A special emphasis was placed on the survivors themselves for the first brief Papal visit to Nunavut. Before Pope Francis made his public appearance in Iqaluit on July 29, he first met with a private audience of Inuit residential school survivors inside Nakasuk School. “This is for the survivors and this is their day,” said Rachel Qitsualik-Tinsley, one of the volunteers for the Papal visit and a survivor of an Anglican residential school.
“It’s an odd experience because usually I’m a very private person but when (they) were signing people up the Creator said to me, ‘we’ll answer for this’ and I answered the call.”
Qitsualik-Tinsley was among the volunteers who were greeting other survivors at the Iqaluit Airport. She was also there for emotional and interpretation support.
Roughly 900 people stopped by to see Pope Francis for the public portion of his visit after, where Inuit drum dancers, throat singers and artists performed in front of Nakasuk School for the Pope.
“We are extremely happy that you came to meet with us,” said Piita Irniq, survivor, drum dancer and former Commissioner of Nunavut, before he presented the Pope with an Inuit drum.
“I want to thank all the residential school survivors who came to Iqaluit to hear the Pope for hope, healing and reconciliation!” Irniq wrote on his social media the next day.
“We can move forward with a feeling of pride, strength, better healing and reconciliation, for our parents, our children, our grandchildren and their children.”
Former MP for Nunatsiaq (later renamed to Nunavut) and survivor Jack Anawak’s thoughts were with survivors on July 29.
“I will be thinking of all my former classmates today, those who are still with us and those who have passed away,” Anawak wrote.
“Now is the time to move forward. It was an emotional day and the fact that the Pope came here was acknowledgement enough for the atrocities endured by former residential school (survivors) and followed by an apology. As much as the trauma is still there, the visit gives us the incentive to really start the process of healing and reconciliation.”
“A short while ago, I listened to several of you who were (survivors) of residential schools,” said Pope Francis.
“I thank you for having the courage to tell your stories and to share your great suffering that I could not imagine. This has only renewed the indignation and shame I’ve had for months. Today too, in this place, I want to tell you how very sorry I am. And to ask for forgiveness for the evil perpetrated by not a few Catholics.”
The Pope would later give some advice in Spanish and lead a public prayer which would continually be translated into English and then Inuktitut. A process which took longer than expected, leading to a dwindling audience and causing survivors and outside media in its latter half scrambling to catch their planes out of Iqaluit that same evening.
On the plane ride back Rome, Pope Francis told media reporters on the plane the residential school system amounted to genocide, a positive development from the perspective of Nunavut’s leaders.
“The Pope acknowledging the past as genocide is tremendously important. It is a significant change that will have ripple effects all over the world,” said Nunavut MP Lori Idlout, who was in attendance during the visit, she later added the Pope’s acknowledgement of genocide is already being included in her conversations with other political representatives, she added.
“I was very moved to hear the apology by His Holiness Pope Francis to residential school survivors,” wrote Nunavut premier P.J. Akeeagok on social media.
“While the apology does not erase this dark chapter in Canada’s history, it does provide another step toward healing,” he added.
On July 25, Francis also apologized for the “physical, verbal, psychological and spiritual” abuses in residential schools. Sexual abuse experienced in the residential school system was not specifically mentioned by the Pope.
Nunavut Tunngavik Incorporated president Aluki Kotierk was a part of a delegation of 55 Nunavut Inuit to the Pope’s apology earlier in the week in Maskwacis First Nation, Alberta.
“Inuit have finally been heard and their experiences acknowledged. I give my thanks to the survivors for being in attendance and for being open to their own healing. I am moved by their bravery, compassion and optimistic for our future,” said Kotierk.
More still needs to happen however according to NTI, this includes the excommunication of Johannes Rivoire, who has been accused of sexually abusing Inuit children across the Arctic, and Eric Dejaeger, who has been convicted of sexually abusing children and a dog in Iglulik.
Other requests include for the Pope to instruct Rivoire to return to Canada from France to face charges in court, the handing over of evidence from the Vatican so that Nunavut Inuit do not have to relive their experiences of the residential school system in court.