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Pope Francis visits Canada to address missionaries' abuse of Indigenous children

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

Pope Francis arrives in Edmonton, Canada, today. It's the first stop in a weeklong trip the pope describes as his pilgrimage of penance. The pope is asking the Indigenous peoples of Canada for forgiveness - forgiveness for the Catholic Church's role in running state-sanctioned schools which tried to erase Indigenous cultures and where residents were abused. Reporter Emma Jacobs is in Edmonton for NPR. Welcome.

EMMA JACOBS, BYLINE: Thank you for having me.

RASCOE: Emma, give us some context here behind the Catholic Church and its role in this terrible chapter of Canadian history.

JACOBS: The Catholic Church ran the largest number of residential schools in Canada during a period beginning in the 19th century up through the 1990s. Children who were at these schools have since shared many stories of neglect and abuse, including rape by clergy members and other staff. Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2015 called this system a form of cultural genocide.

Last summer, a community in British Columbia announced they identified around 200 unmarked graves on the site of a former Catholic-run residential school. And that announcement began a real year of reckoning that has culminated in this trip. But this is a public apology that has been a long time coming. The government has apologized for its role. Other denominations had apologized for their role. The commission and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had actually asked the pope to visit years ago, but it's taken this long for a papal visit.

RASCOE: What are you hearing from Indigenous communities there about the pope's trip?

JACOBS: There are a lot of really complicated feelings about this visit and also a real range of reactions. As an example of how complex this can be, a residential school survivor named Rod Alexis said last week that he is a practicing Catholic who goes to mass. But he went through great emotional pain at the Catholic-run school he attended in northern Alberta called St. Bernard.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ROD ALEXIS: I was punished because I spoke my language. From that day on, I had to not speak my language. They tried to take that away. But I was stubborn to fight back, try to keep my language, try to keep some of the culture.

JACOBS: He's thankful the pope is coming and that people are getting a chance and a platform to share their experiences, but the impacts have been really profound and intergenerational. Alexis' late father went to residential school as well.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ALEXIS: He told me one day - he said, son, I don't know how to be a parent. I lost that gift that was given to us by the Creator because I was all alone in the residential school.

RASCOE: This is obviously going to be a painful trip for many. In just the about 30 seconds we have left, where else is the pope meeting with survivors?

JACOBS: This really is a penance. He's going to make this apology in multiple places, in multiple communities - next in Quebec City and then in a far northern community called Iqaluit. This is really important, a long-standing demand by communities, but a lot of people have said here it will also stir up difficult emotions and trauma. And their communities will be dealing with that long after the pope flies back to Rome on Friday.

RASCOE: Reporter Emma Jacobs is in Edmonton, Canada. Thank you so much for joining us.

JACOBS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Emma Jacobs