Inuit leader continues to seek justice against alleged abusive priest living in France

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

Piita Irniq seeks justice for Nunavut leader who was his childhood friend

Piita Irniq has been trying to get justice for his friend for years. (Jason Franson/The Canadian Press)

Piita Irniq, one of a generation of Inuit leaders who took their 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-old arrest warrant for him?

"Maybe I want to see a wrong righted," said Irniq, 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. So, a few years later, 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 a government plane came to pick them up and take them to 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 they matured, both Irniq and Tungilik became involved in the growing movement toward Inuit self-determination.

Piita Irniq holds a photograph of himself and Marius Tungilik while seal hunting 25 miles outside Rankin Inlet. (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Irniq served in cabinets in both the old Northwest Territories and the new territory of Nunavut, which was established in the 1990s.

Tungilik worked with government and also served on many boards. Both men also worked as journalists for the CBC.

They were also 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 says.

"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.

Active warrant for Rivoire

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 may have disappeared as materials were transferred from Yellowknife to Iqaluit during the 1999 creation of Nunavut. It's unclear if any of the charges relate to Tungilik's allegations.

Tungilik couldn't let it go, Irniq said.

"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 says. "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 church officials to discuss Rivoire, both in Canada and abroad, without a response.

"I want to see Marius Tungilik rest in peace."- Piita Irniq

In 2013, Rivoire spoke briefly to The Canadian Press from a home that houses retired priests 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. The news agency has been unable to reconnect with the priest since.

Although Canada has an extradition treaty with France, Justice Canada officials 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 a French news crew.

Irniq tries to do what he can to repair the damage done to his culture. Retired from his last official job as commissioner of Nunavut, he now spends his time visiting Inuit prisoners held in Ontario jails, helping them keep in touch with Inuit culture.

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

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

"He fought for justice for Inuit who were sexually abused. He deserves justice."