the ways in which, regrettably, many Christians supported the colonizing mentality of the powers that oppressed the Indigenous Peoples. I am sorry. I ask forgiveness, in particular, for the ways in which many members of the Church and of religious communities cooperated, not least through their indifference, in projects of cultural destruction and forced assimilation promoted by the governments of that time, which culminated in the system of residential schools”

Pope Francis, Maskwacis, Alberta, July 25, 2022

This drew mixed reactions from residential school survivors, politicians and Indigenous leaders and was criticized for not directly mentioning the sexual abuse experienced by school victims and for not addressing the role of the Catholic Church as an institution, instead mentioning the “evil” committed by Christians.

While the papal visit continued with stops in Quebec City and Iqaluit, it was the time in Alberta, on the site of a former residential school, that left the biggest impression from this first papal tour in two decades — leaving the question, “Was it enough?”

“Some people will say it’s not enough and that there are a whole bunch of other things which need to happen as part of the Truth and Reconciliation process,” says Kaur. “But I know a lot of the Elders and survivors I spoke with are very devout believers, and, for them, I saw tears in their eyes, and I heard many of them say, ‘I’m starting my healing journey, and we can find a path forward.’ It’s never going to be enough because of what happened to their communities. But for many of them, this was a moment to move forward.”

Healing, they say, starts with a simple step … the simple step of trying to move forward. Perhaps that will be the legacy of the 2022 papal visit to Canada.


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Rick Muller

Rick Muller