When Piita Irniq meets Pope Francis in Iqaluit on Friday, he’ll make a request he’s been waiting a lifetime to deliver.
In August 1958, when he was 11 years old, Irniq was kidnapped from his family home in Naujaat (then called Repulse Bay) on the shores of Hudson Bay and forced to attend a residential school in Chesterfield Inlet.
Like so many other Indigenous students, he endured terrible abuse. Six decades later, he is planning to ask the Pope, in person, to send one of their alleged abusers, Father Johannes Rivoire, to Canada so he can finally face justice.
“This monster cannot be allowed to get away with what he did to Inuit children,” Irniq said.
Rivoire, a French Oblate priest, began working in Nunavut back in the 1960s, before returning to France in 1993. A few years later, the RCMP issued a warrant for his arrest on multiple charges of sexual abuse.
But France refuses to extradite its citizens to face charges abroad and so Rivoire remains free. He’s now in his 90s and is reportedly living in a retirement home in Lyon.
The criminal charges against Rivoire were stayed in 2017, after the Public Prosecution Service of Canada concluded there was no longer a reasonable prospect of conviction. But in March, Nunavut RCMP announced they had received a new complaint regarding sexual assaults that allegedly occurred in the 1970s, and officers renewed their arrest warrant.
Ottawa said Wednesday it has asked France to extradite Rivoire to Canada.
“I’m hoping the Pope can appeal to the French government to say, look, he has to be tried,” said residential school survivor Jack Anawak. In an interview near his home in Iqaluit, he told Global News that if France won’t extradite Rivoire to Canada then “the next best thing would be for him to be at least tried in France.”
“They’re still charging people who took part in the Holocaust. They’re over 90, some are over 100. You’re still charging them, you know, so it’s the same thing.”
The 71-year-old was just nine years old when he was taken from his home in Naujaat and forced to attend residential school in Chesterfield Inlet.
“I was one of those that was abused sexually. And it took about 30 years before acknowledgment of that fact,” he said.
Anawak later became an MP, parliamentary secretary to the minister of Indian and Northern Affairs and an architect of Nunavut’s first public government.
But one of his proudest moments was in the early 1990s, when he became one of the first to speak publicly about sexual abuse by Catholic priests at his former school.
“There was quite a bit of opposition to it. But we persisted and persisted and the more we pushed it, the more widely known it became.”
Three decades later, Anawak is welcoming the Pope to his remote northern city. The Pontiff’s visit to Iqaluit was scheduled to last just three hours, but survivors said they planned to make every moment count. The Pope will be greeted by residential school survivors, performing drum-dancing and throat singing — a celebration of the culture the church tried to destroy.
“We wanted to stage that although there was an attempt to take our language and our culture away, we have strived to thrive,” said survivor Alexina Kublu.
At the ceremony, they will light a traditional Qulliq oil lamp in memory of Kublu’s mother, whom she remembers standing on the shore near their home outside Igloolik, watching as her children were taken away by boat.
“And she just stood there for the longest time, just staring away,” Kublu recalled. “And so I said, when they started talking about residential school and how hard it was for themselves as children, I said this was very hard on our mothers as well, and our fathers.”
For the church’s role in those atrocities, the Pope was expected to apologize in person. But survivors said his actions moving forward on the Rivoire case will speak louder.
On Friday, both Irniq and Anawak will be thinking of their late friend and fellow residential school survivor Marius Tungilik. Tungilik also attended Sir Joseph Bernier Federal Day School and was allegedly abused by Rivoire. He was badly traumatized and in 2012, at the age of 55, he died by suicide.
“I made a promise to Marius one day, that I would do all I can to help get Rivoire back to Canada,” Irniq said. “And that’s what I’ve been doing for all of these years, to make sure that his victims have to start seeing healing and reconciliation for what happened to them by Rivoire when they were little children.”
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