Pope Francis’ Canada trip: What is Iqaluit and why is he going there?

Canada Two Inuit children return from school past a stop sign written in English in October 2002 in Iqaluit, northern Canada. Iqaluit is the capitol of Nunavut Territory in the Canadian Arctic. | Andre Forget/AFP via Getty Images

Pope Francis is set to fly to Iqaluit, Canada, on Friday, July 29. The city marks the last stop of the 85-year-old pontiff’s “penitential pilgrimage” to Canada before he heads back to Rome.

At the final stop of his trip to Canada, the pontiff will meet with Inuit residential school survivors and will visit Nakasuk Elementary School.

Throughout his trip, he has expressed shame and sorrow for the Catholic Church’s role in running many of the country’s government-sponsored residential schools for indigenous children. These residential schools, in place until the late 1990s, worked to stamp out aspects of native culture, language, and religious practice. Former students have described mistreatment and even abuse at the schools.

Here is what to know about Iqaluit, its lone Catholic parish, and the significance of the pope’s visit.

Where is Iqaluit?

Home to only 7,740 people, Iqaluit is the capital — and only city — of Nunavut, Canada’s northernmost and most sparsely populated territory. The city lies on a large bay on Baffin Island, one of the largest islands in the world at roughly the same size as Spain, but home to just 10,000 people. More than two-thirds of those people live in Iqaluit. 

In the local Inuit language, “Iqaluit” means “fish.” The name refers to a small village by the Koojesse Inlet in the 1940s, where many Inuit moved to work at the construction of an American airbase.

The small city houses six schools, one college, five daycares, and three gas stations. The residents speak English and Inuktitut, the language of the Inuit in the Canadian arctic. Despite the city’s polar climate and high latitude, it actually is located south of the arctic circle. It has served as an important fishing hub for the Inuit people for centuries. 

Nunavut, an Inuit-governed territory, has a population of about 40,000. Roughly 80% are Inuit. In Iqaluit, there are 3,900 Inuit.

Pope Francis will be in the air for just over five hours during his flight from Quebec City to Iqaluit.

Are there Catholics in Iqaluit?

According to the Canadian national broadcaster, the first Catholic mission in Nunavut was founded by the Oblates of Mary Immaculate in Chesterfield Inlet in 1912. 

There is one Catholic parish in Iqaluit: Our Lady of the Assumption. According to the pastor, Father Daniel Perreault, only a handful of his parishioners are Inuit, the Associated Press reported. The rest are from different countries on at least five different continents. His parish serves more than 100 people at Mass each Sunday.

The Diocese of Churchill-Hudson Bay, which covers most of the Nunavut territory, says it serves approximately 9,000 Catholics in 17 parishes and missions with two diocesan priests, five religious priests, and two sisters of Canadian Congregations, one permanent deacon, one religious brother, and three pastoral agents.

Bishop Anthony Wieslaw Krótki leads the diocese.

Why is Pope Francis going there?

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The primary reason for the pope’s visit to Iqaluit is to have a private meeting with students of the former residential schools. More than a dozen residential schools operated in what is now Nunavut. 

From a practical standpoint, the local bishop, Krótki, has said that “Iqaluit was also chosen because of its aviation safety measures, number of hotel rooms to accommodate students and visitors, and its access to political, church and indigenous organization administration in Ottawa.”

The Diocese of Churchill-Hudson Bay was the first Canadian diocese to apologize to former students of a residential school in 1996, he also pointed out. Along with other dioceses in Canada, it contributed to the Canadian Bishops Canadian Indigenous Reconciliation Fund.

Pope Francis visits the Fraternité Saint Alphonse welcome and spirituality center, Québec, Canada, July 28, 2022. Holy See Press Office
Pope Francis visits the Fraternité Saint Alphonse welcome and spirituality center, Québec, Canada, July 28, 2022. Holy See Press Office

Did Iqaluit have residential schools?

The Diocese of Churchill-Hudson Bay was involved in the running of one school in the area for less than 15 years, Krótki told Vatican News. He spoke about the positive and negative impacts of that school.

“The educational benefits of that institution have been proven by the number of former students that became leaders in their society, government and in the area of land claims negotiations,” he said. “The school also brought some pain and suffering with young people not living at home on a year-round basis as well as some unacceptable abuses.”

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What is Pope Francis’ schedule there?

According to Our Lady of the Assumption, Pope Francis will arrive at 3:50 p.m. EDT on Friday, July 29. He will depart for Rome at 6:45 p.m. During his time there, he will meet with students of the former residential schools of Canada. 

Upon arrival, the pope will head to Nakasuk Elementary School and hold a private audience at the gym, the parish said. He will then attend a public community event outside and deliver a message. Afterward, there will be a “Song of the Lord's Prayer.”

“In a few days, in the presence of Pope Francis, we will sing this prayer to God Our Father very loudly,” the pastor, Father Perreault, announced on his church’s website. “May this moment be a real opportunity for mutual gentleness and welcome for all participants, regardless of their place and culture of origin.”

Who else has visited Iqaluit?

Queen Elizabeth II and former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau, the father of current Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, among other officials, have visited Iqaluit in the past.

CNA is providing live updates here throughout Pope Francis’ trip.

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