MASKWACIS — Leaders from four First Nations in central Alberta say the Pope's upcoming visit could help the world understand the trauma the residential school system caused to Indigenous people.
Pope Francis is scheduled to visit the Maskwacis area, south of Edmonton, as part of his Canadian tour from July 24 to 29.
The community, which has four member nations, says it has been working around the clock in preparation for the thousands of people who are anticipated to come to the area to watch as the Pope is expected to apologize to survivors of residential schools and hear their stories.
The approximately one-hour visit to Maskwacis is the first scheduled stop during the pontiff's trip.
Along with visiting a local church and cemetery, the Pope is also to visit the former site of a residential school in the community.
It signals his desire to highlight the voices of survivors, said Chief Wilton Littlechild, a lawyer and former Truth and Reconciliation Commission member who spent 14 years of his youth in a residential school.
"It's about peaceful coexistence. It's about the survivors and it's about truth and about reconciliation," Littlechild said at a news conference in Maskwacis on Monday.
"We ask everyone to join us on our walk together to the path of peace, justice and reconciliation."
Littlechild said he hopes the Pope personalizes his apology and allows survivors some time to forgive when he is in Maskwacis.
Littlechild was among the Indigenous delegates who went to the Vatican in the spring to speak with Francis. The trip ended with the pontiff apologizing for the Roman Catholic Church's role in residential schools and committing to visit Canada to make another apology.
Ermineskin Cree Nation Chief Randy Ermineskin said the planned visit is triggering a lot of emotions for survivors.
"After he leaves, we're left holding the baggage."
Ermineskin said the community has already been engaging local mental health practitioners to support survivors and it has reached out to the federal government to request more workers.
The Vatican has said the Pope's daily appearances will be short due to the 85-year-old's mobility and health issues.
The Maskwacis First Nations want to make sure the visit is meaningful despite the time constraints.
"I know many people are going to be disappointed at the time that they're given, because this is years and years of trauma. Is that enough time? So, we want to make sure we use this time wisely," Ermineskin said.
The Ermineskin Indian Residential School operated from 1895 to 1975 and was one of the largest residential schools in Canada.
The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation has recorded the deaths of 15 students during its operation. In 1903, three children died of tuberculosis, while a government survey in the 1920s concluded half of the students were infected.
Survivors from the school told the Truth and Reconciliation Commission they were physically abused for speaking their first language and for practising their traditional ceremonies.
The residence closed in the early 1970s and the educational facilities were transferred to the Ermineskin Cree Nation.
Maskwacis created its own independent school system in 2016 to serve its member nations: Ermineskin Cree Nation, Louis Bull Tribe, Montana First Nation and Samson Cree Nation.
The fact that the Pope plans to visit an area that now has complete control over education represents a full-circle moment, said Crystal Fraser, an assistant professor in the faculty of native studies at the University of Alberta.
"It is really an example, a paradigm, of what Indigenous communities can do in order to educate their own children according to their own ways," she said.
Maskwacis chiefs are welcoming survivors from across Canada to come during the Pope's visit.
"Maybe for the first time and last time, someone will come here and put closure to some of the things that they have gone through in the residential schools," Ermineskin said.
George Littlechild, an artist in Comox, B.C., sees the Pope's visit as a time to heal.
The intergenerational residential school and Sixties Scoop survivor had family members who attended the Ermineskin school, including two uncles who died there.
He said it's important for Francis to acknowledge that atrocities occurred.
"For those survivors and the pain that they lived through daily, I don't think that pain ever goes away, but at least they're being acknowledged."
The Indian Residential Schools Resolution Health Support Program has a hotline to help residential school survivors and their relatives suffering trauma invoked by the recall of past abuse. The number is 1-866-925-4419.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 27, 2022.
— With files from Brittany Hobson in Winnipeg
Fakiha Baig, The Canadian Press