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Inuit's long search for justice after sex abuse of friend by priest

Piita Irniq, one of a generation of Inuit leaders who took his people from igloos to iPhones, has seen and accomplished much, but one loose end haunts him.
Piita Irniq holds a photo taken in 1984 of himself and Marius Tungilik while seal hunting outside Rankin Inlet.

Piita Irniq, one of a generation of Inuit leaders who took his people from igloos to iPhones, has seen and accomplished much, but one loose end haunts him.

It’s the lonely search for justice for his friend, who died young after a lifetime of pain from the child sexual abuse he told Irniq was inflicted by a missionary Arctic priest.

Why, Irniq asks, does the man his friend named as his abuser remain safely overseas? And why has Canada, bent on reconciliation with indigenous people, failed to get the priest back despite an active 18-year arrest warrant for him?

“Maybe, I want to see a wrong righted,” Irniq said, his lively smile suddenly shadowed.

“Maybe, I’m a little bit angry.”

Irniq, 69, was born in Repulse Bay, N.W.T., now Naujaat, Nunavut. A few years later, so was Marius Tungilik.

“Marius and I grew up together,” Irniq said.

The boys shared a traditional Inuit life of hunting and travelling on the land.

But that ended when the government plane came to pick them up for the residential school at Chesterfield Inlet.

Eventually, Irniq went on to school in Yellowknife. Tungilik returned to Naujaat to work in the local co-op, side-by-side with a priest named Joannes Rivoire.

As the men matured, both Irniq and Tungilik became involved in the growing movement toward Inuit self-determination.

Irniq served in cabinets in the previous Northwest Territories and the new territory of Nunavut.

Tungilik worked with government and also served on many boards, including the Nunavut Wildlife Management Board — a crucial agency in a territory where hunting still fills dinner plates and freezers. Both men also worked as journalists for the CBC.

But they made another significant contribution.

They were among the first to speak out about the abuse they suffered at Chesterfield Inlet.

“[Marius] had appeared before the Royal Commission on Aboriginal People in Rankin Inlet and talked about having been abused by the clergy in Chesterfield Inlet and Naujaat,” Irniq said.

“He told me about it when we were out hunting caribou. So I said let’s do something about that.

“That’s how we got going. We gave each other courage to speak.”

Partly due to their efforts, Roman Catholic Bishop Renald Rouleau offered an apology in 1996 for what happened in Chesterfield Inlet — an apology that Irniq and Tungilik helped write.

But Irniq said Tungilik had one more wound to heal.

“He also started talking about Rivoire, at Naujaat,” Irniq said. “About having been abused as a young boy when Rivoire was a priest in Naujaat in the 1970s.”

By 1993, Rivoire had returned to France.

In 1998, RCMP issued an arrest warrant for Rivoire over two sexual-abuse charges related to his time Rankin Inlet and one over events in Naujaat.

Although RCMP confirm the warrant is still active, the Canadian Press has been unable to locate documents associated with it. They might have disappeared as materials were transferred to Iqaluit from Yellowknife during the 1999 creation of Nunavut. It’s unclear if any of the charges relate to Tungilik.

Tungilik couldn’t let it go, said Irniq. “We used to get on the phone and I’d ask him: ‘How are you doing?’ and he’d talk about Rivoire practically every time we talked. He started drinking heavily as a result of what happened to him.”

Tungilik sought treatment. His friends tried to help.

But on Dec. 16, 2012, he was found dead in his bed.

Irniq recalls getting a call from Jack Anawak, a former Liberal MP and fellow abuse victim.

“Jack called me up and said our buddy has died,” Irniq said. “It was like one-third of our brain was gone.

“It is because of Rivoire that Marius died. I’m not afraid to say it.

“The last words he said to me were:‘I know exactly how to find Rivoire.’ ”

The Canadian Press tried several times to reach Oblate officials to discuss Rivoire, both in Canada and abroad, without a response.

In 2013, Rivoire spoke briefly to CP from a home that houses retired Oblates in Avignon, France. Asked if he would return to Canada to face the charges, he said: “Maybe. I don’t know.”

Then 83, he said he was “not willing” to discuss the charges.

Although Canada has an extradition treaty with France, Justice Canada wouldn’t say whether a request has been made — the standard response to such inquiries.

The priest was seen as recently as last summer by French media.

Irniq tries to do what he can to repair the damage done to his culture. He spends his time visiting Inuit prisoners in Ontario jails, helping them keep in touch with Inuit culture.

He’s not bitter. All he wants, he says, is a little accountability for what happened to his friend.

“I want to see Marius Tungilik rest in peace,” he said.