Pope Francis travelled to the edge of the Arctic on Friday to deliver an apology to the Inuit people for the “evil” of Canada’s residential schools, wrapping up his week-long “penitential pilgrimage” with a dramatic visit to the remote territory of Nunavut to meet school survivors.
Francis landed in Iqaluit, population 7,500, and was meeting former school students at a primary school before speaking to Inuit young people and elders.
Organisers readied scores of anti-mosquito mask hats that have net mesh face protection to guard against the insects that abound this time of year in the mild temperatures of Nunavut.
Most of the territory is part of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, including its largest island, Baffin Island.
The visit capped an unusual papal tour designed specifically apologise to generations of First Nations, Metis and Inuit for the abuses and injustices they suffered, and to assure them that he was committed to helping them reconcile their relationship with the Catholic Church.
Before leaving Quebec City on Friday, Francis renewed his apology to survivors from eastern Canada for the Catholic missionaries who “supported oppressive and unjust policies” against them and vowed to pursue truth and healing.
From the late 1800s to the 1970s, more than 150,000 Indigenous children were forcibly removed from their homes and placed in church-run boarding schools to sever them from their cultures and assimilate them into Christian, Canadian society.
“How evil it is to break the bonds uniting parents and children, to damage our closest relationships, to harm and scandalise the little ones,” Francis told a gathering of Inuit youths and elders outside the school.
He thanked the school survivors for their courage in sharing their suffering, which he had heard for the first time this spring when delegations of First Nations, Metis and Inuit peoples travelled to the Vatican to seek an apology.
“This only renewed in me the indignation and shame that I have felt for months,” Francis said.
“I want to tell you how very sorry I am and to ask for forgiveness for the evil perpetrated by not a few Catholics who contributed to the policies of cultural assimilation and enfranchisement in those schools.”
Before his speech, the pope, seated in a chair covered in seal skin, watched Inuit throat singers perform.
The Canadian government has said physical and sexual abuse was rampant at the schools, and Francis on Thursday begged forgiveness for the “evil” of clergy sexual abuse committed against young and vulnerable people, vowing an “irreversible commitment” to prevent it from happening again.
Francis, who has been forced to use a wheelchair this trip because of painful strained knee ligaments, said he hoped to make progress in the search for truth “so that the processes of healing and reconciliation may continue, and so that seeds of hope can keep being sown for future generations – indigenous and non-indigenous alike – who desire to live together, in harmony, as brothers and sisters”.
“I have come in a spirit of penance, to express my heartfelt pain at the wrong inflicted on you by not a few Catholics who supported oppressive and unjust policies in your regard,” Francis told the delegations in Quebec City.
“I have come as a pilgrim, despite my physical limitations, to take further steps forward with you and for you.”
Later he took that message to Nunavut, a vast territory straddling the Arctic Circle. It is the farthest north the Argentine pope has travelled.
Nunavut is roughly the size of Alaska and California combined, with a mostly Inuit population of about 40,000. The capital city has a population of 7,500, about half of whom are Inuit.
The Inuit community is seeking Vatican assistance to extradite an Oblate priest, the Rev Joannes Rivoire, who ministered to Inuit communities until he left in the 1990s and returned to France.
Canadian authorities issued an arrest warrant for him in 1998 on accusations of several counts of sexual abuse, but it has never been served.
The Canadian government said this week that Canada had asked France to extradite Rivoire, but did not say when and provided no more details.
Reaction to Francis’ visit has been mixed, with even the Canadian government saying his apology did not go far enough in accepting blame for the institutional role the Catholic Church played in supporting the school policy.
Some school survivors have accepted his apology as genuine and helpful to their process of healing from trauma.
Others have found it still wanting, angered that it took the discovery of presumed unmarked graves outside some residential schools for the pope to apologise after Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission in 2015 specifically called for a papal apology to be delivered on Canadian soil.
Still others have demanded the church do more, including provide further information about the fate of children who never returned home from the schools and repudiating the 15th century papal bulls that informed the so-called “Doctrine of Discovery” which legitimised the colonial-era seizure of native lands for the sake of spreading Christianity.
“There were omissions in Pope Francis’s apology. No mention of ownership of the Catholic Church’s role, only the Christians’,” residential school survivor Evelyn Korkmaz said on Facebook.
“No mention in releasing residential school documents. No mention of revoking the Doctrine of Discovery. No mention in changing the rules or policies to assist clergy survivors to seek justice against their clergy predators. More action is needed.”
It is unlikely that the Vatican itself would hold records concerning the fate of indigenous children who died at the schools, though it would have documentation on any priests who faced canonical penalties after 2001, and possibly some before then.
If the documents exist, they are likely to be in the archives of individual religious orders, including the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate, which operated 48 of the 139 Christian-run residential schools.