The purpose of this article is to give readers some insight into missionary life in the Western Arctic with the hope of creating some interest amongst clergy and laity in serving the Dene people.
Serving the Dene
From November 2016, to April 2017, I had the
privilege of serving the Dene people in five communities of the Sahtu Region
(Great Bear Lake area). This area lies in the Western Arctic in the Northwest Territories. This was my fourth time to the North.
A priest in the Sahtu celebrates daily Mass, hears confessions, anoints the sick, buries the dead, celebrates baptisms, celebrates weddings, and visits parishioners in their homes. Parish meetings are few and parish organizations are fewer.
Winter is the best time to
travel in the North. Barriers to travel disappear in winter. Muskeg,
tundra, rivers, lakes, and all other waterways freeze from mid-November to the
first part of May. Winter roads are made through the bush and over frozen
waterways. Winter travel within the five Sahtu communities is made via skidoo,
truck, or North-Wright Airways.
The Diocese of Mackenzie‐Fort Smith owns a truck, but the five Sahtu communities (Colville Lake, Fort Good Hope, Deline, Norman Wells, and Tulita) lie very far apart. The most convenient way to travel, year-round, is via North-Wright Airways. The five communities have a combined population of just over 2,500 people.
Living in the north is expensive. To save money in the winter some Dene, but not all, choose not to heat their homes with furnace oil. Instead, they go into the bush and cut firewood for their wood burner.
Great excitement and relief comes in mid-May when the ice on the Mackenzie River
breaks and begins to flow up to Inuvik and the Beaufort Sea.
When the river ice breaks, so does the hold winter has on the Dene. Open river water means motorboats replace skidoos and trucks for travel between the towns.
The Dene pack their family, camping gear, and fishing rods into their boats and boat to Willow Lake, the extremities of Great Bear Lake, the Great Bear River, and beyond.
In the summer, the Dene can more
comfortably return to the bush and to the land that has a way of rejuvenating
their human spirit. The land is life giving and energizing for them.
The period of time a priest spends
in the Sahtu communities can be anywhere from a few days, in a smaller community
like Colville Lake (pop. 160), to a few weeks, in a bigger community like Deline (pop. 503).
A priest can spend hours putting together a flight schedule for his travels. But a funeral or some other unplanned event can throw that schedule into chaos.
The Dene care for all. A
moose or caribou will be divided with elders who are not able to hunt
or fish anymore.
I had a long talk with a mother one time and asked if her and her daughters wanted to share some food. "Father, we're Lenting," she said. I had never heard it expressed that way before: so simple, yet profound.
Limited religious instruction
There is limited and inconsistent
religious instruction for the children and adults alike in the Sahtu.
The community of Tulita (pop. 500) has been blessed with Sister Celeste, a Felician Sister who has been in Tulita for 38 years. Sister Celeste operates a pre-school. She has always given catechism lessons to the young and led Bible studies for adults.
Sister Joan and Sister Pauline, also Felician Sisters, were in Fort Good Hope (pop. 569) for 13 years and gave religious instruction and pre-marriage courses. They returned to the south two years ago. A pastoral leader in Fort Good Hope has continued the sisters' good work.
A young, Dene lady in Colville Lake teaches catechism to the youth. In Deline, two women, one Dene and one non-Dene, prepare the youth for first Confession and first Communion. In Norman Wells (pop. 803), there is currently no catechism being taught.
Like all other people who have been impacted by the effects of drugs and alcohol, the Dene are no different. Many long for liberation from these blights. For some among the Dene, these weeds are rooted in the legacy of residential schools, persistent poverty, and a lack of meaningful employment.
Graces and gifts
The graces and gifts Jesus offers will renew, enhance, and fulfill what is good and wholesome within the Dene sacred tradition. “I have come not to destroy but to fulfill,” Jesus says in Mt 5:17. Jesus did not remove or replace the Old Testament law, but enriched and fulfilled it. Likewise, the ancient Dene tradition of reverence and respect for the human person and the created world is waiting to be enriched by Jesus and the graces of the sacraments.
There may be clergy and laity in the Archdiocese of Vancouver who would be interested in offering the teachings of our Catholic faith to help the Dene people of the Western Arctic enhance and fulfill what is best within themselves and their culture. Bishop Mark Hagemoen of the Diocese of Mackenzie‐Fort Smith would be happy to discuss with you the possibility of serving in his diocese.
The diocese has 33 Catholic communities served by 33 lay pastoral leaders and eight priests. The priests travel, but these communities could be many months without a priest. In the absence of a priest, the lay pastoral leaders lead a Sunday prayer and Scripture service and distribute Holy Communion, celebrate baptisms, weddings, funerals, teach catechism, lead bible studies, and give marriage preparation courses.
I will give a power-point presentation on life and ministry in the Sahtu region of the Northwest Territories Aug. 21, from 7-9 p.m. in the parish hall of St. Patrick's, Maple Ridge. The event is free of charge and all are invited. Call me for more information: 604-803-1629.
Father John Tritschler is a retired priest from the Archdiocese of Vancouver living in residence at St. Patrick’s, Maple Ridge.