The Pope ends his Canadian visit with a stop in a small town in the far north

The Pope ends his Canadian visit with a stop in a small town in the far north

In his extensive papal travels, Pope Francis has never traveled further north than Iqaluit, the capital of the Inuit-ruled territory of Nunavut. Friday will be the last stop of his somber six-day visit to Canada.

It’s a unique destination – home to around 7,500 people, but not a single traffic light, with no road or rail links to the outside world. Its lone Catholic church serves parishioners from at least five continents; more than 100 of them routinely fill the pews every Sunday.

Iqaluit has welcomed world leaders in the past. For example, Queen Elizabeth visited for about two and a half hours in 2002, three years after Nunavut was carved out of the eastern part of the Northwest Territories to become a separate territory.

The Pope’s equally short stopover, on the other hand, is not meant to be festive. He will end a Canadian visit focused on personal apologies for the abuse and disrespect meted out to many thousands of Indigenous Canadians – including Inuit youth – who attended Catholic-run boarding schools from the late 1800s to the 1970s.

Given the purpose of the visit, there are mixed feelings about it in Iqaluit, among Inuit leaders and also with the Rev. Daniel Perreault, who oversees the parish of Our Lady of the Assumption Roman Catholic Church.

He said only a handful of his parishioners are Inuit. Most of the others come from Africa, South America, Asia and other distant places, have no links to past problems at the boarding schools and want to welcome Pope Francis on Friday, Perreault said.

But the region’s Inuit organizations want the visit to be focused on their own local communities, said the priest. “They don’t want it to be an occasion for a Catholic celebration.”

Iqaluit’s deputy mayor, Solomon Awa, said the Inuit community – which comprises more than half of the city’s population – is rife with swirling emotions. There is gratitude that an apology is forthcoming, and frustration that it took so long to arrive.

“It will be very exciting for the people,” Awa said. “I hope that this will move us forward to uplift ourselves as Inuit, to the point where we say, ‘Yes, we had a lot of disadvantages in the past, but we have to move forward’.”

Unlike two of his brothers, Awa was spared from attending a boarding school – his father insisted on keeping him at home as a helping hand.

“There are still people with broken hearts who went to residential schools … some of them still hold grudges about what happened,” Awa said. “They are happy that the Pope is finally coming to apologize for what happened.”

Iqaluit is by far the largest municipality in Nunavut, a vast territory bordering the Arctic Circle. It is about the size of Alaska and California combined, with a mostly Inuit population of about 40,000.

For large parts of the year, the weather can be harsh. In February 2010, Iqaluit hosted a meeting of finance ministers and central bank governors from the Group of Seven nations; several of the dignitaries went dog sledding in sub-zero temperatures.

However, Pope Francis is expected to encounter cloudy skies and mild temperatures – around 57 F or 14 C.

“My God, he picked the softest moment to go,” teased David Phillips, senior climatologist for Environment Canada. “Until he feels what it’s like in February, it’s not a sign of courage.”

The mild forecast reflects some serious concerns about the climate in the far north. According to Canadian government data, average temperatures in Nunavut have risen much more sharply than in Canada as a whole in recent decades.

Francis, in a speech in Quebec City on Wednesday, cited climate change as among “the great challenges of our time.” He is expected to pose for a photo in Iqaluit related to nature and climate change, but the topic is not the focus of this visit.

“Climate change is obviously something that is very important to us, but I really hope the focus is not lost on the students who are anxiously awaiting the apology,” said Nunavut Premier PJ Akeeagok.

Akeeagok is happy and grateful that Iqaluit was chosen as one of the three main stops on the Pope’s itinerary.

“When people from all over the world think of the North, they often think it’s big, white and barren, when it’s quite the opposite,” he told the Associated Press. “We have so much life, in terms of the resilience of people… We have incredible opportunities both culturally and economically.”

Along with opportunities, Iqaluit has its share of problems. Last autumn, the authorities declared a state of emergency after water in the capital was deemed undrinkable and potentially contaminated with petroleum. They issued a no-consumption order and drinking water was flown in.

In May, the city issued an advisory warning that some local youths were throwing rocks at taxis – the main source of public transportation in Iqaluit.

As far as the papal visit is concerned, community preparations have been low-key. The city says the main street will be closed to regular traffic for five hours on Friday, and ahead of the visit volunteers were invited to help with a clean-up in the city centre.

Perreault, the Catholic priest, said his parishioners have stepped in and offered to provide food and lodging for priests and other Catholic personnel who travel to Iqaluit from afar for the pope’s visit.

“Life isn’t always exciting here,” Perreault said. “But people here are happy and enjoy being in a community, sharing and praying together. It is a very pleasant, joyful community.”

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Gillies reported from Toronto, where he is the AP’s bureau chief. Crary, who reported from New York, is a former Toronto bureau chief who covered the creation of Nunavut in 1999.

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Associated Press religion coverage is supported through AP’s partnership with The Conversation US, with funding from the Lilly Endowment Inc. AP is solely responsible for this content.

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