The Ungava Peninsula in Nunavik, northern Quebec, is flanked by Hudson Bay on one side and Ungava Bay on the other. Here, above the treeline, wide open skies frame sweeping views of snow through the crisp, cold air.
“It’s a beautiful place, amazingly beautiful,” says Esther Wesley, co-ordinator of the Anglican Healing Fund. “But life is harsh.”
Wesley, along with Melanie Delva, reconciliation animator for the Anglican Church of Canada, travelled to the area in December, during a two-week visit with Bishop David Parsons, of the diocese of the Arctic. Travelling with the bishop gave them the chance to experience church services in eight communities—as well as traditional foods, Arctic storms and Parsons’ homemade bread.
For Delva, it was the first time travelling so far north. “One of the huge learnings for me was that you’re really at the mercy of other people and the weather,” she says. Delva, who describes herself as “type A,” says it was a major adjustment for their plans to be completely outside her control. Waiting for hours for a plane to arrive or extending a visit because of a storm are typical barriers to travel in these fly-in communities.
But people don’t complain, she says. Waiting at the airport is simply an opportunity to chat.
“The hospitality was just immense. We were welcomed really kindly wherever we went,” says Delva. People were kind, open, “not so individualistic and self-centred. It’s very community-centred.”
The communities Delva and Wesley visited have populations that range from fewer than 200 people to 1,400, most of whom are Inuit. Inuktitut, English and French are spoken widely.
Wesley says a sense of interdependence is common in isolated Indigenous communities. “People are amazingly generous with everything they have.”
In the harsh weather conditions, says Delva, “you can’t be selfish and survive…You have to learn to depend on each other. You have to learn to share.”
There is also a dependence on God, adds Wesley. “Jesus is the centre of everything there.” She recalls how Parsons would be stopped in the airport, or the grocery store, by someone asking for prayer. “Prayer and faith [are] not left behind the doors of someone’s home or church. It’s very much a part of daily living.”
In a phone interview, Parsons shared much the same feeling. “The people have a vibrancy. That spiritual part of their life is awake,” he said. As churches are closing across the rest of the country, he said, in these communities, “congregations are doing very well…we’re needing to build larger churches.”
Wesley describes the churches they visited as reflecting a “reversal” of the trend in urban centres, filled with young families and children.
But the parishes in the Ungava deanery face their fair share of challenges as well.
Despite large congregations, there is a lack of ordained clergy. “We rarely see Anglican clergy from Canada,” says Parsons. He says some people “can’t handle” the remoteness and isolation of the Arctic.
The diocese of the Arctic is the largest diocese in Canada, covering almost four million square km.
Many of the communities Wesley and Delva visited either have no priest or have a retired priest who continues to serve simply because there was no one to replace him.
In Quaqtaq, they met the Rev. Bobby Nakoolak, a retired elder in his mid-80s who continues to do the work of a priest. “He said if he couldn’t do it…there would be no baptism in the community, no Eucharist, nothing,” says Wesley. “In any of these small, isolated communities, a priest is a full-time thing…it’s a 24-hour job. If anything happens, that’s the first person who is called. They’re front line workers in every way.”
With the high cost of travel, there is often little opportunity for them to take even a brief retreat.
It can also be difficult for lay leaders, who find themselves doing similar work as priests but with less training. “Even though in some places, we have lay leaders, and they’re doing such a great job, over the years they age, they get tired…In some cases, because you’re a lay leader, you don’t have the same training you would get if you’d gone to a Bible college,” says Parsons.
Jeannie Nungak, a lay reader at Holy Trinity Anglican Church in Kangirsuk, says the church has been trying for two years to get funding for a mission house. In the community of between 500 and 600 people, 110 attend Holy Trinity Church, she says. But there is no priest. They had one last year, but the priest left because there was no adequate housing.
Wesley says Anglicans need to be aware of “the magnitude of need in all sorts of areas, especially in ministry.”
Drug and alcohol use among young people is an issue, even in small, remote communities, Wesley says, which can be exacerbated by this lack of leadership. “When you don’t have a church leader…where do these kids go after, if they don’t have anybody?”
She says this is one area that the church needs to look at as it pursues reconciliation. “Not strictly reconciliation looking at it from the residential school area or issues, but reconciliation in the sense of what the early church destroyed among the people’s cultures to where they are now.” The history of colonization and violence, she says, continues to have an impact.
“It shows up in ways like addictions. It shows up in ways like suicides. And it’s just not young people…all ages of people are committing suicide.”
Parsons says he would love to see “young people who are full of God, the Holy Spirit, who have vision and ideas that are coming from God” come into some communities. “The North is preparing for self-government. We need to be ready with young people who are ready and able to step into positions to help lead.”