Pope lands in Iqaluit to meet Inuit survivors as ‘pilgrimage of penance’ nears end

Brittany Hobson and Sidhartha Banerjee, The Canadian Press
Published Friday, July 29, 2022 5:50AM EDT
Last Updated Friday, July 29, 2022 4:13PM EDT

IQALUIT, Nunavut – Pope Francis arrived in Iqaluit on Friday for the final leg of a historic tour that saw the pontiff express “deep shame and sorrow” and apologize for abuses committed by some members of the Roman Catholic Church.

The brief visit in Nunavut’s capital marks the first time a pope has travelled to the territory. Francis was scheduled to meet with Inuit survivors of residential schools and their families at the Nakasuk Elementary School before taking part in a public cultural event.

Organizers of the papal visit said Francis was to light a traditional oil lamp, called a qulliq, to recreate the warmth of an igloo and hear personal testimonies from survivors.

Francis was also to give a speech, interpreted into Inuktitut, before boarding a plane back to Rome in the evening.

The leader of the national organization representing Inuit people invited the Pope to visit the Inuit homeland during an Indigenous delegation to the Vatican earlier this year. Natan Obed, president of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, said it could be a meaningful visit for Inuit, who experienced lasting pain and suffering but remain open to the possibility of true reconciliation.

The six-day visit, which Francis described as “penitential,” was greeted by celebrations and criticism during prior stops in Quebec and Alberta.

After a private meeting between Francis and Indigenous leaders and survivors in Quebec City earlier Friday, Ghislain Picard, head of the Assembly of First Nations Quebec-Labrador, said it will be up to each person to decide if the Pope’s trip met their expectations.

He said survivors have “had their moment.”

“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,” Picard said after the meeting. “It’s going to take time.”

Residential school survivors wearing ribbon skirts and an elder holding a feather were among the Indigenous delegation who had a 45-minute private audience with the Pope.

In an address to open the meeting, the pontiff told them he’d come to Canada in a “spirit of penance” to apologize for the wrongs inflicted upon them by “not just a few Catholics.”

“I have come as a pilgrim, despite my physical limitations, to take further steps forward with you and for you,” he told the group.

“I do this so that progress may be made in the search for truth, so that the processes of healing and reconciliation may continue, and so that seeds of hope can keep being sown for future generations – Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike – who desire to live together, in harmony, as brothers and sisters.”

The delegation included survivors and representatives of First Nations across Eastern Canada, some of whom could be seen presenting the Pope with gifts.

Cree Grand Chief Mandy Gull-Masty said the meeting was marked by some confusion as supporters of some residential school survivors were asked to leave the room by the archbishop’s staff even after papal security had let them in.

She said survivors used the meeting to share their pain and stories. One from her community in northern Quebec forgave the church for trespassing against the community, she said, while one nation insisted on how its ways, culture and language must be acknowledged and respected by the church.

Chief Duke Peltier of the Wiikwemkoong First Nation in northern Ontario said after the meeting that he had expected “a little more sincerity and more of an acceptance of responsibility for the church’s participation in the assimilative efforts of our people.”

“I didn’t get the sense they are quite ready to fully participate in healing,” he said of the Pope’s visit.

In his address, Francis said he had been enriched by stories of the Indigenous people he has met in Canada.

“I can truly say that, while I came to be with you, it was your life and experiences, the Indigenous realities of these lands, that have touched me, remained with me, and will always be a part of me,” he said.

Both Picard and Gull-Masty said it is now up to Canadian bishops to take the next concrete steps.

Picard said Indigenous leaders shared a meal Thursday evening with the bishops but none of the key issues – access to church archives, the rescinding of the Doctrine of Discovery, the return of sacred objects possessed by the Vatican – were addressed.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 29, 2022.

– With files from Sidhartha Banerjee in Quebec City