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Pope Francis traveled to Canada to apologize to residential school survivors

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

It was a moment the Indigenous peoples of Canada had been waiting for. Today, Pope Francis finally delivered an in-person apology in front of hundreds of survivors of the Canadian residential schools at a ceremony in the First Nations community of Maskwacis. He begged for forgiveness, quote, "for the evil" committed in the name of the church at many of the residential schools where thousands of children often suffered abuse or worse. Emma Jacobs was there and has this report.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRUMMING)

EMMA JACOBS, BYLINE: Ahead of the pope's address, there are group of chiefs and former chiefs in traditional dress and a group of drummers and performers.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Southlake Warriors (ph).

JACOBS: And it's pretty remarkable when you think that residential schools were created in the 19th century to separate children from these cultural traditions, which have not only held on but are being performed for the pope today.

WILTON LITTLECHILD: Your Holiness, (speaking Cree) White Eagle. It's a great honor to welcome you among us. You have travelled a long way to be with us on our land.

JACOBS: Introducing the pope was Wilton Littlechild, a survivor of residential school, member of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and a former chief here.

LITTLECHILD: My name in Cree is (speaking Cree) Wolf Walker, (speaking Cree) Golden Eagle. In English, I am known as Wilton Littlechild. I was a student here at the Ermineskin Indian Residential School, which for your visit among us this day represents all the residential schools in our country.

POPE FRANCIS: (Speaking Italian).

JACOBS: Finally, the moment people had been waiting for came.

FRANCIS: (Through interpreter) Dear brothers and sisters, I have been waiting to come here and be with you.

JACOBS: Many people were crying, but there was a loud applause when the pope asked for forgiveness.

FRANCIS: (Through interpreter) Today, I am here in this land that, along with its ancient memories, preserves the scars of still-open wounds. I am here because the first step of my penitential pilgrimage among you is that of again asking forgiveness, of telling you once more that I am deeply sorry, sorry for the ways in which, regrettably, many Christians supported the colonizing mentality of the powers that oppressed the Indigenous peoples. I am sorry.

JACOBS: After the speech, I asked Twain Buffalo what he thought.

TWAIN BUFFALO: I felt the holy presence of the pope. I guess I got what I wanted out of it. I feel much better now, in that I spent nine years in this boarding school here. And now this is, shall we say, the final chapter. Let's move on now. To me, it was like a prayer. So I felt it. So that is the part that I was happy about.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Singing in non-English language).

JACOBS: At the end of the ceremony, Pope Francis was given a feathered headdress by another survivor, which he put on. And then a final honor song was sung for the pope and the victims.

For NPR News, I'm Emma Jacobs in Maskwacis. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Emma Jacobs