Change on Arctic horizon

Published October 1, 1998

ONE CAN UNDERSTAND why members of the Diocese of the Arctic might use words like gargantuan to describe its geography. After all, the diocese is four million square kilometres – one third the size of Canada and 15 times larger than Britain.

Within that vast territory, the diocese shows enormous variety in landscape and culture.

“It’s a place of great beauty,” said Bishop Chris Williams from his office in Yellowknife. “It ranges from Scandinavian fjords to flat tundra – some of the flattest places on earth.” So flat, Bishop Williams said, if you’re on the tundra, “you can watch your husky run away for three days.”

Anglicanism is alive and well in the North, according to the bishop. “It’s very, very strong, especially among the Inuit.”

They were first introduced to Christianity by missionaries in the 19th century. By 1894, Rev. James Peck had established a mission as far north as Blacklead Island, near Pangnirtung. The Gospel spread across Baffin Island from there and has been growing slowly ever since with more and more Native people in both the Eastern and Western Arctic coming to the faith. Said Bishop Williams, Anglicanism “is strong because ever since its inception, it has relied on its lay people and we still have a very strong lay ministry here.”

Changes are ahead for those living in the diocese, with the construction of two diamond mines north of Yellowknife and the biggest political event in the history of the Northwest Territories next year with the creation of Nunavut (meaning “our land” in Inuktitut) on April 1.

Bishop Williams said the political split will not divide the diocese in two. “Just because the Northwest Territories is dividing doesn’t mean we’re dividing. Past synods have always rejected the idea of division (of the diocese).”

But the bishop thinks all the political changes are going to have an enormous impact on people’s lives, especially in the East, where the Inuit are creating Nunavut.

“I think the people in the East are beginning to feel excited now … It is, in one sense, creating an Inuit territory. They’ll be putting their own stamp on the land where they live. When people feel in control of their own lives, things change for them.”

As far as the Anglican church’s role in the creation of Nunavut, Bishop Williams said “the church is completely involved because many of the major players in the creation of Nunavut are involved in the church.”

He thinks division will do a lot to help the Inuit become more self-sufficient, but he doesn’t see it as a panacea. He also points out not everyone in the diocese is jumping for joy over division.

“In the West, there’s less excitement,” Bishop Williams said. The population there is more varied, with many different Dene nations and a whole variety of people from around the world. It’s a much less homogeneous crowd than in the East.

People in the West are also still unsure about what to call their new territory. The name Denendeh has been thrown around for years and more recently, someone jokingly suggested it should simply be called Bob. The most likely scenario is it will remain the Northwest Territories, allowing thousands of government workers with the Government of the Northwest Territories in Yellowknife to avoid having to change everything from office letterhead to the names of committees and groups.

Despite all the excitement over division, Bishop Williams said people in the diocese still have many serious problems to deal with. The Eastern Arctic has the highest suicide rate in the country. Social problems such as alcohol and solvent abuse, family violence, sexual abuse and chronic unemployment plague all areas of the North. The bishop hopes the church is helping people deal with their addictions and social problems.

“The church will be there to aid, support and comfort.”

He said he’s especially proud of all the Native priests in the North who are helping their own people. When there’s a suicide, for example, “it’s the clergy who spend hours and hours in the homes of these families, often not saying anything, but just showing support for them.”

The church is “trying to teach people, to stand with people. It’s trying to enable people.”

As for all the Native clergy, Bishop Williams credits the Arthur Turner Training School in Pangnirtung, which opened in 1970. Arthur Turner was the missionary in Pangnirtung from 1928 to 1953. These days, the suffragan bishop of the diocese is Paul Idlout, an Inuk from Pond Inlet.

Eighty-five per cent of Anglican priests in the Eastern Arctic are also Inuit, including one woman. Bishop Williams thinks he’ll probably be the last Caucasian person to serve as bishop.

The diocese will face some controversy of its own next year when it considers a proposal to create two new suffragan bishop positions: one for Northern Quebec and another for the Kitikmeot/Mackenzie area. Bishop Williams believes two more suffragan bishops will “respond to the people’s desire to have more pastoral oversight.” But critics worry about the cost to a subsidized diocese.

Bishop Williams is optimistic about the future. “I see congregations now where young people are so completely involved in the church and spiritually turned on.” In the years to come, he’s “confident that the church in the North will continue to grow.”


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