Location scouting for papal visit begins in Iqaluit

Location scouting for Pope Francis’s upcoming visit to Canada is underway, as Catholic Church officials toured the northern community of Iqaluit Friday.

The Pope is expected to deliver a long-awaited residential school apology on Canadian soil. 

Iqaluit Mayor Kenny Bell says Pope Francis is welcome there, but the Catholic Church must also keep promises it made more than a decade ago to properly compensate survivors and disclose records about the schools and burial sites.

“Residential schools had a terrible impact on Iqaluit and Nunavut, and we need to recover from it,” Bell said. “I don’t think they’ve done enough … [they] need to come to terms with this and make amends.”

Inuit leaders and Catholic Church officials walk in front of the Nunavut Legislative Assembly in downtown Iqaluit. The delegation was taken to several sites in Iqaluit on a scouting trip for the upcoming papal visit to Canada. (David Gunn/CBC)

After landing at the airport at noon hour local time, the delegation was met by local Inuit leaders. They were taken by school bus to several locations, including the Nunavut legislature, an elementary school and an outdoor square.

I don’t think they’ve done enough … [they] need to come to terms with this and make amends.– Iqualit Mayor Kenny Bell

Neil MacCarthy of the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops (CCCB) confirmed a Catholic Church delegation is in Iqaluit, but said no final decisions have been made on the locations for the papal visit.

Bell made national headlines last year when he suggested revoking the Catholic Church’s tax exemptions in Iqaluit. It came following the announcement of hundreds of potential unmarked burial sites in Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc, the Cowessess First Nation and elsewhere.

“We cannot allow the churches … to have free rein in our country anymore,” Bell told CBC News last summer.

Bell, who was away Friday at a northern housing conference in Alaska, said in a phone interview that he and city councillors are moving ahead with new tax rules that will require all churches and non-profit groups to prove they are in financial need to obtain tax breaks. The first two readings passed unanimously, and the third and final reading is expected next week, he said.

Cree Youth Grand Chief Adrian Gunner travelled to the Vatican along with an Indigenous delegation of First Nations, Inuit and Métis people for meetings with Pope Francis in advance of his planned trip to Canada later this year. (Reuters/Vatican media)

Although the Catholic Church’s tax status will be judged on the bottom line of its local parish, Bell hopes this is a first step toward a more fair system.

“The Vatican is one of the richest corporations in the world. We’ve got the start figuring out how to claw back some of their money and land,” Bell said.

Residential school survivors and members of the recent delegation to the Vatican have suggested several other locations, including Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc in British Columbia, Cowessess and Wanuskewin Heritage Park in Saskatchewan, and Winnipeg.

Lac Ste. Anne mentioned as possible site

Pope Francis mentioned Lac Ste. Anne near Edmonton in his speech to delegates in Rome.

Survivors say they should have the final say on location, timing and other details of the apology. They also hope Pope Francis will make several stops.

CCCB officials have said they are working closely with Indigenous people, and hope to announce more details soon. They agreed an apology is a first step, and action is also required to achieve reconciliation.

In 2006, facing billions in potential lawsuit liability from survivors, other Christian churches signed the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement. The Anglican, Presbyterian and United churches all paid their full designated amounts and disclosed many of the required records. The Catholic Church did not.

By some estimates, the Catholic Church still owes survivors more than $60 million. The CCCB has promised a renewed five-year, $30-million fundraising campaign.

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