Summer 1998, Vol. 1, No. 1

Contents Page,
Vol. 1, No. 1


Quick Links
to other articles
in this issue:
Promise Keepers

Religion and the Post-Welfare State

Charitable Choice

McCaughey Babies

Islam in Virginia

The Pope in Cuba

Patriarch's Visit

Clinton Scandal

Religion in a Cold Climate
by Dave Miller

When I stand outside my cabin on a lovely lakeshore near Yellowknife, I know there is nothing but wilderness for 3,000 miles. An angled trajectory might eventually find an isolated native community reachable by plane or boat, but my personal line of longitude doesn’t intersect a single highway or fence until that line has started curving south, somewhere in northern Siberia.

While the Northwest Territories, Canada’s northernmost region, is four times the size of Texas, its population of about 65,000 would almost fit into Houston’s Astrodome. Despite our small numbers, our government must still cover all the bases of a standard state or provincial administration. And our citizens must scramble to people the many non-governmental and advocacy organizations, private institutions, private sector workplaces, and volunteer agencies that make up the fabric of any state or province. In similar fashion, the small Canadian Broadcasting Corporation radio bureau where I work, like other local media operations, must try to stay on top of it all. Our newsrooms can’t assign reporters full-time to the religion beat. And so faith groups must wait their place in line for coverage-typically at the end of the queue.

The really big stories here are the commercial diamond fields being developed a two-hour plane ride northeast of Yellowknife; the region’s current evolution from territorial status to provincehood; aboriginal land claims; and, most poignantly, the tremendous social problems of Inuit, Metis, and First Nations people as they make the painful adjustment to life in a modern society.

When big news of a religious nature breaks in the Canadian Arctic, it usually has to do with aboriginal peoples, and the story is almost always negative. These days it mostly relates to the incredible sufferings the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches inflicted on northern native peoples while attempting to pull them into the twentieth century. For most of this century, the churches’ prescription was forced assimilation into the Canadian mainstream.

As was also common in the United States, the chosen instruments of the churches and national government were residential schools. These schools, staffed and run by churches, removed native children from the influence of their parents and communities, restricted the use of indigenous languages, and imposed stern discipline. They were also, a string of recent scandals have revealed, all too often the sites of many forms of child abuse. Prior to the imposition of the residential school system early in this century, Northern native communities were by most accounts rather idyllic places to live, prosperous from the bounty of the land and the proceeds of the fur trade. If they are no longer that way today, it’s generally accepted that the church-run schools and the social dysfunction wrought by them are largely to blame. Sadly this is the number one religion story coming out of the northern third of Canada today. In January of this year, the Canadian federal government made the residential school system headline news. From the 1940s through the 1960s, Ottawa had condoned and funded the system. Now it was admitting its error and instituting a $350 million healing fund as a form of restitution. The churches themselves had offered apologies in the past. But those apologies came with little or no money attached and therefore failed to capture the attention of Northern assignment editors in the same way. As usual, money talks.

The aftermath of the government’s dramatic decision to offer restitution also illustrates the complexity of practicing cross-cultural journalism in the Arctic. The Roman Catholic Diocese of Mackenzie, geographically one of the Western Hemisphere’s largest, realized the federal government’s January apology would open old wounds and stir up new criticism. But it chose to wait three weeks to convene a diocesan meeting to draft a painstakingly worked-out response. The delay lowered the Catholic church’s profile at the time of the federal announcement, denying it the opportunity to respond pro-actively during the heightened media awareness. But such a measured response was, perhaps, not entirely out of place in the Mackenzie diocese, given the region’s own culture of communication. Half the region’s residents are aboriginal and most of them rely on the "Moccasin Telegraph" as much as the mass media for their news. The Moccasin Telegraph is a communications network along family and tribal lines, heavily reliant on high-frequency radio, word of mouth, and the telephone. There have been other challenges inherent in covering the residential-school issue as it unfolds in Canada’s Arctic. Many of the Oblate Fathers and Grey Nuns who worked in the residential schools were well-intentioned Christians. A number of these clergy and religious still live here. The personal hurt our coverage causes them seems minor compared to the legacy of pain their schools caused. Yet we have to be careful we don’t paint our articles with too broad of a brush, for fear of simply creating more victims.

A bigger challenge is faced by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s own aboriginal journalists. Ours is the only news organization in the Northwest Territories employing aboriginal reporters. And there’s not one of them who didn’t go through the residential school system. If the story is to be told in the languages of those who experienced the system, then there’s no alternative. They must do the story, as much a part of it as they are. The professional conflict is unavoidable, and in some cases wrought with personal pain.

Another big religion story has to do with the shortage of priests in the local Roman Catholic Church. This problem is endemic just about the world over, but the situation is exceptionally severe here. Thirty years ago, more than 40 Oblate priests and 100 Grey nuns served the Mackenzie diocese. Now we are down to four aged fathers, half on loan from elsewhere in Canada, and half a dozen sisters.

Attempts to create an indigenous clergy haven’t worked out. The current bishop tried to recruit an 80-year-old Dene elder to the priesthood a few years ago. He thought it might inspire younger Dene to take the vows. In the end Rome vetoed the idea. It felt there wouldn’t be time for the necessary religious formation before the elder passed away. He would have been the first Dene priest to be recruited during that church’s 150-year history in the region.