By Stephen Hendrie
There’s usually a lot of joy and laughter when listening to Inuit throat singers. But in the audience outside Nakasuk School in Iqaluit on Friday, July 29, there were tears rolling down the cheeks of some Inuit elders. Tears because the throat singing was a vivid demonstration that Inuit culture did not die. The Inuit language, traditional clothing, and tattoos survived despite attempts to eradicate them in residential schools run by the Catholic Church with the support of the Government of Canada.
Meanwhile, inside Nakasuk School, Pope Francis was listening to searing testimony from Inuit survivors of the Catholic run residential schools in various locations in the Arctic, and other parts of Canada. His visit to Iqaluit concluded a week spent in Canada on a Papal Pilgrimage to apologize to Indigenous Peoples on behalf of the Catholic Church for the serious wrongs caused at the residential schools.
Eight Inuit residential school survivors from Nunavik were selected to be in Iqaluit to hear the Pope’s apology to Inuit firsthand, in a private ceremony. They were Jeannie Flemming and Charlie Kowcharlie from Kuujjuarapik; Anna Ohaituk and Allie Nalukturuk from Inukjuak; Mary and Willie Thomassie from Kangirsuk; and Maggie Rhoda Etok and Mary-Susie Annanack from Kangiqsualujjuaq. There were hostels at the Federal Day Schools in those four communities. Depending on the community, the Day Schools operated from 1950-1978, while the hostels were in operation from 1960-1971. They joined other Inuit survivors from Nunavut.
Makivvik President Pita Aatami was the leader of the Nunavik delegation. He was accompanied by William Tagoona and Jean Dupuis. “It was very hard to see all these residential school survivors in the same room when the Pope was there,” Pita said. “You cannot help but feel their pain, and cry with them. An apology goes some way, but it will never heal the pain they went through. It will never take back the abuse they went through with the residential school system.”
Willie Thomassie, who attended the Federal Day School in Kangirsuk and stayed at the hostel in the early 1960s, was selected from the eight Nunavik survivors to speak directly to the Pope. Pita says his testimony chronicled the hurt he went through. “Being sent away, they were in the same community, but not allowed to see his parents.” Pita says the other Nunavik survivors cried along with Willie during the time he told his story to the Pope, who listened quietly, apologized, and shook his hand.
The point was made eloquently by the Governor General of Canada, Mary Simon, a few nights earlier in a speech at the Citadelle in Quebec City. Sitting beside the Pope, she stated that he would not be here in Canada if it were not for the persistent lobbying on behalf of Indigenous survivors of the residential schools. She said, “It is Indigenous peoples who worked, waited, and prayed for an apology on Indigenous lands in Canada. They never gave up. We must remember that it is because of their courage and resilience that we are here today.”
It was the survivors who pushed this process, punctuated by significant milestones such as the official apology to victims of residential schools by the Government of Canada in 2008. At the time, in her role as President of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK), Mary Simon accepted the apology on behalf of the Inuit of Canada on the floor of the House of Commons, first in Inuktitut, and then in English, to demonstrate that the Inuit language survived.
The holding of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) with its 94 Calls to Actions followed from 2008-2015. They included Call to Action #58 that the Pope apologize to Indigenous Peoples on behalf of the Catholic Church. As described in the previous edition of Tarralik magazine, the Pope first apologized at the Vatican on Friday, April 1, and made a commitment to do so on Canadian soil in the summer of 2022.
William Tagoona observed the private ceremony with the Pope from the back of the room inside Nakasuk School. He knew former Day School student Marius Tungalik well. Marius was the first Inuk to speak about what happened to him at the Day School in Chesterfield Inlet. “I remember as a reporter in Iqaluit when that started to come out in Chesterfield Inlet, when they came out publicly at that time, people gave them death threats.” William said Inuit did not believe what they were saying at the time. “It was the Inuit themselves that started this whole thing so that the Pope would come.”
Unfortunately, Marius Tungalik took his own life, and did not live to see the apology. His story, however, was relayed to the Pope by his daughter, Tanya. She did not mince words and included graphic details of the sexual abuse her father suffered at the hands of the priests and nuns at the Joseph Bernier Federal Day School in Chesterfield Inlet, starting at the age of five years old. He stayed at the student residence at Turquetil Hall, where he was sexually abused.
Despite the private nature of the ceremony, Tanya Tungalik sent the text of her testimony to the CBC so it could be viewed by the global community. She stated, “My dad was the first Inuk to speak publicly about what happened at Turquetil Hall in Chesterfield Inlet. He and his fellow survivors, Piita Irniq and Jack Anawak, organized a reunion in Chesterfield Inlet in 1993.” Both Irniq and Anawak were in Iqaluit for the private ceremony with Pope Francis.
