‘Say it where it happened’: Inuit residential school survivor turns to papal apology

“I’ll tell what happened to us.”

He does not mince his words. He calls what happened a kidnapping and a rape.

And a simple papal apology, no matter how sincere, will not suffice.

“His church is very rich. It should provide money for loss of culture, loss of language.

That’s not all.

Irniq, along with many other Inuit, believe the Catholic Church could do more to bring priests who abused children in Inuit communities to justice. At least one former priest accused in Canada, Johannes Rivoire, is still in France.

Although many Inuit remain devout Christians and Catholics, the Church has a strained relationship with the people of the Arctic.

Between 1955 and 1969, at least 324 children were taken from their parents and sent to live in Turquetil Hall, a Catholic institution, while attending Sir Joseph Bernier’s day school in Chesterfield Inlet. Additionally, dozens of children were abused by missionary priests in Inuit communities — memories still so raw that when a priest was finally put on trial in 2014, someone in one of his former communities set fire to the local church.

“It feels like it happened yesterday,” Irniq said.

Irniq’s voice trails off as he describes a nun’s crucifix swinging above his head as he is abused in a bathtub.

“I felt absolutely helpless.”

Irniq used the education he received at such a high price to fight against this powerlessness. He became an Inuit leader, helped negotiate the Nunavut land claim, and eventually became Nunavut’s second commissioner.

Today, he is a culture teacher. He built the Inukshuk at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics and installed Argentina’s Inuit symbols at Juno Beach in France.

But Irniq still wants recognition for what was done to him and so many others.

The Inuit were part of a delegation of Canadian indigenous leaders who received an apology at the Vatican earlier this year. Hearing those apologies is more important in Iqaluit, he said.

“Rome is Rome. It’s 4,000 miles away. Say it here, where it happened, where there was a cultural genocide. Tell it here to the survivors, our parents. It will make a difference.

Pope Francis is scheduled to be in Iqaluit for four hours on Friday. City officials say hotels are nearly full.

Iqaluit has renamed one of its main routes for the visit. Federal Road, which Francis will travel along on his way to Nakasuk School, is now called Sivumugiaq Street.

In honor of survivors like Irniq, it means “moving forward”.

That’s Irniq’s hope for the Pope’s visit — not just for the Inuit, but for all Canadians.

“It’s a very difficult subject to talk about, but it has to be said. It’s also part of Canadian history,” he said.

“It’s going to be a monumental visit, not just for me. (The Pope) gets right to the heart of the matter.

The Indian Residential Schools Resolution Health Support Program has a hotline to help survivors of residential schools and their loved ones suffering from trauma invoked by the memory of past abuse. The number is 1-866-925-4419.

This report from The Canadian Press was first published on July 22, 2022.

— Follow Bob Weber on Twitter at @row1960

Bob Weber, The Canadian Press

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