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Pope Francis’s predecessors collected hundreds of items from Indigenous peoples in Canada, but they haven’t been out of storage for a long time – until now, as delegates on a mission of truth and reconciliation prepare to meet the pontiff on Dec. 17

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Father Nicola Mapelli, curator of the Vatican's ethnological museum, inspects a rare Inuvialuit kayak with art restorers Catherine Riviere and Martina Brunori. A Western Arctic Catholic bishop sent Pope Pius XI the kayak in 1924 for a Vatican exhibition.Photography by Chris Warde-Jones/The Globe and Mail

In 1924, Gabriel Joseph Élie Breynat, the French-born Roman Catholic bishop of the Mackenzie region of Arctic Canada, received an unusual request from his holy handlers at the Vatican: Send artifacts.

The pope at the time, Pius XI, an outward-looking Italian, was planning the church’s first world expo. Missionaries from Australia to Zambia were instructed to collect religious and non-religious objects made by Indigenous peoples and deliver them to Rome.

Bishop Breynat sent a rather bulky, but delicate, object: a sealskin kayak.

The kayak and some 200 other pieces of Indigenous artifacts from Canada were exhibited in 24 temporary pavilions in the Vatican along with 100,000 objects from the Americas, Africa, Asia and Australasia. By the time the expo closed in January, 1926, it had attracted a million visitors. After that exhibition, the kayak’s trail gets murky. The records are not precise, but it appears the sleek nautical curiosity has not been on public display for at least two decades, maybe longer.

The Globe and Mail first reported on the kayak’s existence in 2005 but was never able to persuade the Vatican Museums to allow a reporter to see it. But on Nov. 22, the kayak was removed from the Vatican’s vaults and put on display for The Globe, along with a dozen other objects from Indigenous peoples in Canada, including a small Arctic sculpture of a beluga, or possibly a killer whale, that was given to Pope Paul VI by Pierre Trudeau when he was prime minister. The kayak and the other objects were placed in a walled-off, temporary restoration space only a few metres away from works by Raphael, Caravaggio and da Vinci, the star attractions of the Vatican Museums.

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The Indigenous artifacts included a small whale sculpture given by Pierre Trudeau to Pope Paul VI.

The museums’ change of heart was likely triggered by a coming visit to the Vatican by representatives of Indigenous group from Canada. First Nations, Métis and Inuit delegations will each have a private meeting with Pope Francis over three days starting Dec. 17.

The trip, co-ordinated by the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, is part of the truth and reconciliation process following scandals over the abuse of generations of Indigenous children in residential schools run by the church. In October, Francis agreed to visit Canada, where he is expected to issue a formal papal apology for the abuses. The date of the visit has yet to be determined but it may happen next summer, according to Holy See diplomats.

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Barbara Jatta, director of the Vatican Museums.

In an interview, Barbara Jatta, the Italian art historian who was appointed director of the Vatican Museums in 2017 by Francis, said the kayak “was a gift to Pope Pius XI” and that “it is important that Canadian Catholics are aware of this collection. ... Our wonderful collections are a way for peoples to find their roots.”

The Canadian embassy to the Holy See appreciates the Vatican Museums’ effort to bring some of the objects of their Indigenous collection, notably the kayak, to light. “The embassy would be happy to help facilitate a visit to Canada by the Vatican Museums to connect with Indigenous communities, such as the Inuit whose ancestors used the kayak,” said Paul Gibbard, chargé d’affaires at the embassy. “This is part of our shared goal toward reconciliation.”

Several calls and e-mails to the Inuvialuit Cultural Centre in Inuvik, Northwest Territories, asking for comment on the Vatican’s kayak were not returned.

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At top, details from the 'Pope's kayak' and First Nations clothing that the Vatican Museums displayed. In the video, The Globe and Mail's Eric Reguly tours the collection to learn more about where it came from.

The Globe and Mail

In spite of the rips in its brittle sealskin hull, the kayak appears in remarkably good shape for a boat that is at least 100 years old, and probably older.

According to Vatican Museums’ records, the kayak is 4.4 metres long, 54 centimetres at its widest point and 35 centimetres tall. The wooden frame, probably made from driftwood, is unbroken. The biggest rips in the hull are near the bow and stern; they probably occurred when the dehydrated sealskin shrank to breaking point.

Curators at the museums praised the boat for its beauty. The kayak has an elegant, purposeful simplicity about it. The hull has a convex curvature, allowing it to be highly manoeuverable, with a gentle rise to the bow and stern.

The bow terminates in a near vertical “horn” – the museums’ description – that seems decorative but probably acted as a handle so the boat could be easily launched or dragged ashore. The stern horn is missing.

A zigzag stitch of sinew joins the seams of the sealskin cover, which, during its working years, would have been rubbed with seal oil to make it fully waterproof. In front of the oval cockpit are two straps, also made of sealskin, for securing equipment.

Two lance-tip holders, made of bone, are positioned near the bow. They would have held the lances or harpoons used to hunt beluga whales, which were typically killed after the waterborne hunters corralled them into shallow water. (The double-bladed paddle that came with the kayak was not put on display.)

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Sinew holds the kayak's exterior together; inside, the wooden frame is intact, as are its straps and lance-tip holders. All together, the light, manoeuvrable vessel is just over 14 feet long.

The kayak’s outing earlier this month caps a remarkable odyssey that began almost 20 years ago with an overheard conversation in Toronto. It captured the imagination of the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM), whose curators were thrilled when they learned about the boat’s existence.

The kayak’s rarity drove their enthusiasm. At the time, only five Mackenzie River Delta kayaks – that is, kayaks from the Western Arctic – were known to exist. Three were in the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, one in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, and one in the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen. The Pope’s kayak was the sixth. The larger, seagoing Baffin Island kayaks – of the Eastern Arctic – are more common.