In concluding her testimony Tanya Tungalik said, “If my dad were alive today, he would be addressing you himself, because he fought for this moment since 1992. Pope Francis, to achieve reconciliation with our people we need these things from you and the Vatican.” She then listed four actions the Vatican needs to take. They include compelling Fr. Johannes Rivoire to return to Canada from France to face charges of sexual abuse, as he abused Tanya’s father, among other Inuit. She asked for an apology from the church acknowledging cultural genocide of Indigenous peoples; the repeal of the Doctrine of Discovery; and finally, the opening of the Vatican archives, making public all documents pertaining to Indigenous peoples.
These requests echo what Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK) has been working on with the Canadian Council of Catholic Bishops (CCCB), first in the trip to the Vatican, and now during this pilgrimage to Canada. Regarding the extradition of Johannes Rivoire to Canada, ITK President Natan Obed said, “We asked the Pope directly to intervene and speak to Johannes Rivoire to compel him to come back to Canada. That has not happened yet. We are still hopeful the Pope will intervene, especially after hearing Tanya’s story.”
In mid-September Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. (NTI) President Aluki Kotierk led an Inuit delegation to France seeking Rivoire’s extradition to Canada. On the trip was Steve Mapsalak, as well as Tanya and Jesse Tungilik, children of the late Marius Tungilik. The group succeeded in holding a two-hour meeting with Rivoire in Lyon, France, on September 14. The Oblate Priest denied everything. NTI intends to continue its pressure on the French government to extradite Rivoire to Canada to ensure he faces charges for sexually abusing Inuit at residential schools.
Obed highlighted another issue related to funding. “We also asked the Catholic Church to immediately repay the balance of the $30 million that it was tasked to pay under the Residential Schools Settlement Agreement. They have only paid $3 million of the $30 million, and that agreement was in 2008.”
ITK has also asked for the repeal of the Doctrine of Discovery – which was the mechanism created by the Church to sanction the “claiming of new lands,” even if there were Indigenous peoples living on them. “By the nature of being Indigenous, and the way that we chose to build our societies, and our lives, that we somehow did not own land in the way that Europeans owned land is at the heart of this call for repeal,” Obed said.
Makivvik President Pita Aatami commented on this issue as well. “I always said that our lands were stolen by governments, that somebody else came to my country, and basically took over the lives of the aboriginal people. They forced people to sign agreements, where they never signed agreements before. The agreements were always based on the laws of the people that were forcing you to sign the agreement. If you were in England, you wouldn’t have been able to do what you did, just taking land away from people!”
The Pope’s pilgrimage to Canada shined a bright light on issues that will gain greater traction in the political process ahead. But perhaps the most important effect of his journey here, to meet directly with Indigenous survivors of residential schools, is something William Tagoona described happening during the times Inuit survivors gathered casually for meals and waited for the meeting with Pope Francis in Iqaluit.
“The one that really struck me was Piita Irniq. He got up and started to speak to the whole crowd. He said, ‘No more is a teacher ever going to grab your kid again and drag him through the room with their ears. No more is a teacher going to slap you on the ear so hard that it knocks you out because you’re speaking your Inuktitut language. You can now speak Inuktitut all you want. You can now wear tattoos all you want. You can now wear your traditional Inuk clothing all you want, and drum dancing, and nobody is going to hurt you because you did that.’ That was really touching when he said that because it made us realize, ‘We’re free!’ We’re free now to do whatever we want, and yes, be proud of who we are and our language and customs.”
And so, the effect of “I’m Sorry” can be transformative. It was particularly moving to observe, towards the end of the public ceremony in Iqaluit, Piita Irniq, dressed in a bright white traditional silapaq, despite the horrible wrongs inflicted on him in residential school, give his drum and mallet to Pope Francis.
Further Online Resources:
Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, together with Nunavut Tunngavik Incorporated, Makivvik, and the Nunatsiavut Government, coordinated efforts for Inuit participation in the Papal Visit to Canada from July 25-29, 2022. A complete archive of the meetings held by the Pope including video and texts of the Papal Apologies is online at: papalvisit.ca
The transcript of Tanya Tungilik’s speech to the Pope is available at: https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/north/tanya-tungilik-speech-pope-full-text-1.6536409 or https://bit.ly/3qmiCwN
Speech by Her Excellency Mary Simon, Governor General of Canada, at the Citadelle in Quebec City on July 27, 2022:
ttps://www.gg.ca/en/media/news/2022/speech-papal-visit or https://bit.ly/3Delcg9