QUEBEC CITY — The smell of cigarette smoke, fruity vape juice and sunscreen might have been a flashback to visitors returning to the sprawling Quebec City park where, two weeks ago, a annual summer music festival drew raucous crowds.
But on Wednesday, the invigorating scent of sage, a sacred ingredient used in Indigenous spiritual ceremonies, wafted through the air at Plains of Abraham Park and the mood was more subdued as thousands of spectators waited for the finish. of Pope Francis.
Volunteers in blue T-shirts waded through the crowds, handing out bottles of water in the uncomfortably hot sun as visitors craned their necks each time a vehicle passed, hoping it was the pope. Some people lie on blankets, eat sandwiches and entertain their babies.
The papal visit to Canada this week was a milestone in the history of the scandal involving the country’s church-run residential schools, where Indigenous children were sexually and physically abused, or died, for more than a century. .
The pontiff, responding to long-standing calls for an apology to Indigenous peoples, came to Canada to ask forgiveness for the “wrong done by so many Christians” in schools.
The injuries inflicted by priests, nuns and other personnel in the government-sanctioned system have been called “cultural genocide” by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, and its effects linger.
“My spirit was shattered. I was taken away from my parents,” said Delbert Sampson, a member of the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation who spoke to me at the Plains.
When he was 8, he said he was forced to attend Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia, the site of a gruesome discovery by his community, who said they found evidence of 215 unmarked graves using ground penetrating radar.
“I struggled a lot there and had a lot of healing to do after that,” said Mr Sampson, who is now in his early 60s. Pope Francis’ apology was a start, he said, but “there’s a lot more to it.”
Pope Francis arrived in Canada on Sunday to begin a six-day visit, starting in Alberta. Times Rome bureau chief Jason Horowitz traveled with the pope to Maskwacis, Alberta, where the pontiff visited a cemetery and offered his apologies to the indigenous people. Chief Wilton Littlechild of the Ermineskin Cree Nation, who had hosted the pope, then decked him in a head covering.
[Read: Pope Apologizes in Canada for Schools That Abused Indigenous Children]
On Wednesday, Francis arrived in Quebec City, greeted by well-wishers lining the streets near the airport. He gave another speech at a historic British fortress in Old Quebec called La Citadelle, which also included remarks from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Mary Simon, Canada’s first Indigenous governor general.
The speeches were broadcast on giant screens on the Plains of Abraham, after a few hours of live Christian music and Aboriginal cultural performances, and a welcoming ceremony for a delegation of Aboriginal people who had traveled 170 miles in the part of a healing walk.
After the official speeches, the crowd turned their attention to a road through the park, which was lined with steel barriers and dozens of police to keep the path clear for Francis’ ride in the popemobile. Onlookers erupted in applause as Francis passed by, with dozens of cellphones hoisted into the air to capture the moment, and some people handing babies to the pontiff’s aides to be kissed on the head by Francis.
As we waited for the pope, I spoke to Nathalie Rochon, who learned about residential schools during the last two years she lived in Quebec, where she moved from Bordeaux, France. Ms Rochon said she hoped indigenous people would feel some satisfaction “now that the pope has taken a first step to give them the apology they deserve”.
While the Catholic Church in Canada has maintained a relatively stable number of adherents, this is not the case in Quebec, where secularism has taken hold more than in any other province, wrote my colleague Ian Austen while covering the papal visit to Edmonton, Alberta.
That may have contributed to the somewhat sparse crowd Thursday morning on the Plains of Abraham, where people gathered to pray, receive Communion and watch a broadcast of Pope Francis’ Mass at the National Shrine in Ste. Anne de Beaupré, a short drive northeast of Quebec.
[Read: Why Catholicism Remains Strong in Canada]
The small Plains audience — a stark contrast to Wednesday’s crowds — was a disappointing sight for Suzanne Crête, a devout Catholic who believes the church should return Indigenous artifacts and openly share its residential school records.
She was touched by the pope’s emphasis on respect for the elderly and grandparents in his remarks. Elderly people are revered in Indigenous communities, and children in residential schools were denied the opportunity to receive cultural teachings from them. “I am a grandmother and I find it very sad because these children would never have known their grandmother,” said Ms. Crête.
[Read: Pope Francis, Slowed by Aging, Finds Lessons in Frailty]
We talked as the mass progressed, and she gestured to a sign with the official slogan of the papal visit: “Walking Together.”
“It’s easy to say, says Ms. Crête, but you have to put it into practice.
Vjosa Isai is a press assistant for The New York Times in Canada. Follow her on Twitter at @lavjosa.
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