Based on the Vatican Museums’ meagre records and examinations done by ROM curators, including Kenneth Lister, who first saw the Pope’s kayak in 2004, its origins are a matter of educated guesswork. Mr. Lister, a long-time student of Arctic skin boats who is the ROM’s former assistant curator of anthropology, believes the kayak was made by Inuvialuit hunters in the late 1800s or early 1900s. Exactly where it was used is not known, though it is known that Bishop Breynat’s mission was in Aklavik, a hamlet in the Northwest Territories about 60 kilometres west of present-day Inuvik.

In an interview last week, Mr. Lister said he thinks the kayak was sent to Rome partly because it was no longer needed. By the 1920s, Inuvialuit hunters were using bigger, safer wooden boats, probably supplied by whaling crews or the Hudson’s Bay Company. The wooden boats had their advantages. They were low on maintenance and they would not be eaten by dogs. “Dogs would devour the skin kayaks,” Mr. Lister said. “That’s why they had to be stored up high, where the dogs couldn’t reach them.”

The kayak was sent by steamship to Edmonton in 1924. From there, it travelled by Canadian Pacific Railway to Montreal, where it was put on a ship to Genoa, the main port in northwest Italy. From Genoa, it was shipped to Rome.

Given its size and rarity, it may have been one of the top attractions at Pope Pius’s world expo. The Vatican Museums’ records describe the boat as “a work of great value.” Father Nicola Mapelli, curator of the Vatican’s Ethnological Museum Anima Mundi (Soul of the World), said the “Pope’s kayak,” as it would become known, surfaced in 1927 in Pope Pius’s new ethnological museum in the Lateran Palace, across town from the Vatican. It was later transferred to the Vatican Museums.

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Tourists gather near the Vatican Museums' exit

It appears that almost no one in Canada was aware of the kayak’s existence, or that of the hundreds of other Indigenous pieces in the Vatican Museums’ ethnological collections, in the years after the Second World War. Even the ROM’s Indigenous artifacts experts had no idea that they included a precious Western Arctic kayak.

It was Robert Fung who in effect rediscovered the boat in the early 2000s. An investment banker who was then chairman of the Toronto Waterfront Revitalization Corp., Mr. Fung was at a fundraising event in Toronto in 2002 when he heard about Indigenous collections at the Vatican and at the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg. He had no idea that two of Europe’s most famous museums were harbouring potential Indigenous treasures from Canada.

He started to make inquiries. First, he tried to gain access to the Hermitage’s collection of Indigenous artifacts. The effort failed. A year later, the Italian owners of a restaurant in Toronto put Mr. Fung onto a law firm in Milan that had Vatican connections.

He received an invitation from the Vatican Museums to see their collection of Indigenous artifacts from Canada. Realizing he knew nothing about Arctic kayaks, he invited Mr. Lister and his ROM colleague, Mark Engstrom, to join him. When they landed in Rome, the trio did not even know if the kayak was real or a small model of one. It was real. The kayak had been placed outside its storage vault so the Canadians could examine it. Mr. Fung remembers being surprised by the number and variety of the other Indigenous artifacts – from carvings to headdresses – that they also spotted.

Mr. Lister was thrilled that the boat was largely intact. “It’s an absolute marvel, a beauty,” he said in last week’s interview. “Inuit kayaks move with the waves, they dance like they are part of the water.”

Mr. Fung’s idea was to bring the collection to Toronto, where it could be displayed, possibly in a dedicated small museum that would be run by the ROM. That effort went nowhere. The Vatican Museums have put bits of their ethnological collections on tour – recently to China and Australia – but almost never gives their treasures away. The ROM’s idea of making the kayak a temporary exhibit at North American ethnological museums also collapsed, largely because of the expense of transporting the boat in an environmentally secure and shock-proof case.

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Father Mapelli and the restorers inspect the kayak.

It appears the era of the Pope’s kayak being a hidden treasure is close to ending. Father Mapelli wants to restore the kayak and put it on display with other Indigenous items once the Americas section of the Anima Mundi ethnological museum reopens in a year or two, after being stalled by the pandemic. “The Vatican took care of it for a century,” he said about the kayak. “It has been treated and will be treated with the same respect as a Michelangelo.”

The boat could also go on tour after it is restored, he said.

Another item that will almost certainly go on display is a wampum belt from Quebec, which the Vatican Museums considers one of the most valuable items in their ethnological collection. The beaded belt, made from shells, is 231 centimetres long. It dates from 1831 and was a gift to Pope Gregory XVI.

Stefania Pandozy, head of the Vatican Museums’ ethnological materials restoration laboratory, says that Anima Mundi wants to consult with Inuit peoples on the best ways to conserve the kayak and that its curators are open to visiting the Northwest Territories. “We have to find an equilibrium between contemporary restoration techniques and traditional restoration methods,” she said. “We need to hear the voices of their culture. ... The kayak conservation project will be a precious opportunity for human and professional growth for the laboratory to establish a fruitful dialogue with the Indigenous communities of origin and Canadian scholars who will be actively involved in conservation choices.”

The kayak and the other Indigenous artifacts have a history that now includes the Vatican, whose museums before the pandemic took in seven million visitors a year.

“Artifacts have rights and multiple histories that need to be honoured,” Mr. Lister said. “I have a huge respect for Father Mapelli and his team. Appropriate stewardship includes access for the public and for scholars, and long-term care. As part of the kayak’s narrative, the Vatican is conserving its remarkable history.”

Reconciliation and the Catholic Church: More reading

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Tijana Martin/The Globe and Mail

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