Dejaeger never able to learn Inuktitut, retired Nunavut priest tells court
Father Robert Lechat often left Flemish priest in charge of Igloolik mission
Though the Oblates of Mary Immaculate sent Father Eric Dejaeger to Igloolik in 1978 for the express purpose of learning Inuktitut, the Flemish priest put little effort into learning the language, Father Robert Lechat said Dec. 6 in the Nunavut Court of Justice in Iqaluit.
“Eric could not speak to the Inuit in Inuktitut, only in English,” Lechat said.
One of the eastern Arctic’s oldest surviving Christian missionaries, Lechat, 93, hobbled into an Iqaluit courtroom that morning to appear as a witness for the Crown at Dejaeger’s trial, which enters its fourth week Dec. 9.
When the trial opened Nov. 18, Dejaeger pleaded guilty to eight of the 77 criminal charges he faces, most of which allege the sexual abuse of children in Igloolik between 1978 and 1982.
He’s asked to be tried on the 69 remaining charges. Justice Robert Kilpatrick presides over that trial alone, without a jury.
Still robust and lucid, Lechat, dressed in a long grey cardigan and grey trousers, made his way into the courtroom with the help of a cane. Two workers helped him ease his five-foot-six-inch frame into the courtroom’s narrow witness box.
Lechat, who in 1945 entered the priesthood in France and moved in the late 1940s to northern Canada, did missionary work in many eastern Arctic settlements. Between 1972 and 1986, he spent much of his time in Igloolik.
Using sections of his daily journal, which he translated from French to English, Lechat helped the Crown pin down key dates related to Dejaeger’s stay in Igloolik, especially those time periods when Dejaeger alone was in charge of the Igloolik mission.
“There were two laws in the North. You kept a journal and you went out to learn to travel in the cold,” Lechat said.
He told court that he first met Dejaeger in 1974, when the younger man was still training for the priesthood in Edmonton.
That year, Dejaeger made a short visit to the eastern Arctic so that Lechat could take him on short trips to Ivujivik, Igloolik, Hall Beach and Pelly Bay. And in 1976 he met Dejaeger in Edmonton and in 1977, in Repulse Bay, where Dejaeger served as a deacon prior to his entry into the priesthood.
In 1978, the newly-ordained Dejaeger travelled to Igloolik to take up permanent residence.
“He was sent to my place to learn Inuktitut,” Lechat said.
But Dejaeger turned out to be a less than diligent student of the Inuit language, even after Lechat sent the younger priest out camping with a local couple who served the church as catechists.
“He didn’t learn too much,” Lechat said.
This meant that it was impossible for Dejaeger to hear confessions from most of Igloolik’s parishioners, who wanted the church to serve them in Inuktitut.
“They told the bishop they wanted a priest who speaks our language,” Lechat said.
Another headache was that Dejaeger refused to speak French with Nicole Tessier, now Nicole Arnatsiaq, who then lived at the Catholic mission and helped Lechat teach religion classes.
“Problem: He does not want to speak French with Nicole,” Lechat said he wrote in his diary.
Dejaeger was so averse to the use of French, Lechat said the Flemish priest had earlier demanded that his ordination service be held entirely in English.
Another irritant was a big dog, an Irish wolfhound, that Dejeager brought with him from southern Canada. The dog couldn’t stay outside in the winter, so Dejaeger kept him in one of the mission’s porches, where the dog sometimes frightened visitors.
Lechat said he didn’t like Dejaeger’s dog. “I’m more of a cat person,” he said, in a jocular reference to his surname — “le chat,” means “the cat” in French.
But Lechat said he hoped Dejaeger might learn more Inuktitut were he left on his own in Igloolik.
This occurred frequently, because Lechat’s work with the Oblate order took him outside of the community for lengthy periods.
During one eight-month absence, Lechat attended an Oblate conference in Rome, took a three-month sabbatical at a Dominican monastery and visited his family in France.
At other times, Lechat left Igloolik to fill in for priests at other eastern Arctic missions, leaving Dejaeger in charge of the mission.
The Crown, using floor plans of the two-storey Catholic mission in Igloolik, asked Lechat to draw upon his memory for detailed descriptions of all the rooms inside the building, including those rooms where previous witnesses had described acts of sexual abuse.
The Crown lawyer’s questions sought many details from Lechat on the layout of the church’s attic, which was used to store sleeping bags and fur clothing, and the location of the building’s bedrooms, kitchen and CB radio room.
Lechat also answered questions related to day-to-day routines at the mission when he was there — including his policy of asking children to leave before it got too late for them.
In evidence given Nov. 29, Nicole Arnatsiaq said Lechat enforced a rule that required all children to leave the church by 9 p.m. and that he never allowed children to say overnight.
But she said that when Lechat was away, Dejaeger set up overnight “camping” sessions with children in a room upstairs.
Lechat said he learned of Dejaeger’s sexual abuse of children in 1989, seven years after Dejaeger had left Igloolik to live in Baker Lake.
Between 1989 and 1991, Dejaeger pleaded guilty to 10 counts of sexual assault and one count of indecent assault, all of which took place during his stay in Baker Lake.
“I was very surprised when I heard what happened in Baker Lake,” Lechat said.
The Crown will likely finish calling its witnesses by about Dec. 11.
The Nunavut court had set aside about six weeks for Dejaeger’s trial but on Dec. 6, defence lawyer Malcolm Kempt suggested that it might take longer.
That’s because Kempt plans to oppose an upcoming application by the Crown to introduce “similar fact evidence” from Dejaeger’s Baker Lake convictions, and may need more time to prepare.
Because such evidence can be highly prejudicial to an accused person, Crown lawyers can’t introduce it until after they first persuade a judge that the value of such evidence to prove important facts outweighs its prejudicial effects.