I’m a retired priest from the St. John Diocese in New Brunswick and a former missionary from Fort Simpson, NWT. About half of my priesthood was spent in the north. I was ordained in 1967, the year Bishop Jon Hansen from Makenzie-Fort Smith was born.
I grew up in the St. John Diocese. We’d occasionally get a missionary coming through to preach and I’d listen to their stories. When I was in the seminary during Vatican II, there was an emphasis on missions, but one of the requirements was language training and I was blocked because I don’t have a good ear for that. However, in 1989 Bishop Croteau needed a priest for the Cathedral in Yellowknife and sent out a request. Bishop Ed Troy sent it to all of his priests. I still remember reading that letter and having no doubt that it was for me.
Bishop Troy gave me a 2-year appointment to the Northwest Territories. He was a military man and very precise about the length of the term. After 2 years, I sent Troy a letter telling him that I was quite happy, but didn’t ask to stay. Some members of the Personnel Board said that it sounded like I wanted to stay, but Troy remarked that since I didn’t ask to do so, I had to come home to New Brunswick. I had a hard time coming back.
I went home for 5 years and was active but nothing clicked, so I contacted Bishop Troy about returning north and he took it to the Board. They said my heart was in the north, so Troy arranged for me to return for another limited term. However, he soon retired. The new bishop thought I was a missionary and never called me back home. I returned north in 1996 and never looked back.
I fell in love with the north and being at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Yellowknife. There was a diocesan synod going on and I was fascinated by it. Bishop Croteau brought the diocese into the 20th Century and held regional meetings to plan the administration of the diocese.
Yellowknife was like a mini-Edmonton, so coming from St. John wasn’t such a big transition. The other priests would tell me what it was like further out. Canada was always of interest to me and there was a resurgence of interest in Indigenous issues at the time. We had reserves in New Brunswick of which I had experience. Government leadership back home was starting to involve Indigenous people and I took notice. That happened in the Territories too. The capital had been Ft. Smith but it changed to Yellowknife around 1967. Bishop Croteau switched the See of the diocese to Yellowknife in the 1980s.
I had no training to be a missionary. I was almost 50 years old when I returned and had some experience with Indigenous people. I had the sense that the Church was bigger than just a parish. I had great love for the Oblates who lived among the Indigenous peoples as parish priests. Oblates would come from France in pairs. The brother would construct the church, while the priest went to visit the camps. The priest would pick up the language, learn the culture and become part of the community. It was the Oblates who set the model for missionaries in the north. At least, that’s what I took as a model – learning from the local people.
I fell in love with working with the people. I wanted to be out in the wider world with people who came from all over.
So, I would look for people to assist me. In Ft. Simpson I got Senator Nick Sibbeston to help. He told me not to worry. Andy Norwegian was a language specialist and would translate my homilies. He wanted to be precise and would learn new words from me. I fell in love with working with the people. I wanted to be out in the wider world with people who came from all over. I was fascinated with the different personalities, but it was the Indigenous people who were of most interest to me. Over time, I came to understand how best to work with them – that was my training. I had an immersion with Indigenous people in New Brunswick before I went north. From the Miꞌkmaq in New Brunswick, I went to work with the Dene in the north.
I was helped so much by Andy because he was a linguist, like Pope John Paul II. In preparation for his second visit to the Territories, Andy made tapes so that he could speak the language when he came. The Dene appreciated St. John Paul because he spoke to them in their language. The Dene went to Rome prior to the visit and invited the Pope to come to Ft. Simpson. The 1984 visit happened, in part, because the Dene had become skilled politicians. This all happened through Grandin College in Ft. Simpson. It was meant to train Indigenous priests, but turned out politicians instead.
If the Church was to make progress, we had to involve the local people. That’s what I liked. The problem we have today is that priests come for a couple of years and then leave. They take over and weaken the local leadership. Priests need to stay longer to realize the local dynamic. It upsets the people when a priest introduces foreign traditions. I don’t know if I was successful in appreciating this. Nick and Andy helped to correct me when I didn’t know better and then it worked well, but that was because of them, not me.
If faith is to survive in northern Canada, the ideas I’ve talked about are what will get it there. Bringing priests in from foreign countries is not the answer. I don’t mean any disrespect and God bless them for coming, but they need to do what the Oblates did. Moving forward, Canadian missions need to involve more lay people in leadership and be open to what they can do.