Thousands of Indigenous persons are expected to converge on Monday on the small Alberta prairie community of Maskwacis to hear a long-awaited apology from Pope Francis for generations of abuse and cultural suppression at Catholic residential schools across Canada.
Francis is scheduled to arrive in mid-morning at the site of the former Ermineskin Indian Residential School, now largely torn down. He will pause at the sites of the former school and nearby cemetery before speaking in a large open area to school survivors, their relatives and other supporters.
Francis arrived in Edmonton on Sunday, where he was greeted by representatives of Canada's three main Indigenous groups — First Nations, Metis and Inuit — along with church and political dignitaries, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. The pope spent the rest of the day resting at a seminary in the provincial capital.
It's a key step in the Catholic Church's efforts to reconcile with Native communities and help them heal after generations of trauma.
Francis has said his visit is a “penitential pilgrimage” to beg forgiveness on Canadian soil for the “evil” done to Native peoples by Catholic missionaries.
It follows his apology in the Vatican on 1 April for the generations of trauma Indigenous peoples suffered as a result of a church-enforced policy to eliminate their culture and assimilate them into Canadian, Christian society.
Francis’ tone of personal repentance has signalled a notable shift for the papacy, which has long acknowledged abuses in the residential schools and strongly asserted the rights and dignity of Indigenous peoples.
But past popes have also hailed the sacrifice and holiness of the European Catholic missionaries who brought Christianity to the Americas - something Francis, too, has done but isn’t expected to emphasise during this trip.
The 10-hour flight was the 85-year-old's longest since 2019.
He has been suffering from knee pain that has forced him to use a cane or wheelchair at recent outings but says he was determined to make the trip for reconciliation and healing.
He will also visit Quebec City and Iqaluit, the capital of the Nunavut territory.
"So, it is a pilgrimage first of all," says Richard Smith, the Archbishop of Edmonton.
"But he qualified it further and he talked about it as a penitential pilgrimage.
"He is deeply seized by the fact that terrible things have happened in the past, perpetrated in many cases by people who were representative of the church" he adds.
While his Holiness is hoping to unite the faithful at an open-air mass at the Commonwealth Stadium on Tuesday, for some Canadians, the Catholic Churches’ involvement in the scandal has been the final straw.
Since last year, archaeologists have detected some 1300 unmarked graves at several boarding schools across the country.
"I work with Indigenous nations to investigate areas around residential school sites,” said Kisha Supernant, the Director of the Institute of Prairie and Indigenous Archaeology at the University of Alberta.
“We are using technology such as ground-penetrating radar to try to find possible locations of the unmarked graves of children who died while at the school or who never came home and have dropped off of the records.
“The thought of these children dying far away from home, often sick, perhaps they were buried in a grave that had a little wooden cross, but their parents sometimes didn't even know that they had died.
“The only way they found out was when their child didn't come home in the summer or didn't come home after years away.
“They had no idea where their resting place was and what happened to them.
“For me, I think a lot about the people who had to live through that as well.
“So there was the child who died but then the family who never had that sense of closure who never had those answers that they deserved.
“They never even knew where their child was laid to rest" she concludes.
Some 150,000 Indigenous children were forced to attend these institutions from the 1800s until the late 20th Century.
The last of Canada's 139 boarding schools for Indigenous children closed in 1998.
According to Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, in some schools upwards of 70% of students were physically and sexually abused.