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NDP MP Mumilaaq Qaqqaq holds a photo of Fr. Johannes Rivoire, who is wanted in Canada for abusing children in Nunavut but now resides in France, on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, on July 8, 2021.Justin Tang/The Canadian Press

For decades, Johannes Rivoire has lived as a free man in France, despite multiple charges that he sexually assaulted Inuit children while working as a priest in Nunavut beginning in the 1960s.

Pressure is mounting on several fronts to have him extradited, but legal experts are divided on whether the former priest could ever be forced back to Canadian soil.

The federal Department of Justice confirmed in late July that Canada has asked France to extradite the nonagenarian. The extradition request has found a vocal supporter in Aurélien Taché, a left-wing MP in France associated with the opposition group La Nouvelle Union populaire écologique et sociale.

Over the past year, pressure has been increasing to bring Mr. Rivoire back to Canada – including from Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami president Natan Obed, Inuk elder and former politician Piita Irniq, and the federal NDP. There’s been international conversation about the Catholic church’s harms to Indigenous peoples, with Pope Francis apologizing in July for its members’ role in the residential school system, which he acknowledged amounted to genocide. But Mr. Rivoire holds French and Canadian citizenship – and France has historically refused to extradite its citizens.

Mr. Rivoire lived in Nunavut for about 30 years. In 1998, the RCMP charged him with three counts of sexual assault, but he had already returned to France – and those charges were eventually stayed. In February, the RCMP laid a new sexual assault charge and issued a Canada-wide warrant for his arrest.

The latest charge was triggered by an Inuk woman who says Mr. Rivoire began sexually abusing her when she was six years old. The woman told The Globe and Mail she approached the RCMP many times over the past three decades to share her story, but police said the case lacked evidence.

In an e-mail, Sergeant Pauline Melanson, an RCMP spokesperson, said the offences related to the four charges were reported to have taken place in the 1960s and 1970s, while the victims were minors. In a recent interview with APTN News in Lyon, France, Mr. Rivoire denied being an abuser.

In interviews, two French lawyers disagreed on whether the extradition of Mr. Rivoire might be possible.

Stéphane Bonifassi, a Paris-based lawyer who specializes in international criminal law, was quick with his assessment. “The short answer is that he won’t be extradited,” he said. The government will see that the conditions for extradition are not met – given Mr. Rivoire’s French citizenship – and the process will stop there, he said.

William Julié, a Paris-based lawyer who specializes in extradition proceedings, said Canada has the legal grounds to move forward.

If an extradition request comes from a country with which France has no extradition treaty, it defers to its own laws, which specifically prevent the extradition of French citizens, but a treaty takes higher authority, Mr. Julié said.

The agreement between Canada and France says the requested state “shall not be bound to extradite its own nationals,” but does not ban extraditions of nationals outright, he noted. Such a decision would be without precedent, however. Mr. Julié said he is not aware of any case in which France has extradited a citizen.

In the French process, if a court decides in favour of extradition, the government then chooses whether to go ahead, Mr. Julié said. The prime minister would make the final decision, on the recommendation of the justice minister.

“Obviously, this is going to be a difficult call for the French courts and authorities,” Mr. Julié said. “But I do think it’s a case that at least can be battled in court.”

Robert Currie, a Dalhousie University law professor who studies extradition, wrote in an e-mail that he sees two possible reasons the Department of Justice sought extradition. The first, he said, is that there could be a wrinkle in French law that would allow Mr. Rivoire to be extradited.

The second, Prof. Currie said, is that the department is aware of criticism that Mr. Rivoire’s actions were never properly investigated, even though the allegations were repeatedly brought to police, and so they want to be seen as “doing something – even if it has limited effectiveness.”

Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller said on Aug. 29 he won’t be satisfied until Mr. Rivoire is tried in a Canadian court, but can’t guarantee that will happen.

“Everyone knows the intricacies of French extradition laws. [This is] a man of very advanced age, who is apparently unremorseful for any of the alleged actions,” he said. “We’ll keep working with all the organizations in Nunavut, who’ve been traumatized and re-traumatized by the fact that he’s still not been held accountable.”

Mr. Irniq, who has spent more than a decade advocating for Mr. Rivoire to be returned to Canada, said last week that he is very supportive of the request for extradition.

“I want to make sure that [Mr. Rivoire] is back here in Canada to stand trial so that his victims can start healing from what happened to them when they were little children in Nunavut,” he said.

In late July, Mr. Taché, the French MP, sent a letter to France’s justice minister asking that he respond to the arrest warrant issued for Mr. Rivoire in Canada. Noting France’s usual refusal to extradite its citizens, Marius Esposito, an adviser to the MP, said in an e-mail that Mr. Taché is asking for an exception to be made.

While Mr. Taché is the first French parliamentarian to publicly demand Mr. Rivoire’s extradition, Mr. Esposito said others support Mr. Taché's call. In August, Mr. Taché met virtually with NDP MP Lori Idlout, who represents Nunavut, to begin working together.

“It sounds like there’s interest from parliamentarians in France for the same justice, which is very important,” Ms. Idlout told The Globe. “[Rivoire’s] victims deserve a chance at justice. They deserve to be believed.”

Calls for Mr. Rivoire to face justice in Canada have also been championed by NDP MP Charlie Angus and Mumilaaq Qaqqaq, the former representative for Nunavut. Last year, Mr. Angus and Ms. Qaqqaq carried photos of Mr. Rivoire and other alleged abusers during a march on Parliament Hill, where they demanded an investigation into crimes perpetrated against Indigenous children at residential schools.

“I think that was symbolically really important – to put [Rivoire] front and centre and to say this man is still out there, and he’s still being protected,” Mr. Angus said. “How many others are there?”

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this article referred to events happening "last month" which happened in July. The article has been updated.

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