In his long papal journeys, Pope Francis has never traveled further north than Iqaluit, the capital of the Inuit-ruled territory of Nunavut. Friday will be the last stop on his grim six-day visit to Canada.
It’s a distinctive destination: it hosts around 7,500 people but not a single traffic light, with no road or rail links to the outside world. Its only Catholic church serves parishioners from at least five continents; more than 100 of them regularly fill the stalls every Sunday.
Iqaluit has already welcomed world leaders. Queen Elizabeth, for example, visited it 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 territory of its own..
The pope’s equally short pause, on the contrary, is not intended to be celebratory. It will end a visit to Canada focused on apologizing in person for the abuses and disrespect inflicted on many thousands of indigenous Canadians – including young Inuit – who attended Catholic-run boarding schools from the late 1800s to the 1970s.
Given the purpose of the visit, there are mixed feelings about Iqaluit, among the Inuit leaders and also by the Rev. Daniel Perreault, who oversees the parish of the Roman Catholic Church of Our Lady of the Assumption.
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 ties to the past problems of the colleges and would like to welcome Pope Francis with joy on Friday, Perreault said.
But Inuit organizations in the region want the visit to focus on their own community, the priest said. “They don’t want it to be the occasion of a Catholic party”.
Iqaluit’s deputy mayor, Solomon Awa, said the Inuit community – which comprises more than half of the town’s population – is full of swirling emotions. There is gratitude for the apology on the way and frustration that it took so long to arrive.
“It will be very exciting for people,” Awa said. “I hope this will keep us moving forward to elevate ourselves as Inuit, to the point where we say, ‘Yes, we’ve had a lot of downsides in the past, but we have to move on.'”
Unlike two of her siblings, Awa was spared from going to boarding school – her father insisted on keeping him at home as an aid.
“There are still heartbroken people who went to residential schools … some of them still hold a grudge 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 straddling the Arctic Circle. It is roughly the size of Alaska and California combined, with a predominantly Inuit population of around 40,000.
For much of the year, the weather can be harsh. In February 2010, Iqaluit hosted a meeting of finance ministers and central bank governors of the Group of Seven Nations; many of the dignitaries went dog sledding in sub-zero temperatures.
Pope Francis, however, is expected to encounter cloudy skies and mild temperatures – around 57 F or 14 C.
“My God, he picked the most sensitive time to go,” joked David Phillips, senior climate scientist for Environment Canada. “Until he feels what he is like in February, it’s not a sign of courage.”
The mild forecasts reflect some serious concerns about the far north climate. 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 one of the “great challenges of our day.” He is supposed to pose for a photo in Iqaluit relating to nature and climate change, but the issue is not at the heart of this particular visit.
“Climate change is obviously something that is very important to us, but I really hope the attention does not turn away from the students who are eagerly awaiting an apology,” said Nunavut Prime Minister PJ Akeeagok.
Akeeagok is happy and grateful that Iqaluit has been chosen as one of the three main stops on the Pope’s itinerary.
“When people around the world think of the north, they often think it’s vast, white and barren, when it’s totally opposite,” he told The Associated Press. “We have so much life, in terms of people’s resilience … We have incredible opportunities both culturally and economically.”
Along with the 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 potentially contaminated with oil. They issued an order not to consume and the drinking water was flown.
In May, the city issued a warning that some local youths were throwing stones at taxis, the main source of public transport in Iqaluit.
As for the papal visit, the community’s preparations were discreet. The city says the main road will be closed to regular traffic for five hours on Friday and, in preparation for the visit, volunteers have been invited to participate in the cleanup of the city center.
Perreault, the Catholic priest, said his parishioners have offered to provide food and lodging for priests and other Catholic staff traveling from afar to Iqaluit for the pope’s visit.
“Life isn’t always exciting here,” Perreault said. “But the people here are happy and enjoy being in a community, sharing and praying together. It is a very beautiful and joyful community ”.
Gillies reported from Toronto, where he is the AP office chief. Crary, who reported from New York, is a former Toronto office chief who covered the creation of Nunavut in 1999.
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