With the scent of burning sage hanging in the air, dozens of volunteers move in a clockwise direction around the gathering room at the kihêw waciston Indigenous centre, dropping items into bright pink bags.

It’s an assembly line of sorts, building care packages for the hundreds of visitors that will be on the MacEwan University campus when Pope Francis comes to the Edmonton area in late July.

For knowledge keeper Shauel-let-qua Q:olosoet, it’s a scene of deep meaning.

“When you look at all these bags here, they represent a survivor, a fellow student, a fellow relative. It’s almost like finding the children.”

The care packages will be available to anyone who comes to MacEwan during the papal visit. Some could be visiting kihêw waciston to gather with community members, while others may be staying in rooms in MacEwan Residence reserved for residential school survivors from Kamloops and Saskatchewan.

A box of tea and a sage burning kit are displayed on a blue floral scarf.The contents of one of the care packages, including a scarf, a smudge kit, tea and a list of support services.

Each bag includes a box of Indigenous tea, a floral scarf to wrap around someone’s shoulders for comfort, a smudge kit with a sample of sage, and an information card with a list of contact numbers for support services.

“We know this is an incredibly triggering time, an incredibly sensitive time, and a time where we have no idea how much emotion is being held,” says Shelby LaFramboise, director of Indigenous initiatives and an assistant professor with MacEwan’s Faculty of Fine Arts and Communications. “We hope that people feel a sense of calm, a sense of belonging that they are on their journey of their true identity, and that this is just a small tangible way to support and lift that up.”

The priority is to ensure that MacEwan is a safe space for all and that anyone who needs support can get it. Wellness and psychological services will be available. The teepee-inspired tents just outside of kihêw waciston will serve as a gathering point for people to talk and share experiences. There will be beading and colouring stations for children. The mass from Commonwealth Stadium will be livestreamed for those that would prefer to watch it in the gathering room at kihêw waciston.

But for organizers, it is also important to help people on their healing journey through traditional ceremony, something not everyone may have been a part of in the past.

“There are still a lot of Indigenous people reconnecting to their culture and that’s one of the pieces that we want to provide at kihêw waciston,” says Roslyn Cardinal, an administration assistant and one of the organizers. “We hope they take the opportunity to connect with culture again and connect with community and ceremony in a way that they probably never had the opportunity to do before.”

Shauel-let-qua Q:olosoet, who is also known as Cynthia Jim, is a survivor herself who was taken to a residential school in British Columbia at the age of five. She is hoping to create a better understanding of how important reconciliation is to everyone.

“There’s something that sits heavy in the hearts of every residential school survivor. You never know if the person next to you is a survivor. Treat each other with utmost kindness and respect, with that honesty of just being real. We’re all humans here.”

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