Pope Francis in Canada: Penitential pilgrimage ends in Iqaluit, Nunavut amid criticism

Pope Francis in Canada: Penitential pilgrimage ends in Iqaluit, Nunavut amid criticism


IQALUIT, Nunavut — At the final stop on a penitential pilgrimage that has received mixed reviews from the Indigenous peoples he visited, Pope Francis on Friday apologized again to survivors of boarding schools in Canada, saying it is his hope “Light to take a look at what happened and move beyond that dark past.”

The city of Iqaluit, built on permafrost, marked a fitting end to a somber, one-of-a-kind papal journey designed primarily to atone for the cruelty of state-funded schools, most of which were run by Catholic institutions.

“I want to tell you how sorry I am,” the Pope said.

He particularly noted the way the system, which aimed to forcibly assimilate Indigenous children into Christian culture, pulled children away from their parents and grandparents — a practice he called “evil.”

“Families have been torn apart,” Francis, wearing a white jacket, told several thousand people outside Nakasuk School in Iqaluit.

He delivered his speech in his native Spanish, translated into English and Inuktitut, in this remote region 200 miles from the Arctic Circle, where hostels are transforming the lives of the majority of the Inuit population. It was the last of his multiple apologies this week.

Pope apologizes for ‘evil committed by so many Christians’ in Canada’s boarding schools

Many tribals said they were moved by the long-awaited visit – especially considering the 85-year-old frailty and immobility. They said his willingness to say “I’m sorry” on Indigenous land was a critical first step toward healing. But later in the week he faced criticism from Indigenous leaders who said they were still waiting for him to apologize for the Catholic Church as an institution.

“[The apology] missed out,” said RoseAnne Archibald, the national chair of the First Nations Assembly, in a televised interview this week after the pope’s appearance in Maskwacîs, Alberta. She was one of the indigenous leaders who greeted Francis when he arrived in the country on Sunday.

Francis personally apologized for the “evil committed by so many Christians,” but not for the church as a whole. Nor did he discuss aspects of the institution that may have enabled it to advance Canadian government policies that the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission said amounted to cultural genocide.

During most of the 19th and 20th centuries, Indigenous children were forcibly removed from their families to be placed in residential homes, often hundreds of miles from their communities. They were forbidden to speak their mother tongue or practice their cultural traditions, and in many cases were subjected to physical and sexual abuse.

Fun facts about Canada’s residential schools and the unmarked graves found nearby

Murray Sinclair, the attorney who chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, said there was a “deep hole” in Francis’ words so far.

“It was more than the work of a few bad actors — this was a concerted institutional effort to remove children from their families and cultures, all in the name of Christian supremacy,” Sinclair said.

One of the indigenous people’s most important demands is that the church rescind 14th-century papal decrees that religiously supported the conquest of indigenous territory in the New World and elsewhere by Europeans.

Although Francis, the first pope from South America, has repeatedly denounced historic colonization and forced assimilation, he has not directly discussed the doctrine of discovery, the politics that grew out of these decrees. Two members of the Batchewana First Nation in Indigenous attire unfurled a banner that read “Rescind the Doctrine” ahead of a mass he celebrated Thursday at the Basilica of Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré outside Quebec City.

Pope Francis visits a Quebec that is rapidly shedding its Catholicism

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who has appeared with Francis in several of his appearances this week, said in a statement that he had discussed with him the need to address the Doctrine of Discovery, but did not elaborate.

A few days before the trip, a Vatican spokesman said a “deliberation” was underway within the Holy See.

In Iqaluit—a place “that others would find inhospitable,” Francis said—his parting words were as much about life advice as they were about penance. He addressed Inuit youth and spoke about self-confidence, the importance of big dreams and even ice hockey. (“How does Canada manage to win all these Olympic medals?” he asked. “Team spirit always makes the difference.”)

In Quebec City, Francis struck a thoughtful note at a morning meeting with about 20 Indigenous leaders early Friday. He said he came “as a pilgrim, despite my physical limitations” and that the stories he heard would always “be a part of me”.

“I dare say, if you will allow me, I now feel in a sense a part of your family too, and I’m honored for that,” the pope said.

“I am now returning home very enriched.”

Residential schools banned mother tongues. The Cree want theirs back.

Francis was grounded in Iqaluit for less than three hours on Friday. Canada’s northernmost city is the capital of Nunavut, an Arctic Circle region three times the size of Texas but with a population of just 40,000, spread across 25 hamlets and the capital. The far-flung communities are connected to each other and to the rest of Canada only by air.

Until the 1950s, the area was of no interest to anyone but whalers and missionaries. Change and modernization are now taking place at breathtaking speed.

Nunavut faces both social and environmental challenges. The poverty rate is high and housing is scarce. The suicide rate is many times higher than the rest of Canada, and the climate there is warming much faster than the global average, melting permafrost and putting pressure on water supplies.

Prior to his address, Francis met privately with residential home survivors. He then attended an event introducing Inuit language and traditions such as throat singing. Organizers said the performers were chosen to showcase the cultural expressions that boarding schools were trying – but failing – to eradicate completely. After his speech, a choir sang the Lord’s Prayer in Inuktitut.

Francis made the Canada trip despite being almost immobilized by knee pain. Before his departure, organizers were concerned that the Vatican could cancel a papal visit to the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan this month.

A Congolese teenager is said to have been raped by a priest. She had to flee. He can still say Mass.

In Canada, Francis essentially moved from one seat to the next—his popemobile, his Fiat 500, his wheelchair—relying on help every time he got up. The journey ended a markedly slower pace than others during his pontificate. He held about two events a day instead of the usual four or five. In Quebec, he used a walker on Friday morning.

“It’s clear he’s making a sacrifice” to be in Canada, said an Indigenous attendee at Thursday’s mass. Her birth name is Opolahsomuwehs, but she was given the childhood name Imelda Perley by a nun.

The now 73-year-old linguist and retired Opolahsomuwehs teacher said she still “needs to hear more than I’m sorry.”

“I want to hear how the church will restore what it stole.”

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