Late archbishop was instrumental in creation of first Indigenous diocese
The establishment of the Indigenous Spiritual Ministry of Mishamikoweesh, the church’s first Indigenous diocese, in June 2014 was a watershed moment for Indigenous self-determination within the Anglican Church of Canada—and Archbishop David Ashdown played an indispensable role in it.
Ashdown, who at the time was bishop of Keewatin and metropolitan of the ecclesiastical province of Rupert’s Land, oversaw the transfer of First Nations parishes in northern Ontario and Manitoba that had been part of the diocese of Keewatin to Mishamikoweesh, after which the diocese of Keewatin ceased to operate in 2015.
On June 9, Ashdown died peacefully at Regina General Hospital in Saskatchewan, surrounded by his wife Penny and other family members. Bishop Rob Hardwick of the diocese of Qu’Appelle described the late archbishop as “an incredible ambassador for Christ; one who greatly influenced the Canadian Church; blessed the lives of many, many people; was a great friend of all nations; and a tireless advocate for First Nations people.”
National Indigenous Archbishop Mark MacDonald and Bishop Lydia Mamakwa described Ashdown as instrumental in the creation of Mishamikoweesh as an Indigenous diocese.
Ashdown “was able to see and implement the innovations that could build a bridge from the Western way of doing things to an Indigenous way of doing things,” MacDonald said. “He allowed himself to see the deep wisdom of people like Oji-Cree visionary leader Dr. William Winter and Oji-Cree practical innovator Stanley Sainnawap.”
Along with Mamakwa, her clergy, and elders, “Archbishop David was an essential and vital part of one of the first concrete expressions of Indigenous self-determination,” MacDonald added. “There were so many more aspects of his leadership, but this one will reverberate and bless for generations to come.”
Ashdown’s support for Indigenous self-determination paralleled larger shifts in the Anglican Church of Canada. In the early 1970s, the future archbishop spent four years working as a dorm supervisor at a residential school in the Northwest Territories. The Anglican Journal reported in 2009 after his election as metropolitan that Ashdown “said he has since come to believe that the residential school system was wrong, despite the fact that many good people worked in it.”
Ashdown held a bachelor of arts degree from the University of Saskatchewan and a bachelor of theology and master of divinity from the College of Emmanuel and St. Chad. Ordained as a priest in 1978, he served in parishes throughout the diocese of Qu’Appelle. During his time in Saskatchewan, Ashdown helped found the Davidson Christian Research Centre Association, an ecumenical outreach program serving several communities.
In 1992 Ashdown moved to the diocese of Athabasca and served as an executive archdeacon and treasurer in Northern Alberta. In 1999 he moved to the diocese of Keewatin. Bishop Mamakwa remembered his arrival at Kingfisher Lake on July 1 of that year.
“It was Canada Day and the community was gathered at beach for a barbecue and some festivities,” Mamakwa recalled. “David quickly became a part of the community and over the years developed friendships that would include coming up for fishing derbies.”
Ashdown’s tenure as the last bishop of Keewatin began in 2001 and ran until his retirement in 2015. For the last six years of that period, he also served as metropolitan of Rupert’s Land.
As bishop and later archbishop, Ashdown worked out of St. Alban’s Cathedral in Kenora, Ontario. Those who worked with him remember Ashdown as a gifted storyteller with a great memory for detail and infectious sense of humour. He also encouraged others to bring their own strengths to the table.
“He really wanted justice for First Nations people.”
“David was an extremely generous person,” said the Rev. James Dugan, a retired archdeacon who spent nine years in ministry at St. Alban’s. “He was always willing to give people at least a second chance, and he was generous with his sense of the church. He didn’t hold the reins of being a bishop and eventually archbishop in a tight way. He really wanted to give room for people to be creative on their own.
“That sense of his, I think, played out in Mishamikoweesh being established. He really wanted justice for First Nations people, and worked over a number of years to establish the foundation of Mishamikoweesh … just before he retired.”
The Rev. Penelope Cummine, who serves as a deacon at St. Alban’s, described Ashdown as a very skilled administrator, who kept the diocese within its budget and showed leadership within the Council of the North. But she remembered him most as a friend and mentor, one who served as an “inspiration for many of those who followed him.”
“He know how to get the job done, but he was collegial and fun,” Cummine said. “His stories were awesome and very comedic in many cases, just crazy adventures … stories of being up in the north and some of the fishing expeditions he was taken on.”
Cummine described Ashdown as a creative and multitalented individual. She recalled one summer morning when Ashdown showed up at her door with a freshly baked blueberry pie, made from berries he had picked the day before.
“He was a very good cook and a baker,” Cummine said. “He also gardened beautifully … He painted in oil some lovely landscapes … He was a man of many gifts and talents.”
Following his retirement as archbishop, Ashdown returned to the community of Craik, Saskatchewan, where he had once served in parish ministry, and was elected mayor.
For those who knew Ashdown, his memory lives on.
“We give thanks for his ministry, his teachings and leadership and he will be missed,” Mamakwa said.
“He had a profound impact on the church,” Dugan said. “He was a fellow that once you met him, you probably wouldn’t forget him.”
Clarification: This article has been edited from an earlier version to correctly describe the legal status of the diocese of Keewatin after 2015, David Ashdown’s relation to Craik in his parish ministry, and the political office to which he was elected there.