Louis Tapardjuk remembers Father Robert Lechat as a priest who “encouraged the Inuit to take control of their own church”.
An Inuit parishioner from Igloolik, Tapardjuk said Lechat was different from other Roman Catholic priests who have served in the community, many of whom have remained true to church tradition and Bible teachings. Lechat, he said, worked to bring the community together.
“He was eager to live with the Inuit community and he chose Igloolik for his service [because of that]said Tapardjuk.
Lechat died in Richelieu, Quebec. March 29. He was 102 years old.
Born in France in 1920, Lechat came to Canada with the Roman Catholic Church in 1947, working in the Nunavik communities of Quaqtaq, Kangiqsujuaq, Umiujaq and Kuujjuaq. In 1972 he moved to the Diocese of Churchill-Hudson Bay, which includes most of what is now Nunavut.
Igloolik was Lechat’s first parish in the territory and the place he served the longest. He worked in the community and in Sanirajak from 1972 to 1995.
Joanne Tompkins, a professor at St. Francis Xavier University in Nova Scotia, remembers Lechat as a mentor and a friend.
She met him in Sanirajak in 1987. Tompkins, then principal of the Arnaqjuaq school, said Lechat helped her improve her understanding of the Inuit, their culture and their history.
“He had a deep knowledge and appreciation of Inuit and was therefore a very good role model for me and for other non-Inuit who worked in a cross-cultural context,” she said.
He also spoke out against the continued harm done to the Inuit by the governments of the day.
In the 1970s, Lechat took up the cause of stopping the illegal sterilization of Inuit women in the North by certain provinces. A product of the eugenics movement, the practice of sterilization attempted to limit the reproduction of those deemed “unfit” and increasingly targeted Indigenous women.
“He was against [sterilization because] he has always said that Inuit love children… that is how they survive, that is how they see love and that is how they have hope,” said Bishop Anthony Krotki, who lived with Lechat from 1991 to 1993. “He saw that the government had decided that women would be sterilized, and he was so upset.”
A federal government investigation in 1976 revealed that from 1966 to 1976, hundreds of sterilizations were performed on Aboriginal women at 52 northern institutions.
Krotki said Lechat wrote to governments and local publications, criticizing the forced sterilization of Inuit women. As the laws were finally repealed in the mid-1970s, Krotki said he will always remember how Lechat fought for women.
Fluent in Inuktitut, Lechat has also authored or helped publish more than 70 scriptural and liturgical materials, including an Old Testament publication and the main missal book used by congregations on Sundays.
A supporter of Inuit, he encouraged his first Inuktitut language teacher, Mitiarjuk Nappaaluk, in Nunavik, to write sanaqthe first novel written by an Inuk.
Lechat’s efforts to preserve Inuktitut were recognized by MP Nancy Karetak-Lindell in the House of Commons in 2002. In 2015, he received the award Order of Nunavut for this job.
Nominated by Elder Leonie Kunnuk, of Igloolik, Lechat was applauded for “her contributions to the preservation of the Inuktitut language through extensive translation…her unwavering belief in and support of Inuit leadership in the Roman Catholic Church and northern society, as well as for his wisdom and respectful attitude. towards the Inuit and their desire to emancipate themselves in their homeland.
More recently, Lechat lived in Ottawa and made regular visits to Nunavut parishioners arriving for medical attention. During this time he continued to support northern missions at Christmas and Easter, traveling to the Kivalliq and Igloolik/Hall Beach areas where he had previously ministered.
“Although he was very old, he was still able to have young ideas and he was still able to be curious,” Tompkins said.
She added “he was extremely compassionate… present in many births, deaths, accidents and tragedies – always supporting the community”.