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Pope Francis arrives in Canada as Indigenous groups seek a full apology

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Pope Francis is traveling across Canada this week to deliver in-person apologies to Indigenous people for the Catholic Church's role in running residential schools for Indigenous children. Today, the Pope will meet with the Maskwacis community. Emma Jacobs visited the First Nations Reserve south of Edmonton and brings us this story.

MATT WILDCAT: Over there, you can see one right to the left of the tree.

BRIAN WILDCAT: Oh, yeah. I wonder...

EMMA JACOBS, BYLINE: Brian Wildcat crawls his pickup around the edge of the Ermineskin Cemetery, his son, Matt, in the passenger seat. Most of the markers are wooden crosses, but some of the newer ones have a second symbol, a circle around them.

B WILDCAT: It's kind of a Cree belief. People refer to it sometimes as medicine wheel.

JACOBS: One of the first of the circle markers belongs to Brian's older brother, Darrel, who attended the nearby Ermineskin Indian Residential School run by Catholic nuns and brothers from 1894 to 1969.

B WILDCAT: He was so adamant about - he didn't want nothing with the church - no cross, nothing. So there's just a big circle.

JACOBS: The Catholic Church ran about 60% of Canada's residential schools intended to assimilate Indigenous children. Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2015 called the system a form of cultural genocide. Students experienced physical discipline, sexual abuse by staff and neglect. Many here at the Ermineskin School contracted tuberculosis. And finally, after all these years, the pope will make the first stop here in what he is calling his pilgrimage of penance.

B WILDCAT: What are you making here?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: These are apricot squares.

B WILDCAT: Apricot squares, OK.

JACOBS: Over the weekend, preparations were underway in Maskwacis for the pontiff's arrival. Wildcat, once a day student at Ermineskin, now runs the school district, administered by the four Cree nations of Maskwacis. In the high school kitchen, staff are making food. The light-filled building sits on the site of the old residential school.

B WILDCAT: This was the gym. This was the only part we kept. And then...

JACOBS: Wildcat's son, Matt Wildcat, a professor at the University of Alberta, says the community has mixed feelings about the pope's visit.

M WILDCAT: Some people think that to be somebody who heals that you have to forgive the church. And I don't think that's true. I think a lot of Indigenous people are healthy, resilient people...

B WILDCAT: Without forgiving.

M WILDCAT: ...Who have a lot of anger towards the church still, right? But, of course, some people feel that to achieve dignity in all of this situation requires an apology from the pope, right?

B WILDCAT: Which I think is the right thing for him to do. But that won't change anything.

JACOBS: For others, says the chief of the Ermineskin First Nation, Randy Ermineskin.

RANDY ERMINESKIN: This is an opportunity, the first and maybe last for some, to perhaps find some closure for themselves and their families.

JACOBS: Necessary but difficult, Ermineskin says, and likely to bring up painful memories for many. His own brother never recovered from his experience in residential school and killed himself at 17.

ERMINESKIN: So he came home, but he didn't come home.

JACOBS: Thousands of former students are expected to attend the pope's first address, and large numbers of mental health workers will be on site to support them. Many worked with survivors who testified to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. An in-person apology by the pope was one of its final recommendations. The pope initially declined.

CRYSTAL FRASER: The pope coming, that is a direct response to the now thousands of unmarked graves that have been located to, you know, physical proof of genocide.

JACOBS: Historian Crystal Fraser, who is also Gwichya Gwich'in, says a discovery last summer changed things - around 200 unmarked graves at a former Catholic-run school in British Columbia. The aftershocks included more searches and more grim discoveries elsewhere. Actions, she said, should follow the apologies.

FRASER: And there are still a number of archival documents and records and artifacts, cultural items of significance at the Vatican and in Rome that need to be returned.

JACOBS: Records sought by historians but also those interested in possible prosecutions of living staff members who committed abuses. In Maskwacis, it took a long time to rebuild trust in the school system, says Brian Wildcat. And to reshape it, this fall, the district will launch a new curriculum with a focus on Cree language and culture.

B WILDCAT: The schools were weaponized against First Nations, and now the schools are a tool for building hope and change.

JACOBS: There were many harms done, he says. They've waited many years for this moment. An apology in person will go some way to help with the healing. But much of the work is being done by the community itself.

For NPR News, I'm Emma Jacobs in Maskwacis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Emma Jacobs