‘Say it where it happened’: Inuit residential school survivor turns to papal apology

Disclaimer: This story deals with the details of residential school abuse.

It won’t be easy for Piita Irniq, a residential school survivor, to meet Pope Francis in Iqaluit next week.

“It’s going to be scary,” said Irniq, who was abused by a nun when she was 11 years old while attending school in Chesterfield Inlet, in what is now Nunavut.

“It’s going to be great to see the pope because he’s been presented as the very authority of the Roman Catholic Church. A lot of things are going to go through my mind.”

He will welcome Pope Francis. But Irniq, on behalf of all the Inuit who were taken to residential schools, will have a few words to say as part of the official delegation meeting the pontiff.

“I’ll tell what happened to us.”

He does not mince his words. He calls what happened a kidnapping and a rape.

And a simple papal apology, no matter how sincere, will not suffice.

“His church is very rich. He should provide money for loss of culture, loss of language.”

A strained relationship

That’s not all.

Irniq, along with many other Inuit, believe the Catholic Church could do more to bring priests who abused children in Inuit communities to justice. At least one former priest accused in Canada, Johannes Rivoire, is still in France.

Although many Inuit remain devout Christians and Catholics, the Church has a strained relationship with the people of the Arctic.

Between 1955 and 1969, at least 324 children were taken from their parents and sent to live in Turquetil Hall, a Catholic institution, while attending Sir Joseph Bernier’s day school in Chesterfield Inlet.

Irniq was 11 when he was forced to attend Turquetil Hall boarding school. (Jean Delisle/Radio-Canada)

Additionally, dozens of children were abused by missionary priests in Inuit communities — memories still so raw that when a priest was finally put on trial in 2014, someone in one of his former communities set fire to the local church.

“It feels like it happened yesterday,” Irniq said.

Irniq’s voice trails off as he describes a nun’s crucifix swinging above his head as he is abused in a bathtub.

“I felt absolutely helpless.”

A life of leadership

Irniq used the education he received at such a high price to fight against this powerlessness. He became an Inuit leader, helped negotiate the Nunavut land claim, and eventually became Nunavut’s second commissioner.

Today, he is a culture teacher. He built the Inukshuk at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics and installed Argentina’s Inuit symbols at Juno Beach in France.

But Irniq still wants recognition for what was done to him and so many others.

The Inuit were part of a delegation of Canadian indigenous leaders who received an apology at the Vatican earlier this year. Hearing those apologies is more important in Iqaluit, he said.

“Rome is Rome. It’s 6,000 kilometers away. Tell it here, where it happened, where there was cultural genocide. Tell it here to the survivors, our parents. This will make a difference.”

Sold out hotels, new street

Pope Francis is scheduled to be in Iqaluit for four hours on Friday.

City officials say hotels are nearly full.

Iqaluit has renamed one of its main routes for the visit. The federal road, which Francis will take to get to Nakasuk School, is now called Sivumugiaq Street.

In honor of survivors like Irniq, it means “moving forward”.

That’s Irniq’s hope for the Pope’s visit — not just for the Inuit, but for all Canadians.

“It’s a really tough subject to talk about, but it has to be said. It’s also a part of Canadian history,” he said.

“It will be a monumental visit, not just for me. (The Pope) goes straight to the heart of the matter.”

Support is available for anyone affected by residential schools and those triggered by the latest reports.

The Indian Residential School Survivor Society (IRSSS) can be contacted toll free at 1-800-721-0066.

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 hotline: 1-866-925-4419.

Additionally, the NWT Helpline offers free support to residents of the Northwest Territories, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It’s 100% free and confidential. The NWT Helpline also offers an option for follow-up calls. Residents can call the helpline at 1-800-661-0844.

In Nunavut, the Kamatsiaqtut Helpline is open 24 hours a day at 1-800-265-3333. People are welcome to call for any reason.