Pope Francis began a fraught visit to Canada to apologise to Indigenous peoples for abuses by missionaries at residential schools, a key step in the Catholic Church’s efforts to reconcile with Native communities.
Pope Francis has arrived in Canada, where he is expected to personally apologise to Indigenous survivors of abuse committed over a span of decades at residential schools run by the Catholic Church.
The head of the world's 1.3 billion Catholics landed at Edmonton's international airport shortly after 11 am (1700 GMT) on Sunday, with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau welcoming him in an airport ceremony that began with the playing of Native American drums.
During the 10-hour flight from Rome Francis told journalists travelling with him that "we must be aware that this is a penitential journey."
The 85-year-old pontiff's Canada visit is primarily to apologize to survivors for the Church's role in the scandal that a national truth and reconciliation commission has called "cultural genocide".
From the late 1800s to the 1990s, Canada's government sent about 150,000 First Nations, Metis and Inuit children into 139 residential schools run by the Church, where they were cut off from their families, language and culture.
Many were physically and sexually abused by headmasters and teachers.
Thousands of children are believed to have died of disease, malnutrition or neglect.
READ MORE: Explained: Canada’s 'cultural genocide' of Indigenous people
Since May 2021, more than 1,300 unmarked graves have been discovered at the sites of the former schools.
A delegation of Indigenous peoples travelled to the Vatican in April and met with the pope — a precursor to Francis' six-day trip.
In the community of Maskwacis, some 100 kilometres south of Edmonton, the pope will address an estimated crowd of 15,000 expected to include former students from across the country.
Some see the pope's visit as too little too late, including Linda McGilvery with the Saddle Lake Cree Nation near Saint Paul, about 200 kilometres east of Edmonton.
"For me it's kind of too late, because a lot of the people suffered, and the priests and the nuns have now passed on," said the 68-year-old who spent eight years of her childhood in one of the schools.
"Being in the residential school I lost a lot of my culture, my ancestry. That's many years of loss," she told AFP news agency.
READ MORE: Pope apologises to Canadian indigenous for abuses