The city of Iqaluit, built on permafrost, marked the fitting end to a dark and unique papal journey, primarily intended to atone for the cruelty of government-funded schools, most of which were run by Catholic entities. .
“I want to tell you how sorry I am,” the pope said.
He noted in particular how the system, aimed at forcibly assimilating indigenous children into Christian culture, was tearing children away from their parents and grandparents – a practice he called “evil”.
“Families have been broken up,” Francis, wearing a white jacket, told several thousand people outside Nakasuk School in Iqaluit.
He delivered his speech in his native Spanish, translated into English and Inuktitut, in this remote region 200 miles from the Arctic Circle, where residential schools transformed the lives of the majority Inuit population. It was the last of his many excuses this week.
Many Indigenous people said they were moved by the long-awaited visit, especially given the presence of the 85-year-old man. fragility and immobility. They said his willingness to say “I’m sorry” on Indigenous land was a crucial first step towards healing. But as the week progressed, he came under fire from Indigenous leaders, who said they were still waiting for him to apologize for the Catholic Church as an institution.
“[The apology] failed,” RoseAnne Archibald, the national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, said in a television interview this week after the pope appeared in Maskwacîs, Alberta. She was among the indigenous leaders who greeted Francis when he arrived in the country on Sunday.
Francis apologized personally for the “evil committed by so many Christians,” but not for the Church as a whole. Nor did he speak about aspects of the institution that might have enabled him to advance a Canadian government policy that the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission said amounted to cultural genocide.
For much of the 19th and 20th centuries, Indigenous children were forcibly removed from their families and placed in boarding schools, often hundreds of miles from their community. They were forbidden to speak their mother tongue or practicing their cultural traditions and, in many cases, suffered physical and sexual abuse.
Murray Sinclair, the lawyer who chaired the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, said Francis’ words so far had a “deep hole”.
“It was more than the work of a few bad actors — it was a concerted institutional effort to remove children from their families and cultures, all in the name of Christian supremacy,” Sinclair said.
One of the main native demands is that the Church revoke the papal decrees of the 1400s that provided religious support for the conquest of native territory in the New World and elsewhere by Europeans.
Although Francis, South America’s first pope, repeatedly denounced historical colonization and forced assimilation, he did not directly discuss the Doctrine of Discovery, the policy that flowed from these decrees. Before a Mass he celebrated Thursday at the Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré basilica outside Quebec City, two members of the Batchewana First Nation dressed in native clothing unfurled a banner saying “Abrogate the Doctrine”.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who appeared with Francis in several of his appearances this week, said in a statement that he had discussed with him the need to address the Doctrine of Discovery, but did not no details given.
A few days before the trip, a Vatican spokesman said a “reflection” within the Holy See was underway.
In Iqaluit — a place “others would consider inhospitable,” Francis said — his parting words were as much about life advice as penance. Speaking to young Inuit, he talked about self-confidence, the importance of big dreams and even ice hockey. (“How does Canada manage to win all those Olympic medals?” he asked. “Team spirit always makes the difference.”)
In Quebec City earlier Friday, Francis struck a thoughtful tone during a morning meeting with about 20 Indigenous representatives. He said he came as a “pilgrim, despite my physical limitations” and that the stories he heard would “always be a part of me”.
“I dare say, if you allow me, that now, in a certain sense, I also feel part of your family, and for that I am honored,” the pope said.
“I now go home very enriched.”
Francis was on the ground in Iqaluit on Friday for less than three hours. Canada’s northernmost city is the capital of Nunavut, a territory straddling the Arctic Circle that’s three times the size of Texas but has just 40,000 residents in 25 hamlets and the capital. The widely dispersed communities are connected to each other and to the rest of Canada only by air.
Until the 1950s, the region was of interest only to whalers and missionaries. Change and modernization are now taking place at breathtaking speed.
Nunavut faces social and environmental challenges. The poverty rate is high and housing is scarce. The suicide rate is several times higher than in the rest of Canada, and the climate there is warming much faster than the global average, melting permafrost and putting pressure on water supplies.
Prior to his talk, Francis met privately with residential school survivors. He then joined in an event featuring Inuit language and traditions, such as throat singing. Organizers said the performers were selected to showcase the cultural expressions that the boarding schools tried — but failed — to completely extinguish. After his address, a choir sang the Our Father in Inuktitut.
Francis made the trip to Canada despite being nearly immobilized by knee pain. Prior to his departure, organizers feared the Vatican would cancel – as it had planned a papal visit this month to the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan.
In Canada, Francis essentially moved from seat to seat — his popemobile, his Fiat 500, his wheelchair — relying on assistance every time he got up. The trip took place at a markedly slower pace than others during his pontificate. He was hosting about two events a day, instead of the usual four or five. In Quebec on Friday morning, he used a walker.
“Clearly he is making a sacrifice” to be in Canada, said an Indigenous participant at Thursday’s mass. Her birth name is Opolahsomuwehs, but she was given the name Imelda Perley during her childhood by a nun.
Now 73, a retired linguist and teacher, Opolahsomuwehs said she still needed “to hear more than I’m sorry”.
“I want to know how the church is going to restore what it took.”