IT IS A paradox of a diocese in some ways – generous but poor, fearful but optimistic, theologically conservative but tolerant.
Saskatchewan may be among the church’s poorest dioceses, but its 20,000 Anglicans in scattered parishes still managed to raise $900,000 in 1998 for a youth worker, a new synod building in Prince Albert, the see city, and more family ministry work.
Yet, in some of the northern communities, said Bishop Anthony Burton, nearly 70 per cent of the population is 19 years old or younger, and in real terms unemployment is 85 per cent. “Many people are on welfare, and are very poor, not just a little poor.”
The smallest, most remote communities are where addiction problems are found. “Yes, we have gas sniffing and glue sniffing here too – and it’s strange, because that flies in the face of the image of the tight-knit small community.”
Natives predominate, since up to 65 per cent of the entire diocese’s Anglicans are Cree. Out of 38 active clergy, 19 are Cree, most of them worker-priests with other jobs, or who collect welfare or pensions, and minister to isolated communities.
Bishop Burton, 41, who was dean of the cathedral for two years before he became bishop in 1993, said that his move to Saskatchewan from Nova Scotia was “less of a contrast than you might imagine. Both areas are rural, and a long way from Ontario.”
He described most Anglicans in the diocese as theologically conservative, but tolerant and loving. “We are not a fighting diocese. We don’t have big hot button issues here, like gay rights. It’s not that people are suppressing it, but it’s just not where they are at. Parishes here are big into the Bible.”
It would be safe to say he has fallen in love with his diocese – both its people, and the northern topography where they make their home. (The diocese consists of the northern two-thirds of the geographic province, and began as a missionary venture in the 1840s.)
Bishop Burton staunchly defended the Cree who live in poverty, then said he was reluctant to talk about the reasons behind the poverty. “It is both a controversial and emotional issue. Some say the degree of government support is debilitating, others will say it’s inadequate.”
When pressed, he offered a theory. “Native Canadians were put on small reserves, their population grew, and the land base was too small for them to support themselves from trapping, hunting and fishing. Many were driven on to welfare, and nobody wants to get caught in that trap.”
The diocese was first evangelized by a Cree missionary, Henry Budd, and has always had Cree and Metis clergy. The first bishop came to Prince Albert in 1873. The first archdeacon of the diocese was Metis, and the first indigenous bishop of Canada, Charles Arthurson, who became a suffragan bishop in 1989, is from here.
For many farming and native communities, the church is the hub of activity, Bishop Burton said.
“The joint is jumpin’, and partly because people know that if they don’t jump, they’ll die as a church. A lot of congregations had so many move away and yet they are ready to make a go of it.” he added.
Openness to trying new things is part of prairie culture, he noted. “Prairie people are survivors. Many were once city people who were given land grants. They had to learn how to survive and they have kept that spirit of being open to doing new things.”
The diocese is active for its size. In the past 10 years it has built, rebuilt on a larger scale or expanded seven churches. Plans are afoot to rebuild two more.
It was the pioneering spirit in the diocese that led to the successful fund-raising campaign, and the new planning around family ministries which has followed in its wake, Bishop Burton said.
Today the diocese has a half-time youth worker and four youth conferences a year, where native and non-native teenagers get to know one another better.
The church is one of the few places in northern Saskatchewan culture where native and non-natives mix socially and as equals, said Bishop Burton. “There is a strange dynamic here of people living together but also apart. Natives stick to natives as friends, and native and non-native kids travel in separate groups. I am proud of the church for bringing people together.”
While church is a place where the two populations often worship together, those parishes where there is no first-hand experience of native problems are finding 135 residential schools lawsuits especially hard to understand, Bishop Burton said.
“Anglicans in the diocese did not want to face the reality. For a long time, I would talk about the threat to our future, but people didn’t think it was possible. They thought someone else would fix it, but now they are getting anxious.”
The diocese was home to five residential schools, among them the largest in Canada in the 1950s, the Prince Albert Residential School in Prince Albert.
Bishop Burton remains optimistic. “There is lots of reason to hope,” he said. “There are so many signs of life in the church here. Lots of people are coming to know Christ, the Gospel is being preached, the sacraments administered. There’s a whole lot that’s right about this church.”
One of his favourite examples is that of the rebuilding of the church at Cumberland House, a church which was “literally falling apart. This is not a wealthy community. It is overwhelmingly a native and Metis community. They started building it with only a few thousand dollars. Then the Roman Catholics came in to help. It got done!”
“Native people do things differently and handle time differently than non-natives. They have a sense of the right time to do things, and when there’s a job to be done, they just go out and do it.”