Right up to the last minute of boarding their plane back to Canada, members of an Inuit delegation from Nunavut kept an eye out for Joannes Rivoire at the Lyon airport in France.
They were hopeful the wanted Oblate priest would surprise them. Again.
After all, he’d shocked them halfway through their Sept. 12-15 trip to lobby France for his extradition, by showing up at their meeting with the Oblates and facing the delegation, who accuse him of sexually abusing children during his 30-year term as a missionary.
The 91-year-old denied the allegations.
And didn’t show up at the airport either.
Leaving the ticket they bought him unclaimed and seat 18A empty for the return flight to Montreal.
The story in 100 words
But what happened in Lyon is not the end of the story.
It is just another chapter in a complicated saga that involves Canada’s residential school system, the Catholic Church and colonialism.
Kilikvak Kabloona, the CEO of Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., helped lead the delegation to France.
She says the residential school system is a French problem.
“The Oblates are an order that started in France, they are a Roman Catholic order, and they operated most of the residential schools in Canada.
“The Oblates in Canada recognize the severity of the history,” she said in an interview. ?(But) in France … people don’t understand that residential school traumas were inflicted by French nationals.”
The story in 300 words
Joannes Pierre Rivoire became a priest at the age of 28. He joined the Oblates of Mary Immaculate – an international Catholic order of missionaries – and immediately travelled to the Arctic.
He served as a church priest in three isolated communities from 1963 to 1993. He was known as “Ataata (which means father in Inuktitut) Rivoire”.
Near the end of his time in Nunavut, five Inuit adults alleged he sexually abused them.
The RCMP laid six criminal charges – five in 1998 and the sixth in 2021.
The first offences were alleged to have occurred between 1968 and 1970. Rivoire was charged with:
- 1 count of indecent assault on three different victims;
- 2 counts of having sexual intercourse with a female who was not his wife and was under the age of 14.
However, he was never arrested.
That’s because he left Nunavut in 1993 – some allege he received a tip about the police investigation – before the charges were laid in 1998.
The RCMP have not explained why they charged Rivoire after he left the country.
They issued a Canada-wide warrant for his arrest, should he return to the country.
But the government of Canada says it never formally asked France to return Rivoire because the country won’t extradite its citizens.
That, it says now, was one of the reasons it did not proceed or stayed the first set of charges against the elderly priest in 2017. Along with taking note of Rivoire’s age.
The Inuit delegation from Nunavut travelled 4,400 km each way to France and back. Graphic: Jesse Andrushko/APTN News
Three members of the delegation are connected to the first set of charges.
They are alleged victim Steve Mapsalak and Tanya and Jesse Tungilik - the adult children of the late Marius Tungilik, who was the first to make a complaint against Rivoire - along with Steve’s brother Marcel Mapsalak.
The sixth and only charge laid against Rivoire in 2021 came out of a complaint made by an Inuk woman who can’t be identified.
She alleged Rivoire regularly abused her between 1974 and 1979.
The story in 500 words
The woman, 51, wished she could have accompanied the delegation to France.
But her lone criminal charge supports Canada’s request to extradite the aging Oblate. And she doesn’t want to do anything to jeopardize that.
Steve Mapsalak and Tanya Tungilik did confront Rivoire. Albeit in two very different ways.
Steve says he told the priest about the shame he still feels, and how he thought he was the only youth Rivoire allegedly sexually abused. During the in-person meeting, he says he identified the building where the alleged crime took place - even describing the exterior.
Tungilik, however, says she addressed Rivoire quickly and loudly. She says she ended her rant by jumping up and shouting “F*** you!” before running out of the room.
“I didn’t give him a chance to speak,” she said later. “I didn’t want to hear what he had to say. I cried and cried ugly tears.”
Both say they found relief.
“We are in awe of Steve, Tanya and Jesse for their courage travelling here to speak,” says Kabloona. “They have done so much to expose the truth and to seek justice.
“They’ve done far more than any of the institutions that are supposed to protect Inuit.”
Steve, in particular, has nothing to feel embarrassed about, added Kabloona.
“He was a child. Adults are supposed to protect children not hurt them," she continued. "The adult with the most authority in his community was (the alleged) abuser.”
At the time, there were no police officers serving in Steve’s community.
The Inuit delegation accuses the Oblates of hiding and protecting their Catholic brother.
But the Order denies paying for Rivoire’s lawyer or his care in an expensive Lyon retirement home.
Spokesperson Vincent Gruber says it plans to kick him out of the order.
“The Canadian government has allowed him to live (in France),” noted Kabloona. “The Oblates, the Roman Catholics, have allowed him to live (in France), with no consequences for his (alleged) actions.”
While Inuit followed the legal process, went to police, and trusted the justice system, she added.
“It’s not acceptable for nothing to have come of those charges from both governments, from the Oblates, from the Catholic church. It continues to be a French problem. People can’t wash their hands of justice.”
The total number of Rivoire’s alleged victims remains unknown.
Kabloona says, “In the past people have gone to the police and they haven’t been believed.
“The dates (of the alleged offences) might not be clear in their minds - I think that’s normal for children. (Another) one of the barriers has been language – he was known as 'Ataata Rivoire'.”
The most recent female victim says she tried to file a complaint against Rivoire with the RCMP in Nunavut 10 times in 30 years before it was accepted and a charge laid.
“I go to church, I am a Catholic,” she says. “I don’t blame the church. I blame him.”
She says his advanced age should not deter his prosecution.
While some may see him as a vulnerable adult, she says she was an even more vulnerable child when she was allegedly abused.
“It should work both ways,” she says.