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Pope apologises to Inuit for abuse on last leg of penitential Canada trip

By AFP - Jul 30,2022 - Last updated at Jul 30,2022

Pope Francis is greeted upon arriving to meet with residential school alumni at Nakasuk Elementary School Square in Iqaluit, Nunavut, Canada, on Friday (AFP photo)

IQALUIT, Canada — Pope Francis ended his trip to Canada on Friday as he began, by apologising to Indigenous survivors of Catholic-run schools where children were abused over a span of decades, after meeting with Inuit people in the Canadian Arctic.

The 85-year-old Pontiff travelled to the vast northern territory of Nunavut’s capital, Iqaluit, which means “the place of many fish”.

Residents greeted him with traditional performances including drumming and throat singing, on a stage set up to resemble an Inuit summer home — reflecting building materials such as whale ribs, sod and stone — beneath a cool, overcast sky.

Francis met first with survivors of the residential school system — which saw Indigenous children separated from their families, language and culture in a bid to stamp out their identity — before appearing at the public event.

He told a crowd of around 2,000 that their stories “renewed in me the indignation and shame that I have felt for months”.

“I want to tell you how very sorry I am and to ask for forgiveness for the evil perpetrated by not a few Catholics who contributed to the policies of cultural assimilation and enfranchisement in those schools,” he said.

As he spoke, Inuit people in the crowd could be seen hugging and holding hands. Some wiped away tears.

From the late 1800s to the 1990s, Canada’s government sent about 150,000 children into 139 residential schools run by the Catholic Church.

Many were physically and sexually abused at the schools, and thousands are believed to have died of disease, malnutrition or neglect.

Francis first made his long-awaited apology for the abuses on Monday, after landing in the western community of Maskwacis, Alberta. He has repeated his plea for forgiveness throughout the trip, which took him to Quebec before his last stop in Nunavut.

Many survivors of the residential schools and their families told AFP that while his words have been cathartic and were necessary, there is more work to do.

Residents in Iqaluit, a community of just over 7,000 people and where small houses line the rocky ocean shore, listened closely to the Pope’s words.

“He did apologise, and a lot of people don’t seem to be happy with it, but he took that step to come to Nunavut... and I think that’s big,” lifelong Iqaluit resident Evie Kunuk, 47, told AFP on Friday.

The Pope’s reception in Canada has been “a little bit lukewarm”, admitted Quebec resident Steve Philippe, 52, who had travelled to Iqaluit to see the Pope.

“Maybe expectations were too high... but I think it’s a step in the right direction,” Philippe said.


‘Brilliant light’ 


Throughout the trip, some Indigenous people have called for Francis to rescind the Doctrine of Discovery, the 15th century papal bulls that allowed European powers to colonise any non-Christian lands and people.

Indigenous leaders have drawn a direct line between the doctrine, which only the Pope can rescind, and the residential schools.

Others have pointed out that the Pope did not specifically mention the sexual abuse of First Nations, Metis and Inuit children.

The spiritual leader of the world’s 1.3 billion Catholics was expected to be asked once again to intervene in the case of 93-year-old Joannes Rivoire, a fugitive French priest accused of sexually abusing Inuit children in Nunavut decades ago before fleeing to France.

Earlier this year, Canadian police issued a new arrest warrant for Rivoire and an Inuit delegation asked Francis at the Vatican to personally intervene to see him extradited.

During his Canadian tour, Francis vowed to promote Indigenous rights and made clear the church was on a “journey” of healing and reconciliation.

Due to pain in his right knee, the Pope has spent much of the trip in a wheelchair.

In Iqaluit on Friday, Francis spoke of the “beautiful relationship” between the Inuit and the land, “because it too is strong and resilient, and responds with brilliant light to the darkness that enshrouds it for most of the year”.

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