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Elder Piita Irniq, centre, holds up an image of Fr. Johannes Rivoire, who is wanted in Canada for abusing children in Nunavut but now resides in France, as he marches with NDP MP Mumilaaq Qaqqaq and Elder Evelyn Korknaz during a rally in Ottawa on July 31, 2021, to demand an independent investigation into Canada's crimes against Indigenous Peoples, including those at Indian Residential Schools.Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

Indigenous leaders and federal politicians say a new criminal charge against Johannes Rivoire, a Roman Catholic priest, is a step forward in the pursuit of justice for his alleged victims, who accuse him of sexually abusing them when they were young children in Nunavut.

Nunavut RCMP said on Monday that they had charged Father Rivoire based on a complaint about a sexual assault that took place 47 years ago. The force has issued a Canada-wide warrant for his arrest. The 93-year-old priest currently lives in a nursing home in Lyon, France.

Over the past year, Father Rivoire’s case has been raised in Ottawa by advocates and federal New Democrats, who have called on Justice Minister David Lametti to have the federal government work to bring him back to Canada.

Piita Irniq, a past commissioner of Nunavut and former territorial politician, said on Tuesday that the new charge against Father Rivoire is significant and has been a long time coming. Victims need to find peace and begin the healing process, he added.

Mr. Irniq has spent the past two decades pursuing justice for Father Rivoire’s alleged victims, many of whom were Inuit children. One of them was Mr. Irniq’s friend Marius Tungilik, who died by suicide in 2012, at age 55.

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Mr. Irniq said it has always been his hope that Father Rivoire will be brought back to Canada for trial.

“It is important because his victims would be closer to him here,” Mr. Irniq said.

The allegations against Father Rivoire have not been tested in court.

In a December, 2021, interview with Le Monde, the Paris-based newspaper, Father Rivoire denied ever having touched minors and rejected any sexual-abuse allegations against him.

Father Rivoire insisted to Le Monde that he left Canada for France in 1993 to look after ailing parents, not to evade three sex-related criminal charges laid by the Mounties that same year. The force issued a warrant for his arrest in 1998. But in 2017, the Public Prosecution Service said there was no longer a reasonable prospect of conviction, and the charges were stayed.

Father Rivoire’s case did not go away. Instead, it became a symbol of the work required to address crimes committed against Indigenous people by the church.

Earlier this week, during a meeting at the Vatican between an Inuit delegation and Pope Francis, Natan Obed, president of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, asked the Pope to intervene personally.

“It is such a heartbreaking reality that some people who should have been brought to justice decades ago have not seen justice,” Mr. Obed said on Monday.

NDP MP Charlie Angus said Mr. Lametti now has an opportunity to show that Canada takes crimes committed by church officials seriously. Mr. Angus called on the Justice Minister to put pressure on the Oblate order to stop protecting Father Rivoire and return him to Canada.

Mr. Lametti said Tuesday in a statement that the government remains committed to working with Indigenous communities on healing and reconciliation. He acknowledged the new charge laid by the RCMP against Father Rivoire.

“It is important to Canada and its international partners that serious crimes be fully investigated and prosecuted,” he said. “As extradition requests are regarded as confidential state-to-state communications, we are unable to comment on whether a particular extradition request has been made unless a case has been made public through the courts.”

Father Rivoire’s religious order, the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, keep him under house arrest at his nursing home, according to Le Monde. The head of the Oblates in France, Vincent Gruber, has urged Father Rivoire to co-operate with Canadian authorities, but the elderly priest has reportedly refused.

France and Canada have an extradition agreement, but France generally protects its citizens from extradition. As part of the agreement, if France refuses extradition Canada can hand the case to French authorities and ask for French courts to hear the matter. But the allegations against Father Rivoire may fall outside France’s statute of limitations on sex-assault cases, according to Robert Currie, a Dalhousie University professor who specializes in international law.

The church, by contrast, can force Father Rivoire to return to Canada.

“The Pope can tell any priest or bishop to do whatever the Pope wants them to do, and they have to do it,” Dr. Currie said.

Mr. Angus said survivors want to see the allegations taken seriously, and that they want to know the government is willing to go to the ends of the Earth to protect children.

“I think that’s the message that survivors want to hear and have a right to hear,” he said.

With a report from Tu Thanh Ha

The number for the National Indian Residential School Crisis Line is 1-866-925-4419. British Columbia has a First Nations and Indigenous Crisis Line offered through the KUU-US Crisis Line Society, toll-free at 1-800-588-8717.

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