Inuit lean on faith after avalanche

Published February 1, 1999

St. Andrew’s Church in Kangiqsualujjuaq, northern Quebec, is dark and cold since experts ruled it’s not safe to worship there after a deadly avalanche in the tiny arctic village on New Year’s Eve.

The church is located next to the school that was hit by a wall of snow that came cascading down a mountain, crashing into the school gymnasium, and burying hundreds of people who were celebrating at a community dance that night.

Five children and four adults were killed. Many more are still suffering from broken bones and other injuries.

The school, the church and the local Co-op store are closed because it’s possible they could be hit by another avalanche.

People in the community are still coping with the tragedy, but Bishop Paul Idlout said in an interview that the 600 Inuit residents are “strong people” and “they are already healing.”

The Arctic diocese’s suffragan, Bishop Idlout, was in Kangiqsualujjuaq for the Jan. 7 funerals of the victims and said the mood in the community was sombre but people had not lost hope.

“There was a lot of tension and feelings of sadness. But, you know, there was a lot of sharing too,” he said.

The bishop is now back in Iqaluit, having left Rev. Ben Arreak in charge of helping people heal. Canon Arreak is the priest from neighbouring Kuujjuaq who ministers to five communities in the parish located in northern Quebec, on Ungava Bay.

“There’s need for a lot of healing and to help people get over such a shocking experience; the loss of friends and loved ones,” Canon Arreak said in an interview from Kangiqsualujjuaq. He said he’s “very busy,” spending a lot of time counselling and praying with the families of the victims.

Many people are feeling angry, he said, but the Inuit community is mostly Anglican and people are using their faith to cope with the turmoil.

“Some of them are deepening their faith because of that experience and they want to get closer to God because God will be able to help them through this difficult situation.”

Canon Arreak said “prayer is strongest” in the struggle to cope with such a tragic loss of life.

One person who is leaning on her faith to get her through this disaster is 42-year-old Dora Annanack, whose five-year-old daughter, Susanna, was killed in the avalanche. Ms. Annanack injured her arm and hand.

During a telephone interview, she let out a big sigh and said, “It’s hard, but it’s getting better slowly.”

In the days following the avalanche, Ms. Annanack said she had bad dreams. With the help of prayers of Canon Arreak and the people around her, she said her nerves are being calmed.

Said Canon Arreak, “The government and social workers can do the legal and mental side of this tragedy, I’m helping people deal with the spiritual side.”

Several people have told him they’re now interested in attending Sunday services more regularly.

With the local church not available, Canon Arreak began using the municipal office for Sunday services in mid-January.

“It’s the biggest place at the moment. It only holds about 140 people and it was packed,” he said.

People are turning to God, he said, because their faith is giving them a sense of peace. Even some of the children need help, he said, because they get scared every time they hear a loud noise. It reminds them of the crashing sound of the avalanche.

People in the community are also thankful to have received messages of sympathy from thousands of people across the country and the world. They were particularly pleased Prime Minister Jean Chretien and the Quebec Premier Lucien Bouchard attended the funerals of the victims.

Primate Michael Peers wrote to Canon Arreak after the disaster, saying, “I want you to know that our prayers are with you, the families and the whole community as you deal with this catastrophe.”

Archbishop Peers said he realized the days ahead will be difficult and demanding, but he was sure that Canon Arreak’s ministry would help in the process of grieving and healing.

Canon Arreak said residents in the community appreciated the words of encouragement.

“They realize that many people care about them,” he said.

The job of ministering to the bereaved will continue for the next few months.

Canon Arreak was planning to return to Kuujjuaq by the end of January when another priest, Rev. Abilie Napartuk, from northern Quebec, was expected to take over.

The plan is to have a priest in the community until at least March or April.

Over the next few months, people in Kangiqsualujjuaq are also hoping to get answers on what will happen to the church, the school and the Co-op store.

Canon Arreak said provincial government officials are now studying whether some kind of avalanche fencing should be put up to prevent snow from tumbling down the mountain.

If nothing is done by the summer, he said it’s possible the church may have to be moved.

The provincial government has also called for a public inquiry into the disaster, to determine why action was not taken sooner to prevent an avalanche. A 1995 report had recommended that fencing be put up. Nothing was ever done and the public inquiry is expected to find out why.

In the meantime, a Hercules aircraft was expected to arrive sometime in January with several portable buildings to provide space that will temporarily replace the school and the store.

Donations to help the community are now being accepted at the office of the Diocese of the Arctic, Box 1454, 4910 51st St., Yellowknife, NT, X1A 2P1.



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