Pope in Canada travels north for meeting with Inuit
By Salvatore Cernuzio
Three hundred kilometers south of the Arctic Circle, southeast of Griffin Island, near the mouth of the Sylvia Grinnell River, the average temperature in winter is between 25 and 40 degrees below zero degrees Celsius. Iqaluit, which means “place of many fish” in the Inuktitut language, is the capital city of Nunavut Territory, and it is where Pope Francis' 6-day "penitential pilgrimage" to Canada comes to an end.
With residential school survivors
Pope Francis’ last stop before his departure for Rome, was to meet with representatives of Canada’s largest Inuit community (some 3,900 persons out of a population of nearly 8,000), scattered along the coasts between Greenland and Alaska, as well as at the bottom of the Chukchi Peninsula in Siberia. In Iqaluit Pope Francis engaged in a private encounter with a group of former pupils of residential schools, some of them run by local Church institutions, where indigenous children were subjected to the psychological and spiritual abuse of "devastating" assimilation policies in the past century.
Hudson Bay, where the Pope touched down, is known for polar bears and Beluga Whales. It isalso the site of a former U.S. military air base built on permafrost, the perennially frozen subsoil that allows no plant to grow taller than 20 cm. A three-hour flight took him over lakes and hills, tundra and the famous "road to nowhere", so-called by the people of Iqaluit because it leads nowhere. At the local airport the Pope was welcomed by the Bishop of Churchill-Hudson Bay, Monsignor Anthony Wiesław Krótki, Omi, and five local dignitaries, including an indigenous woman.
Pilgrim of healing
Iqaluit - Frobisher Bay from 1955 to 1987 - is probably one of the most distant land destinations ever visited by the Pope on an apostolic journey. As he told a delegation of indigenous persons from Quebec in the Archbishopric on Friday morning, his journey took him there "as a pilgrim, with limited physical possibilities" so that "we may continue in the search for truth, that we may make progress in promoting paths of healing and reconciliation, that we may go forward to sow hope for future generations of indigenous and non-indigenous people."
The meeting with the residential school survivors took place at Nakasuk Elementary School, one of the city's four elementary schools. An igloo-inspired, white, trapezoidal, airtight building with very few windows. It was built of fiberglass blocks in 1973 and named after the first permanent resident of Iqaluit, an Inuk born in the Northwest Territories who is remembered as the founder of Nunavut's capital city in the 1970s. That is when the U.S. Air Force left, and what was then called Frobisher Bay became the Canadian government's administrative, communications and transportation center for the eastern Arctic. In 1976, the Inuit Tapirisat of Canada (ITC) proposed the creation of the territory of Nunavut, "our land" in the Inuktitut language. In 1987, the settlement reclaimed its original name.
In Iqaluit, the indigenous land claim settlement
The town is also remembered as the scene of the signing in May 1993 of the most important indigenous land claim agreement in Canadian history, the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement. After the division of the Northwest Territories into two separate territories on April 1, 1999, Iqaluit became the capital of Nunavut and was granted city status by the federal government on April 19, 2001. Iqaluit is home to the territory's seat of government and the Nunavut Legislative Assembly. Pope Francis met briefly with authorities in the airport's VIP Lounge, before going directly to the Elementary School. The heart of the visit in fact is to show closeness and listen to the survivors of the residential schools established in 1883, where, according to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report, published in 2015, more than 150,000 children died due to disease, malnutrition, mistreatment and harassment, aimed at erasing all traces of their original culture.
Meeting with youth and elders
In one of the school halls the Pope listened to stories and testimonies far from cameras and reporters. A public meeting took place in the square in front of the elementary school with young people and the elderly, where the Pope was welcomed by a community representative amid dancing, music and katajjaq, the traditional guttural songs of women.