Warning: The story below contains details about abuse in residential schools that may be upsetting. Canada’s National Indian Residential School Crisis Line is available 24 hours a day on 1-866-925-4419.
Iqaluit, Canada – Glaciers and high mountain ranges, fjords, freshwater lakes and lowlands dominate the two million square-kilometre (770,000 square-mile) territory of Nunavut, Canada. This expanse is composed of ocean inlets and islands, including the Queen Elizabeth archipelago, a group of islands made up of frozen, snow-covered rock. It is home to extensive Arctic wildlife and ecosystems.
In summer, the landscape bursts with lush greenery and purple saxifrage flowers that grow in large clusters along the tundra floor. In Nunavut’s capital of Iqaluit, faded wooden rowboats dot the shores of the ocean inlet with barges anchored in the distance. White canvas hunting tent villages are pitched outside the city borders.
Iqaluit is the hub of Nunavut, providing access to government and medical services to the nearly 40,000 people who live in the vast territory. It is the least populous territory in Canada and one of the most remote regions in the world. The town is set against the shores of the Koojesse Inlet, on the southeast part of Baffin Island and surrounded by the ice-capped Everett Mountains.
Caribou, Arctic foxes and other northern wildlife frolic not far from the city limits. The sky appears infinite above this secluded coastal region.
The city has less than 8,000 people, mostly Inuit, who live in colourfully painted houses perched on stilts because of the permafrost that stretches hundreds of metres below the hardened soil.
In late July, Pope Francis travelled to this remote area 2,337km (1,452 miles) north of Toronto, where thousands of Canada’s residential school survivors and community members awaited an overdue apology.
Nunavut marked the final stop of his cross-country “penitential pilgrimage”. He begged forgiveness from Inuit survivors of Canada’s assimilative institutions gathered in Iqaluit on July 29.
“Mamianaq,” he told the crowd. It’s the Inuktitut word for “I’m sorry.”
Kidnapped in broad daylight
One of the survivors of the Catholic and state abuse was Piita Irniq, 75, who grew up in an igloo with his family hundreds of kilometres from mainstream society. He learned the ways of his ancestors – who lived on the cold, windy tundra of Nunavut for thousands of years before him – like hunting, fishing and cultural traditions. He spoke only Inuktitut. But one summer’s day in August 1958, he was snatched by a priest and Catholic clergy from his family home on the land and transported by plane to Turquetil Hall, a notorious residential school.
“I was taken by the church to go to a residential school, kidnapped in broad daylight, right in front of my parents,” Irniq recalled, his voice wavering as he described being forced to learn the English language and religion of the Catholic Church at the residential school in Chesterfield Inlet in the high Arctic.
The federally mandated schools were designed to forcibly assimilate Indigenous children into the mainstream Canadian culture. More than 150,000 Indigenous children attended the institutions from the late 1800s until 1997 when the last school closed. The Catholic Church oversaw 60 percent of the church and state-run schools.
Abuses were widespread and Indigenous languages and cultural practices were forbidden. The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation estimates that up to 6,000 children died at residential schools.
Not all the deaths listed on its registry include burial records, and since 2017, the unmarked graves of Indigenous children have been discovered on the former grounds of schools across the country.
Irniq, like many survivors of this devastating era, endured neglect and physical, sexual, verbal, emotional and spiritual abuse during his seven years as a residential school student. But he said he resolved to overcome the trauma.
“I’m happy about my own life in that I’ve been able to put a voice, to put a power to my parents who were powerless and voiceless,” Irniq told Al Jazeera. “We were always going to survive, and we always knew resiliency … I lead a very great life.”
Irniq grew up to become a politician, including serving as the second commissioner of Nunavut. In the late 1980s, he began advocating for survivors of residential schools, petitioning government and church authorities to apologise and make reparations.
Over the last several months, Irniq helped steer the organising committee that would host the pope in Iqaluit. Just a few days before the pontiff set foot on the remote homeland, Irniq and his son sought out a traditional hand-made drum to gift to Pope Francis from the community.
“I wanted to make sure that he sees what his church cut off during the residential school years in Chesterfield Inlet,” he explained.
Irniq, donning a traditional jacket and pants made of animal skins and white fur, danced to an ancient song sung by several Inuit singers on a stage in front of the pope.
Irniq played the large drum made from hides; its piercing sounds echoed through the air. He then approached the pope who was seated on a wooden chair lined with seal skin resembling a throne and spoke to him in Inuktitut.
“I said to him that we teach our people about the drum dance as a celebration of life,” Irniq recounted. “And I presented the Inuit drum to him. I think my last words [to him] were healing and reconciliation.”
He said it felt “overwhelming” in the moment, but he was determined to show the pope that the church didn’t kill the spirit of the Inuit and that his apology was accepted.
“It felt like, we did it,” Irniq said. “We survived.”
