When Pope Francis took to the stage outside the Nakasuk School in Iqaluit, Nunavut, he was an hour behind schedule but still had thousands of people in attendance. By the time he finished, 80 per cent of the crowd was gone.
The Pontiff met with local officials and residential school survivors prior to the public presentation, and that process took longer than the time allotted.
Throughout Francis’ hour-long address, more and more people left.
Consecutive interpretation from Spanish, the language the pontiff was speaking into English and Inuktitut made every statement three times as long.
Survivors were shuttled off stage before the end of the presentation, in order to make their flights on time.
Governor General Mary May Simon was also spotted leaving prior to the official finish. Some elders in attendance grew cold in the chilly Arctic summer and were aided by St. John’s Ambulance volunteers with blankets.
While those in attendance had a longer experience than originally planned, some survivors did not arrive on time to see the Pope, while others only made it due to local resource extraction companies offering empty seats to survivors and family.
A scheduled flight from Arctic Bay to Iqaluit had survivors on it, who were expected to make it on time to see the pontiff.
Same-day travel in the Arctic is always a chancy proposition. A flight delay meant that those survivors and their families didn’t land in Iqaluit until the Pope’s plane was taxiing to leave.
In Igloolik, about 12 survivors and family members did not have secured flights the day before the Pope was supposed to appear. Baffinland Iron Ore Mine runs charter flights to their Mary River site from Iqaluit and some nearby communities. They offered up their empty seats to get more Inuit to Iqaluit on time.
“When we heard there were a number of families and residential school survivors needing to get to Iqaluit for the papal visit, we offered seats on our flights from Igloolik,” said Baffinland spokesperson Peter Akman. “I believe it was 12 people that took part in the opportunity.
“We didn’t really tell the public, because we didn’t want it to be about Baffinland.”
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Those who could make it got to see a fulsome display of Inuit culture, from throat singing to drum dancing, as the Pope sat meters away on a chair decorated with sealskins.
One of the more memorable parts to the artistic presentation followed drum dancing by Piita Irniq. Irniq is a survivor of Nunavut’s Chesterfield Inlet residential school and was one of the Inuit extending the invitation to the Pope.
Following his performance, he presented the Pontiff with the drum he used, saying, “In the old days, we danced when we were happy. Today, we are happy because the Pope is visiting us. Welcome to the Inuit homeland.”
The Pope has received criticism for not taking more blame for residential schools, had had previously referred to “some Catholics” as being the cause.
He also used some words in Inuktitut to pay respect to his hosts. His apology was delivered in Inuktitut, simply by saying the Inuktitut word for ‘I’m sorry, “Mamianaq.” He also closed his remarks with “Qujannamik” which is thank you. Both times, you could see the enthusiastic reaction with the crowd recognizing Inuktitut.
With remarks directed to Inuit youth, the Pope used the Inuit lamp –the qulliq- as his Inuktitut point of reference, saying, “Even today, this lamp remains a beautiful symbol of life, of a luminous way of living that does not yield to the darkness of the night.”
Pope says Indigenous people suffered genocide at residential schools
On a flight from Iqaluit to the Vatican, Francis admitted that the abuses Indigenous Peoples faced while being forced to attend residential schools amounted to genocide.
While Francis apologized multiple times throughout the week for the role “some Catholics” played in the institutions, he never spoke about genocide on the trip.
Some Indigenous people said they were disappointed that during his visit the Pope did not name the crimes and abuses that students and survivors faced. They also criticized him for not using the term genocide.
When asked if he would use the word genocide and accept that members of the church participated in genocide, Francis said yes.
The Pope said he didn’t think to use the word genocide during his trip, calling it a technical term.
“I asked for forgiveness for what has been done, which was genocide, and I did condemn this,” he said in Spanish through a translator.
Francis said instead of using the word genocide he described the attempts at destroying Indigenous Peoples through assimilation and colonization.
“To take away children, to change the culture, their mindset, their traditions _ to change a race, an entire culture … yes I (do) use the word genocide.”
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission referred to residential schools as a form of cultural genocide when it released its final report in 2015. But since then a number of Indigenous groups have amended this to say it was genocide.
Leah Gazan, a Manitoba NDP member of Parliament, tabled a motion in the House of Commons last year calling on the federal government to recognize what happened at residential schools as a genocide, but it did not gain unanimous consent.
The National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls concluded in its final report that violence against women and girls is a form of genocide. The effects of residential schools were the subject of many testimonies from families and survivors.
Neglect and physical and sexual abuse were rampant in the schools, and the Catholic Church ran 60 per cent of the institutions.
Throughout his Canadian visit, Francis expressed sorrow, indignation and shame.
“In the face of this deplorable evil, the church kneels before God and implores his forgiveness for the evil committed by so many Christians against the Indigenous Peoples,” he said Monday to a group of residential school survivors and their families gathered in Maskwacis in Treaty 6.
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Throughout his stops in Alberta, Quebec and Nunavut, the Pope was met with messages urging him to rescind the Doctrine of Discovery, papal bulls or official declarations that were developed to justify the colonization of the Americas.
Some Indigenous academics say the doctrine underlies all the policies that came after it.
Indigenous leaders have been calling for decades for it to be rescinded and the messaging ramped up before and during the Pope’s visit.
Many said they were disappointed it was not part of the Pope’s apologies.
He was asked on the plane Friday if he thought it was a missed opportunity to provide a concrete action toward reconciliation.
“Colonization is bad. It’s unfair and even today it’s used. Perhaps with silk and gloves, but it is used all the same,” he said.
“Let us be aware that colonization is not over. The same colonization is there today as well.”
Vatican officials have said a statement on the matter is to come.
With files from the Canadian Press