Excitement, Then Ambivalence, For the Pope’s Visit to Quebec

QUEBEC CITY – The smell of cigarette smoke, fruity vape juice and sunscreen may have been a flashback for visitors returning to Quebec City’s sprawling parkland, where, two weeks ago, an annual summer music festival drew noisy crowds.

But on Wednesday, the invigorating scent of sage, a sacred ingredient used in indigenous spiritual ceremonies, cut through the air in Plains of Abraham Park and the mood became more subdued as thousands of spectators awaited the arrival of Pope Francis.

Volunteers in blue T-shirts made their way through the crowd, handing out bottles of water in an uncomfortably hot sun, while visitors craned their necks whenever a vehicle passed, hoping it was the pope. Some people were lying on blankets, eating sandwiches and entertaining their babies.

The papal visit to Canada this week marked a major 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 old apologies to the indigenous people, came to Canada to ask forgiveness for the “evil committed by so many Christians” in schools.

The wounds inflicted by priests, nuns and other officials in the government-sanctioned system have been called “cultural genocide” by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, and their effects linger.

“My spirit was broken. I was taken from my parents,” said Delbert Sampson, a First Nation member Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc who spoke to me on the Plains.

When he was 8 years old, he said he was forced to attend Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia, the site of a grisly discovery by his community, who said he found evidence of 215 unmarked graves using ground-penetrating radar.

“I had a really hard time there and had a lot of healing to do after that,” said Sampson, who is now in his early 70s. Pope Francis’ apology was a start, he said, but “there’s a lot more to it than that.”

Pope Francis arrived in Canada on Sunday to begin a six-day visit, starting in Alberta. The Times’ Rome bureau chief Jason Horowitz traveled with the Pope to Maskwacis, Alberta, where the pontiff visited a cemetery and delivered his apology to the indigenous people. Chief Wilton Littlechild of the Ermineskin Cree Nation, who had welcomed the pope, placed a headdress on his head.

[Read: Pope Apologizes in Canada for Schools That Abused Indigenous Children]

On Wednesday, Francis arrived in Quebec, greeted by well-wishers in the streets near the airport. He delivered another speech at a historic British fortress in Old Quebec called La Citadelle, which also featured comments from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Mary Simon, Canada’s first indigenous governor general.

The speeches were broadcast on giant screens in the Plains of Abraham, following a few hours of live Christian music and indigenous cultural performances, and a ceremony to welcome a delegation of indigenous people who walked 170 miles as part of a healing march.

After the formal speeches, the crowd turned their attention to a road running through the park, flanked by steel barriers and dozens of police officers to keep the way clear for Francis’ ride in the popemobile. Onlookers erupted into applause as Francis passed, with dozens of cellphones raised in the air to capture the moment, and a few people handing babies to the pontiff’s aides to be kissed on the head by Francis.

While we waited for the pope, I caught up with Nathalie Rochon, who learned about residential schools the last two years she lived in Quebec City, where she moved from Bordeaux, France. Rochon said he hoped the indigenous people would feel some satisfaction “now that the pope has taken the first step to give them the apology they deserve.”

While the Catholic Church in Canada has maintained a relatively stable number of adherents, that is not the case in Quebec, where secularism has taken hold more than any other province, my colleague Ian Austen wrote while covering the papal visit in Edmonton, Alberta. .

This may have contributed to the somewhat sparse crowd on Thursday morning on the Plains of Abraham, where people gathered to pray, receive communion and watch the broadcast of Pope Francis’ Mass at the national shrine of Ste. Anne de Beaupré, a short drive northeast of Quebec City.

[Read: Why Catholicism Remains Strong in Canada]

The small audience in the Plains – a stark contrast to Wednesday’s crowd – was a disappointing sight for Suzanne Crête, a practicing Catholic who believes the church should return indigenous artifacts and openly share its records on residential schools.

She was touched by the pope’s emphasis on respect for the elderly and grandparents in his remarks. Older people are revered in indigenous communities, and children in residential schools were deprived of the opportunity to receive cultural teachings from them. “I am a grandmother and I find that very sad because these children would never have known their grandmothers,” Crête said.

[Read: Pope Francis, Slowed by Aging, Finds Lessons in Frailty]

We talked during Mass and she pointed to a sign with the official slogan of the papal visit: “Walking Together”.

“It’s easy to say,” said Crête, “but we have to put it into practice.”


Vjosa Isai is a news assistant for The New York Times in Canada. Follow her on Twitter at @lavjosa.


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