The Six Nations Anglican Parish and surrounding communities near Brantford, Ont., are mourning the loss of a well-loved and powerful leader, Nina Burnham, 86, who died on April 1. Burnham was a respected leader locally, but also within the Anglican Church of Canada.
The Rev. Norm Casey, the incumbent priest in the parish, said he had known Burnham for 17 years, since he began work as the chaplain at the Mohawk Chapel. “Nina was a driving force” in the five churches that comprise the parish and in the community, he said.
Burnham was also a force in the national church and was awarded the Anglican Award of Merit and the Order of Huron for her outstanding service. She was a member of the Anglican Council of Native Ministry for 14 years and served as its chair. She also served on the Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund committee, the strategic planning committee, the long-range planning committee, Partners in Mission and on the National Indigenous Covenant Implementation Commission. In 2010, Huron University College awarded her an honorary doctor of divinity degree.
Donna Bomberry, former Indigenous Ministries co-ordinator of the Anglican Church of Canada, says Burnham was “fearless, determined” and an empowering inspiration. “She was speaking out and encouraging us to be involved nationally as well as locally in our church, to bring our voices together.” Burnham’s example, Bomberry said, encouraged “me to find my own voice and express to the whole church what our reality is.” As a female leader, “she was a very powerful force for me,” she added.
National Indigenous Anglican Bishop Mark MacDonald says Burnham was a friend who supported his ministry. “She was encouraging but also challenging. She lived with such commitment and integrity that just by being who she was, you wanted to be more than you were.”
Burnham was also involved in the broader community. She was a member of the Six Nations elected council for 18 years, and co-chair of Lenape, Algonquian, Iroquoian, Counsel (LAIC). She also served on the Ontario Board of Parole and the Ontario Trillium Board, and was a member of the Six Nations Veterans Association.
Her longtime friend Leona Moses spoke of her efforts to bring healing during the standoff over a land claim near Caledonia, Ont. “She called church members and we got together, and we had a big outdoor service, hoping that things would not go badly and that our people and the people from Caledonia would always remain friends.”
Burnham was born on Jan. 24, 1927 to Ed and Mina Burnham of Mohawk and Oneida Nations and grew up on the Six Nations Reserve. Her career was also dedicated to helping others. As a dental hygienist, she worked on all the aboriginal reserves in southern Ontario, including Moose Factory and Attawapiskat. She also spent five summers making 10,000-mile trips on the medical ship C.D. Howe, travelling to all Inuit settlements of the eastern Arctic to do preventative dentistry.
Casey said Burnham had an important healing ministry within the community. “If she heard that someone was ill or someone was in hospital, she’d come over and get me, and we had to go and visit that person. And you don’t say no to Nina.
“Not only did she have a very strong faith, but I believe she was close to sainthood,” Casey said. In many cases, he explained, her visits and healing services held with families coincided with physical healing, even for people who were extremely ill or near death. “She prayed over people, and I believe that her faith created such a healing in those people that they recovered from their sicknesses—cancer of the breast, cancer throughout people’s bodies, just disappeared.”
Burnham also helped to bridge the gap between the church and people who hold strictly to traditional beliefs, Casey said. She would tell people that God, by the name of Creator, Peacemaker or Jesus, is still the same God. “In the early 2000s, we hardly ever saw a traditional person come into a church, and then with Nina’s teaching and Nina’s encouraging and coaxing, and again the miracle of Nina, we now have many traditional people who come into the church and will spend time with us,” he said. “Things have changed dramatically over the last 10 years, and it was all Nina.”
Burnham died after a lengthy battle with cancer. She is survived by one sister, Lillian (Burnham) Montour, and predeceased by siblings: Rosalie, John, Angeline, Edith, Edward, William and Walter. Her remains will lie at rest in St. Peter’s Church (631 Chiefswood Rd., Ohsweken) on Wednesday, April 3 and Thursday, April 4. Wednesday evening there will be a prayer service at 7 p.m. The funeral will be on Thursday, April 4, at 2 p.m.