Emotional scenes of the Pope’s apology to the survivors

For minutes, Pope Francis sat in his wheelchair, looking at the hand-painted crosses that marked the graves.

A helicopter was spinning in the gray sky in the distance. The camera shutters clicked. Otherwise, there was silence.

The 85-year-old pontiff had traveled halfway around the world, in a plane packed with officials and international media, to arrive in Maskwacis, Alta., on Monday.

Near the cemetery, thousands, including the prime minister, governor general, heads and survivors of residential schools across the country, waited to hear his long-awaited apology on Canadian soil.

Security was tight. A few officers in camouflage could be seen on nearby rooftops with binoculars.

The children chased each other across the grass. The women sat in skirts of colored ribbons. Some old men shuffled with canes, others sat in wheelchairs with blankets on their laps.

Mental health workers handed out bottles of water, bagged lunches and information cards. Some walked with burning sage.

A 40-meter-long red banner was also waving in the crowd. It lists the names of 4,120 children who died in residential schools.

But during those brief moments in the graveyard, Francis sat alone, head bowed, hands clasped in prayer. He made the sign of the cross. So he was ready.

He didn’t get in his specially designed popemobile for the road trip to a large circular gazebo on the grounds of the community powwow where the crowd gathered.

Prayers and Tears: Scenes from @Pontifex’s apology for residential schools. #PapalVisit #PopeFrancisco #ResidentialSchools #PapalApology

Instead, he was pushed by an aide, his white cassock billowing in the breeze.

Jon Crier, a residential school survivor, said that before the gazebo was built, a wagon road stretched across the field. He said some parents regularly camped out overnight on the rough terrain so they could greet their children who attended the nearby residential school.

Drums and indigenous songs resounded in Maskwa Park as the Pope took to a stage.

Before the crowd, Francis said, in Spanish, “I’m sorry.”

His cadence was slow.

“I humbly ask forgiveness for the evil committed by so many Christians against the Indigenous Peoples.”

Several times during his speech there was applause. Some cheered. Others held their heads and wiped tears from their eyes. Some listened to the Pope while hugging the person next to them.

After it concluded, a woman, crying, sang an impassioned “O Canada” in Cree. In her language, she thanked the Pope for coming and said it was an opportunity for Francis to understand that Indigenous Peoples are the keepers of the knowledge of the earth.

Another person yelled at the pope to renounce the Doctrine of Discovery, a legal principle related to colonization and something Francis has been asked by many to do.

Gladys Charles and her husband traveled from Prince Albert, Sask., to hear the apology. They were overwhelmed.

“The apology was very moving and we know he meant it,” he said, as Mathew, a survivor, held back a torrent of tears with a handkerchief.

Marie-Anne Day Walker-Pelletier, a retired chief of the Okanese First Nation in Saskatchewan, came onstage to see Francis, and he gave her a box. Inside it, a pair of children’s loafers, the same slippers she had given him in Rome in March with the plea that she return them to him on his pilgrimage to Canada.

The pope said the moccasins keep his “pain, anger and shame” alive in recent months and symbolize the path forward for healing and reconciliation.

Many filled the stage, hoping for a brief moment with the pontiff.

Chief Wilton Littlechild walked up a flight of stairs wearing an elaborate traditional headdress.

He placed it gently on the pope’s head, its feathers cascading down the sides of the pontiff’s face, while a drummer beat the steady beat of a song of honor. Francis’s face lit up briefly, one of the few times he smiled during the solemn event.

Crier said the gesture honors the pope for the work he has done.

It was a powerful image, said Sandi Harper, who traveled from Saskatoon for her mother, who went to residential school in Duck Lake.

“This is a step towards healing many people who are suffering and in pain,” he said.

“I think this is one of the biggest steps towards reconciliation.”

This report from The Canadian Press was first published on July 25, 2022.

with Kelly Geraldine Malone archives in Winnipeg.

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