Inuit advocates hail new charges against French priest accused of abusing Nunavut children

Disclaimer: This article is about child abuse in residential schools.

Two Nunavut advocates who have dedicated decades to bringing to light the atrocities that occurred at the Chesterfield Inlet residential school say they are happy to see new charges brought against an Oblate priest accused of sexually abusing Nunavut children.

This time, say Jack Anawak and Piita Irniq, they hope the federal government will follow up on the music of Father Johannes Rivoire.

“Let’s make sure it happens for real this time around,” Irniq said.

Rivoire worked in many Nunavut communities in the 1960s and 1970s, but returned to France in the 1990s. He was charged with sexually abusing children in Nunavut, but those charges were stayed in 2017.

Former Nunavut MP Mumilaaq Qaqqaq drew attention to the case at a press conference in Ottawa last summer, followed by a ‘truth and justice’ march through the streets of Ottawa .

“Instead of facing justice for his crimes, Rivoire is living a luxurious retirement in a home for priests…and the federal institution is doing nothing about it,” Qaqqaq said at the time.

The Nunavut RCMP confirmed this week that Johannes Rivoire is facing a new Canada-wide arrest warrant. They said they brought further sexual assault charges against Rivoire on February 23, after investigating a complaint filed in September by someone who said he was abused 47 years ago. They also said no decision had been made on an extradition order, which would be processed by the Public Prosecution Service of Canada.

Father Johannes Rivoire in Arviat in 1979. Rivoire, who now lives in France, was accused of sexually abusing children while in Nunavut. (Library and Archives Canada)

Anawak said the original charges should never have been stayed.

“They should have continued until it was all sorted out, because the people he abused are still feeling the effects very, very deeply in life,” he said.

“We tell the truth”

Irniq, Anawak and their friend, the late Marius Tungilik, were among the first to speak out about the abuse they suffered at Turquetil Hall in Chesterfield Inlet. They eventually helped write the 1996 apology by Catholic Bishop Renald Rouleau for what happened at that school.

But neither Irniq nor Anawak are part of the delegation of indigenous representatives currently in Rome to ask Pope Francis to come to Canada to apologize for the role of the Catholic Church in residential schools.

“We went ahead – despite good opposition – dealing with rape, physical abuse, emotional abuse, attempted assimilation [in Chesterfield Inlet]. And when we did that, it started the whole process across Canada,” Anawak explained.

“It was … a disappointment not even to be asked to advise on what to say to the Pope when visiting the Vatican.”

Jack Anawak in a 2019 file photo. He was disappointed that the Indigenous Peoples Delegation in Rome had not consulted him or Piita Irniq. (David Gunn/CBC)

Delegates representing the Assembly of First Nations, the Métis National Council and the Inuit meet the Pope in Rome — a visit that has been in the making for months. The delegations include elders, youth, support workers, knowledge keepers and residential school survivors, and were created in collaboration with the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Irniq said their exclusion from the delegation process makes him think the church is still in control. He still has high hopes for what the delegation will say on behalf of the survivors, and for the impact that a formal and heartfelt papal apology will have in Canada.

“I still have hope that they will talk about the traumatization of people, the traumatization of survivors. Because being kidnapped right in front of my parents by a Roman Catholic priest in August 1958, to be taken to Chesterfield Inlet for going to boarding school when I was 11 – it was traumatic. I was extremely traumatized and I still feel it today,” he said.

“It’s not just the Indigenous story. It’s a Canadian story, it’s a Vatican story, it’s a Pope story. So it’s important that we work towards healing and reconciliation for our people.”

Support is available to anyone affected by their residential school experience or recent reports.

A National Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line has been established to provide support to former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour National Crisis Line: 1-866-925-4419