When Pope Francis lands in Iqaluit at the end of his Canadian tour next week, he will find a traditional Inuit seal-oil lamp burning at the airport in memory of Alexina Kublu’s mother and all the Inuit parents like her.
Ms. Kublu, a former Nunavut languages commissioner and survivor of a notorious Catholic school and residence in Chesterfield Inlet, wanted her late mother’s qulliq included in the welcoming ceremony as a symbol of the harm that such institutions inflicted – not just on students but on entire families, who sometimes lost children to schools thousands of kilometres away.
“I remember my mother standing at the shore, just staring off into the distance where the boats had disappeared around the corner, and standing there for a very long time,” Ms. Kublu said of the day in the late 1950s when some of her older siblings left for the Chesterfield Inlet school, located almost 800 kilometres southwest of the area outside Igloolik where her family was still living in the traditional Inuit way.
The great distances some Inuit and other Indigenous students in the Arctic had to travel to attend residential schools is one of the ways their experiences differed from those of students in the South – something survivors hope the Pope will acknowledge when he visits Iqaluit on July 29.
Nunavut’s capital, home to about 7,500 people, is one of just three Canadian cities Pope Francis is scheduled to visit on a trip intended to heal the wounds suffered at residential schools, about 60 per cent of which were operated by Catholic entities. During his 2½ hours in Iqaluit, Francis is slated to meet privately with survivors and participate in a public event outside a school in the centre of the city.
Ms. Kublu, 67, plans to be in the crowd with her sister and hopes to hear the Pope make a “heartfelt” apology for the unique toll of residential schooling in the Arctic.
The per-capita impact of residential schools was higher in the Far North than anywhere else in Canada because Indigenous people comprised most of the population in two of the three northern territories, as the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission points out. The Arctic experience is also more recent, with many schools opening only after the Second World War, when the federal government turned its attention to that part of the country.
“When residential schools [in the South] started to close in the fifties and the sixties and the seventies, residential schooling in the North was just ramping up,” said Crystal Gail Fraser, a professor in the faculties of native studies and history at the University of Alberta whose mother and grandmother both attended Catholic residential schools in the Northwest Territories.
Initially, most northern residential schools were in the western Arctic, so Inuit students from what is now Nunavut and the Nunavik region of Quebec were sometimes forced to move hundreds or even thousands of kilometres away. Later, as the federal government established day schools and hostels in more Arctic communities, some Inuit families moved off the land and into permanent settlements to be near their children year-round, contributing to a profound reshaping of Inuit life.
Piita Irniq, a former commissioner of Nunavut, remembers well the day in August, 1958, when he was taken from his family’s land outside Repulse Bay, a Nunavut community now known as Naujaat, where he was born in an igloo. He was 11.
“I was kidnapped by a Roman Catholic priest right in front of my parents in broad daylight,” Mr. Irniq, 75, said. “There was no prior warning. There was no prior consultation with my parents that I was going to be going to school.”
Like Ms. Kublu, Mr. Irniq was taken to Chesterfield Inlet, a tiny community on the western shore of Hudson Bay.
Their residence there, Turquetil Hall, and the Catholic school they attended, Sir Joseph Bernier Day School, were singled out in the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as facilities where life was “far darker” than at other schools in the Arctic, some of which the commission praised for “the positive roles that they played in developing and encouraging a new generation of Aboriginal leadership in the North.”
The report also painted a dark picture of Grollier Hall, a Catholic residence in Inuvik, NWT, where between the years 1959 and 1979 there was at least one sexual predator on staff at all times.
In the early 1990s, the Northwest Territories launched an investigation into allegations of sexual abuse at the school and residence in Chesterfield Inlet. The RCMP did the same but ultimately decided against laying criminal charges.
However, Katherine Peterson, the lawyer who led the investigation on behalf of the territorial government, concluded that “serious incidents of sexual assault did in fact occur at the Chesterfield Inlet school during its years of operation.” She also wrote that the RCMP investigation had turned up 115 allegations of physical abuse that ranged from overzealous discipline with rulers and straps to throwing a child against a wall.
Given all that, Mr. Irniq wants Pope Francis to go beyond issuing a wide-ranging apology and commit to “providing funds for Inuit Indigenous people so that we can continue to work in a bigger way to retrieve and reclaim and take back our culture and language.”
For Robert Watt, co-director of the Inuit subcommission of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, one of the most striking aspects of the testimony of Inuit survivors was how many retained a strong faith in God, despite their anger at the sins of individual clergy members or lay staff.
“There’s a lot of people that really have faith and still go to church,” he said. “I think it would mean a lot to many of these survivors to have the Pope visit and officially apologize.”
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