In Iqaluit, Pope Francis’s last stop in his historic six-day Canadian tour, his address to young people and Inuit elders in the square of a primary school alternated between expressing regret for the Catholic Church’s sins to delivering encouraging advice to girls and boys searching for direction.
His trip to Canada, from Alberta to Quebec to Nunavut, has focused on addressing the traumatic legacy of residential schools and colonization. On Monday, near the site of a former residential school in Maskwacis, Alta., the pontiff acknowledged that many Christians had oppressed Indigenous people, including through cultural destruction and forced assimilation promoted by the residential-school system. On Wednesday, in Quebec City, the Pope once again apologized.
On Friday, he met with several school survivors In Iqaluit before an outdoor performance that included traditional throat singing and drum dancing. His speech before hundreds began with another apology for the “evil perpetuated” on Indigenous people by church members. Speaking in his native Spanish, Francis’s speech was translated into English and Inuktitut. He told them he was sorry in Inuktitut, a meaningful gesture to many in the audience.
“I thank you for having had the courage to tell your stories and to share your great suffering that I could not imagine,” he said in Spanish. “This only renewed in me the indignation and shame that I have felt for months.”
The pontiff’s tour has fostered healing for some school survivors and anger in others.
Back in March, Francis met with representatives from First Nations, Métis and Inuit at the Vatican, including survivors. After those meetings, he said he was sorry for the “deplorable conduct” of church members who abused children in residential schools and vowed to visit Canada.
Many Indigenous leaders and survivors had hoped he would expand on his words during his Canadian visit and provide an institutional apology. While he has repeatedly expressed deep sorrow and shame for the actions of many Catholic members and institutions, he has not apologized for the Catholic Church’s role in overseeing the schools, which were funded by governments.
In 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission called on the Pope to apologize in Canada for the church’s role in the schools.
Early on Friday, before his flight to Iqaluit, Pope Francis held a private meeting with an Indigenous delegation at the residence of Quebec Archbishop, Cardinal Gérald Lacroix. After the meeting, Ghislain Picard, Assembly of First Nations regional chief for Quebec/Labrador, said it will be up to each person to decide if the Pope’s trip met their expectations.
“It’s really up to them to take the measure of all this, whether it’s going to provide that kind of way for their healing,” Mr. Picard said after the meeting. “It’s going to take time.”
For Johnny Kolok, 60, the Pope’s speeches through the week have not gone far enough. As he waited for Francis’s final remarks in Iqaluit, he said the Pope seemed to be letting the Catholic Church as a whole off the hook for the serial abuses it was responsible for at the residential schools.
“It seems he doesn’t want to name the church itself in these crimes,” said Mr. Kolok, a local property manager for an Inuit company. “We have a lot of people who were taken away from here. The nuns and priests who are still around and took part in these abuses should be held accountable.”
Francis’s brief visit in Nunavut’s capital marks the first time a pope has travelled to the territory. Organizers had dressed the event stage to resemble a qammaq – a type of traditional Inuit home often made by using sod as a foundation, animal bones for structure, and sealskin for cover.
It was a type of home Piita Irniq, a former commissioner of Nunavut, lived in seasonally with his family while growing up in Naujaat (formerly Repulse Bay). In 1958, at the age of 11, Mr. Irniq was taken from his parents by Catholic priests and flown to a residential school in Chesterfield Inlet, on the northwest tip of Hudson Bay.
“I’d never been on an airplane before they took me away from my parents,” the 75-year-old, who now travels the world sharing his knowledge of Inuit culture, said in an interview with The Globe and Mail earlier in the week.
At the Sir Joseph Bernier Day School, he and the other students were forbidden from using their Inuit dialects. He recalled a moment when a nun painfully struck his open palm with a long ruler for speaking in Inuktitut with his peers.
Mr. Irniq anticipated that the ceremony with the Pope would be a “momentous” occasion for Inuit, a chance to showcase a culture that has withstood decades of attempts to dismantle it by several institutions in Canada, including the Catholic Church.
“He’s going to see our culture. He’s going to hear our language,” said Mr. Irniq, who, in addition to taking part in the private audience with the Pope, also performed a drum dance for the crowd gathered outside Nakasuk Elementary School.
Mary Eetoolook, who is from Taloyaok, was in the private audience for residential-school survivors with the Pope before the public event. In 1959, Ms. Eetoolook, along with her brother, was taken to Sir Alexander Mackenzie residential school in Inuvik when she was 8 years old.
On the Pope coming specifically to Iqaluit, she said: “That’s the reason I didn’t go down south to Edmonton or anywhere else. I wanted to stand on Nunavut ground, in my homeland, when he apologized. And I’m glad he came.
“I’m here for my parents because my parents had no way of saying no. Even if they said no, they would just take us anyway. They would put us in a plane and take us.”
Another survivor in attendance was Paul Quassa, a former premier of Nunavut. Mr. Quassa wasn’t allowed to look at or speak to his two sisters while he and his siblings attended Joseph Bernier school, save for the occasional reprieve from this rule on some weekends.
In an interview with The Globe earlier this week, he recalled the impact that both Catholic and Anglican missionaries had on his home community of Igloolik, located on a small island off the northeast shore of the Qikiqtaaluk region in northern Nunavut.
“This was one community that was divided into two. Igloolik was more like Northern Ireland in the 1960s, family against family, because of religion,” Mr. Quassa said. “That’s how they tried destroying us, but they didn’t succeed. They never succeeded.”
Mr. Quassa was the lead negotiator of the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement that led to the creation of the territory in 1999. He said his experience at the residential school in Chesterfield Inlet drove him to fight for Inuit self-sufficiency and self-determination.
“That’s why we got Nunavut,” he said. “To ensure that our future generations will never experience what we went through, when we were not allowed to speak our own language.”
As the last leg of the Pope’s tour of Canada, the Iqaluit visit has also raised the question of what comes next.
While it was an emotional moment, Mr. Quassa welcomed the Pope’s apology in Maskwacis on Monday, which he watched on television from Iqaluit. However, “[Francis] did emphasize that the Canadian Catholic bishops have to follow up on some of these actions that need to be taken,” he noted.
In his view, that means bringing retired Roman Catholic priest Johannes Rivoire to Canada. For years, survivors in northern Canada have alleged that Mr. Rivoire engaged in a pattern of sexual abuse at multiple Catholic-run schools over the course of several decades.
In March, Mr. Rivoire, now 93, was charged with sexual assault in a Canadawide arrest warrant by RCMP in Nunavut. On Wednesday, the federal Justice Minister confirmed a request for extradition had been sent to France, where Mr. Rivoire currently lives.
“We need justice,” Mr. Quassa said. “We know very well a lot of those perpetrators are gone. Even if we see one or two, I think that will satisfy us, for those living. Because no parent would ever want to see their children being put in that situation. It’s criminal. It’s degrading.”
With a report from The Canadian Press
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