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

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

It’s an iconic destination – home to about 7,500 people but not a single traffic light, with no road or rail connections to the outside world. Its only Catholic church serves parishioners from at least five continents; More than 100 of them routinely fill the seats every Sunday.

World leaders have been greeted by Iqaluit. Queen Elizabeth, for example, 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 into its own..

In contrast, the Pope’s similar brief visit is not intended to be ceremonial. Ending a Canadian visit focused on apologizing in person for abuse and disrespect for the thousands of Native Canadians – including Inuit youth – who attended Catholic-run boarding schools from the late 19th century to the 1970s.

Given the purpose of the visit, there are mixed feelings about it in Iqaluit, among the Inuit leaders and also on the priest’s side. Daniel Perrault, who oversees the parish of Our Lady of the Assumption of the Roman Catholic Church.

He said only a handful of his parishioners are Inuit. Most of the others, hailing from Africa, South America, Asia and elsewhere, had nothing to do with past problems of boarding schools and would like to welcome Pope Francis on Friday, Perrault said.

But the priest said Inuit organizations in the area wanted the visit to focus on their community. “They don’t want it to be an occasion for a Catholic feast.”

Iqaluit’s deputy major, Solomon Awa, said the Inuit community – which includes more than half the city’s population – is full of flowing emotions. There is gratitude for offering an apology, and frustration because it took so long to happen.

“It would be very exciting for people,” said Oa. “I hope this will move us forward to elevate ourselves as Inuit, to the point where we say, ‘Yes, we had many downsides in the past but we must move on. “

Unlike two of his brothers, Oa was forbidden to attend boarding school – his father insisted on keeping him at home as an assistant.

“There are still people with broken hearts who went to boarding schools…Some of them still hold a grudge over what happened,” said Oa. “They are so glad the pope came, finally, to say sorry for what happened.”

Iqaluit is by far the largest municipality in Nunavut, a vast region that stretches across the Arctic Circle. It is roughly the size of Alaska and California combined, and has a population of mostly about 40,000 Inuit.

Most 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. Many prestigious personalities went dog sledding in sub-zero temperatures.

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

“Oh my God, he picked the softest moment left,” said David Phillips, chief climate scientist at Environment Canada. “Until he feels what it is in February, there is no badge of bravery.”

The moderate 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 over recent decades.

Francis, in a speech in Quebec City on Wednesday, cited climate change as one of the “great challenges of our day.” He is expected to take a photo in Iqaluit related to nature and climate change, but the issue is not the focus of this particular visit.

“Clearly climate change is very important to us, but I really hope that the eagerly waiting students will not turn away from the apology,” said PJ Akijok, the premiere of Nunavut.

Akeeagok is pleased and grateful that Iqaluit has been selected 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 of it as vast, white and barren, when in fact it is just the opposite,” he told The Associated Press. “We have a lot of life, in terms of people’s resilience … we have incredible opportunities both culturally and economically.”

Besides opportunities, Iqaluit has its share of problems. Last fall, government officials declared a state of emergency after water in the capital was deemed undrinkable and likely contaminated with petroleum. They issued an order not to consume, and potable water was transported by plane.

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

As for the papal visit, societal preparations were modest. The city says Main Street will be closed to normal traffic for five hours on Friday, and in the lead up to the visit volunteers have been invited to join in cleaning up the downtown area.

Catholic priest Perrault said his parishioners are interfering and offering to provide food and housing for priests and other Catholic staff who travel to Iqaluit from afar to visit the Pope.

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


Gillis reports from Toronto, where he serves as bureau chief for the Associated Press. Karari, reporting from New York, is a former Toronto office manager who has covered the creation of Nunavut in 1999.


The Associated Press’s religious coverage is supported by an Associated Press collaboration with The Conversation US, funded by Lilly Endowment Inc. AP is solely responsible for this content.

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