(This article originally appeared in the March issue of the Anglican Journal.)
From his driving, hard-rhotic accent to his fishing-and-hunting boyhood-not to mention summers working fish plants and oil tankers-Todd Russell is a Labradorian, through and through.
He is also a Métis of Inuit lineage, a classical languages grad, past co-chair of the Anglican Council of Indigenous Peoples (ACIP) and a former Liberal MP. Currently Russell is president of the Nunatukavut (“Our Ancestral Land”) Community Council (NCC), representing about 6,000 south Labrador Inuit. Before the decade is out, he may also be an Anglican priest. “I have felt the calling. It may be serving the church as a priest or in some other formal role,” says Russell, who has two more years to go in his presidency of the NCC, which advocates for the rights of people in the unrecognized Inuit territory.
Born in 1966 in the one-phone, no-roads village of William’s Harbour, Russell grew up as the eldest of six children in a traditional, almost hunter-gatherer setting. “It was a wonderful life. Most of our food came from the land and the sea,” he recalls. “My dad hunted and fished; my mother gathered berries and sewed. Others did beadwork and worked in sealskin or caribou hide.”
Though amenities were scarce, Russell felt fulfilled. “I was always busy, and there was no sense of inequality in the community.”
After high school in Port Hope Simpson, Russell graduated in the late 1980s in classics and history from Memorial University in S. John’s. But instead of taking the obvious teaching path, he became a social and employment counsellor to people whose lives were destroyed by the collapse of the cod fisheries.
After that, the young Russell’s rise to influence was meteoric. In 1992 he was elected to the board of the NCC’s forerunner, the Labrador Métis Association, becoming its president in 1994. In 2001, he was voted ACIP co-chair and went on to serve as Liberal MP for Labrador riding from 2005 to 2011, until his defeat by Conservative Peter Penshue.
Coming from many generations of Anglicans, Russell always enjoyed the church’s formal liturgy, but joining ACIP was a pivotal event in his personal journey of faith. “I encountered some deeply spiritual people who changed my life,” he says. “I saw Christian values reflected in them in ways I had rarely seen before. They strengthened my belief.”
While attending 2009’s Sacred Circle in Port Elgin, Ont., Russell felt a strong call to serve Christ. “A voice came to me and said, ‘Are you ready to follow me?’ I answered, ‘No, not yet,’ and the voice said, ‘When will you be ready?’ ” The prospect of entering the priesthood has frequently been on his radar. “Back in the day, people always told me I’d end up as a minister,” he says.
Russell’s faith remains Christ-centred. “It is very much tied to the example of Jesus and his profound but simple teachings of love, charity, acceptance and encouragement,” he says, acknowledging that this commitment can sometimes feel like a burden. Yet it has also been a great comfort, especially when the rookie MP had to stand up and be counted on the issues of the day: Canada in Afghanistan, same-sex marriage, aboriginal rights, missing native women, the residential schools. “I’d be nervous inside and my knees were shaking. But I’d say, ‘Are you with me?’ And the voice would answer, ‘I have always been with you.’ ”
As a former MP, Russell is deeply concerned about the steady erosion of social and environmental justice under the deficit-obsessed, law-and-order Harper regime. “It’s death by a thousand cuts,” he says.
He also believes Canadians need to develop the politic will to overhaul the systemic machinery of government to make it more open, transparent, accountable and responsive-and much less vindictive. “It seems as though any disagreement can lead to punishment,” he says. “It’s a system failure when people in office feel so high and mighty they can extract petty vengeance for dissent.” But you have to target the structure, not just the actors, he says. “If you just have different cogs in the same machine, you’ll never see meaningful change.”
To people of faith who want to brave the political arena, he says this: “The important thing is always to allow space for both the heartfelt, emotional side of your faith and the rational, intellectual side of things. If you emphasize one at the expense of the other, you’ll have a lot more difficulty.”