The next day Irniq travelled via boat with some of his children and grandchildren along the Arctic coast where he grew up. Their ancestors have thrived in the barren landscape for millennia, knowing where to find sustenance from plants and sea life.
Irniq is renowned for his inukshuk, a traditional structure of stones gathered from the land and stacked in the form of a human figure traditionally used by Inuit as a landmark or commemorative sign. He has travelled the world to install inukshuks, even as far as Juno Beach in France. He wants the world – including the pope – to experience the beauty and strength of his culture.
Abused at school
For Lori Idlout, 48, a member of parliament and residential school survivor, the pope’s decision to come all the way to their remote community went beyond the merely symbolic.
“It’s an important message that he’s sending everywhere that he is willing to go to the ends of the Earth to the high Arctic, where beautiful people, Inuit, live and to make sure that he hears directly from survivors of residential schools,” she said, waiting for the pontiff to arrive.
As Idlout waited for the pope’s big arrival, rolling grey clouds softly released droplets of rain on the crowd below. She said it hardly rains in the far north.
Idlout brushed off having spent a year at Turquetil Hall, one of the more notorious residential schools. It was established in 1929 by Catholic missionaries and operated until 1970. Her mother, who also was forced to attend the school, was obliged to abandon her Inuit culture and forbidden to speak her language. Idlout said she heard things that happened to her mother from others; even today, her mother does not talk much about the abuse she experienced.
“A lady told me that her younger brother, who was a classmate of my mom, witnessed the teacher lifting my mom and throwing her … and another time crushing her head with his knee,” Idlout recalled.
“Next time I see my mom, I’m definitely going to ask her about it and talk with her and ask why she hid that from us for so long, and hopefully improve my relationship with her.”
A father’s death
Idlout was seven years old when her father ended his own life after decades of struggling to cope with what she suspects was the trauma he experienced while attending the infamous school as well.
The suicide rate among the Inuit in Canada was approximately nine times higher than that of non-Indigenous people in the country from 2011 to 2016, with 250 deaths reported, according to Statistics Canada.
Several factors contribute to the suicide rate, including decades-long housing, health and mental health crises. Idlout believes it all stems back to colonial violence, the residential school system and the ensuing fallout. Suicide was barely existent before European colonisers showed up in Nunavut and implemented a dehumanising system, she pointed out.
“Our people continue to struggle because we’ve been told for generations that we’re not human, that we shouldn’t listen to our own people,” she said. “The more often you hear it, the more chance that you’ll believe it.”
She said her relationship with her mother fell apart after her father’s death, as her mother became overwhelmed with grief and was at times unable to care for her children. Because her mother had been chastised for speaking her native tongue in residential school, she didn’t utter a word of it for nearly 30 years.
Idlout learned to speak Inuktitut while spending time with fluent speakers and she now teaches her children and grandchildren the language that staff and clergy at residential schools tried to rob her of. Her mother eventually resumed speaking Inuktitut, too.
Her mother lives in a remote community a two-hour flight north of Iqaluit and she did not make it to the city for the papal apology. She taught her daughter how to forgive, something Idlout reflected upon when the pope visited.
“That’s why I think this trip is so important because we all need to be taught about forgiveness, no matter where we are,” she mused, standing with her daughter and grandson.
“Being the recipient of [intergenerational trauma], I didn’t understand until I became an adult that I was suffering from it too. So, I had to realise that I had to forgive my mom and I think that’s what love is.”
‘Everyone is affected’
Not all those present felt ready to give forgiveness, however. Among the ambivalent was Adeline Salomonie, 42. Standing near the shoreline of the ocean inlet, she proudly wore a red Metis (mixed Indigenous and non-Indigenous) sash and long, silver earrings depicting a qulliq, the traditional oil lamp used by the Inuit.
Salomonie’s mother is Inuk and her father is First Nation and Metis. Salomonie wiped away tears trickling down her cheeks as she recalled how forced assimilation damaged her mother.
“She was there [for me growing up] physically, but emotionally she wasn’t there a lot,” she said. “She doesn’t talk about her experience at residential school very much, but, I mean, every Indigenous person, whether they’re Metis, Inuit or First Nations, everyone is affected by [the] residential school [system].”
Salomonie felt torn about coming to see Pope Francis, a clash between the faith of her late grandmother and reckoning with the horrors the church perpetrated against her family.
“With what happened with all the discoveries of the children’s unmarked graves, that could’ve been her, could’ve been my grandfather, could’ve been my grandmother – I’m here today for them,” she said, choked with emotion.
“Despite all of it, my grandparents were devoted Catholics. And, I have fond memories of going to church with my granny, on my dad’s side.”
She said she’s not ready to forgive because the apology was “not enough” although she hoped it would provide closure for some people: “Just to hear it on our soil means a lot to me. I don’t recall ever hearing a pope coming to Inuit land.”