The Inuvialuit of the Western Arctic

Faith in Tuktoyaktuk  

By Sister Fay Trombley, S.C.I.C. 

 Courtesy of Catholic Missions in Canada Magazine, Spring 2017

The Mission and History of Tuktoyaktuk

Tuktoyaktuk is a hamlet of 950 people in the Northwest Territories. About 98 per cent of the people are Inuvialuit, and around 80 per cent of the people are unemployed. Work is seasonal, mostly related to building roads. Inuvialuit people are not First Nations people and resent being called First Nations.  They are, however, one of the Aboriginal peoples in Canada.

Hamlet of Tuktoyaktuk

The hamlet of Tuk was formed gradually beginning in the 1930’s when a Hudson Bay Trading post was opened here.  First came the Anglican missionaries and then the Catholic missionaries.  Our church property at Our Lady of Grace mission was bought in 1939 by Oblate Father Franche, who was the missionary at the time.

Prior to living in villages, people lived in groups of one or two families who hunted together and followed the seasons and the animals for survival.  This lifestyle was uninterrupted for 5000 years and the people were able to survive in one of the most inhospitable climates on earth. The Inuvialuit, even today, have an inner timing mechanism which follows the seasons, the sun, and the animals.  They are not easily Monday-to-Friday people or nine-to-five people.

Only the “elders” in their 70s, 80s or 90s remember the lifestyle of “life on the land.”  Beginning in the 1940s and 1950s, the whole Inuvialuit population has been painfully and tragically affected by residential schools.  This began a radical social disruption.  The language, traditions, and inner values were mostly lost.  The people are now slowly working through their anger, pain, and “lost-ness. “ It is a time of social readjustment, unemployment, addictions, suicides and a sense of hopelessness.

School demolition
Demolition of Sir Alexander Mackenzie School in Inuvik, 2014

The long-term effects of residential schools are addictions, disrupted families, and social destabilization. Anger can be close to the surface and is against the Church, the government, and white people/outsiders. Native people, since Truth and Reconciliation and Healing Workshops such as RTS, are slowly coming out of their long silence and beginning to speak, find themselves and heal.

The social structure of multiple families living in villages is recent (70 years) and weak.  There is a strong, but subtle, pyramid social structure based on either family name, or money, or employment.  The pyramid structure is not based on religion or education per se.  The pyramid structure is kept alive by bullying perpetrated by both children and adults. “Who bullies who” tells a lot.

Who are the People?

The Letter of St. James would aptly describe the Inuvialuit people, where he says: Be “quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger.”  However, when someone is drinking, violence and sexual abuse come out, resulting in all the social and family ills.

The Inuvialuit people love to laugh, tell stories on themselves, possess great powers of observation, concentration and memory.  Many are skilled carvers and sewers.  Babies and children are deeply loved and valued no matter how they get here.  Children get along very well and don’t often quarrel.  They look after one another.

Baptism at Our Lady of Grace Mission, Tuktoyaktuk

The people have a social custom of “traditional adoption” in which a child can be adopted by agreement of birth parents and adopting family, often a relative.  A very high percentage of children are adopted.

Very many families are single-parent.  Very few couples are married.  Bishop Emeritus Croteau warned me about not pushing marriage.  The people do not have our understanding of commitment.

The greatest needs as I experience the Arctic peoples are: hope, building community, respect, youth, employment, healing of memories and addictions; modelling of Christian values, notably equality between rich and poor, male and female, those addicted and those who are not.

Missionaries and Faith Formation

The last resident priest in Tuk was Oblate Father Ruyant, who stayed in the mission for three years.  He left in about 1990. Another Oblate, Father Robert LeMeur, was resident priest in Tuk for about 25 years and was greatly loved by the people.

Since the time of resident priests, Tuk has been served by the priest in Inuvik, who flies in to the missions of Tuk and Paulatuk.  We have Mass four or five times a year.  Faith is mostly kept alive by the people themselves and a lay pastoral person, if there is one.

In the days of resident priests, about 35 people came to Sunday Mass.  Currently, about 25 people come to Sunday service on average.  Many people are working through anger, alienation, and pain.

Tuktoyaktuk Church
Our Lady of Grace Mission Church, Tuktoyaktuk

Faith is mostly seen around funerals, centered around Bible reading, inspired by tragedies and hardship.  In different ways, faith is seen in Sunday church service.  The people of Tuk are all Christian: Anglican, Roman Catholic, Pentecostal and Baptist. Catholics probably have the largest church attendance.

St. Vincent de Paul Thrift Store, Tuktoyaktuk

In the past six years, faith has been active in Tuk through the founding of a St. Vincent de Paul conference (emergency food bank, thrift store, volunteering, praying together and building community, serving those in need).  It is an ecumenical faith experience.

Life of a Missionary Today

A missionary in the Arctic today nurtures faith and people through presence, listening to painful life stories (past and present), building community, and helping to knit together the different family groupings.  At appropriate times (when people are not on the land hunting), faith is strengthened and formed through sacramental preparation and Bible study and prayer groups.  The homily is a key time of inspiration and unfolding of the Gospel message.

Diocesan Leadership  

The earliest bishops and clergy lived among the people, using their traditional ways of hunting and survival.  They kept their own dog teams, hunted their own dog food and personal food (seals, whales, fish, caribou).  The priest searched out the families, who were spread out on the land, rather than the people coming to a priest. The clergy were deeply respected for “living as the people did” and surviving.

Bishop Paul Piché, O.M.I., 1967-1986

The people speak of Bishop Piché visiting the people regularly.  The people knew the bishop and the bishop knew them.

Bishop Denis Croteau, O.M.I., 1986-2008

Bishop Croteau  worked as a team person with educators and faith builders, developing a Mission Statement, a spirituality center in Yellowknife, courses and workshops to train lay leaders, and importantly the Returning to Spirit healing workshops.  Bishop Croteau continued the missionary work of building buildings!  Now, we might add that they are in varying degrees of disrepair, many buildings being 60 or 80 years old.

Archbishop Murray Chatlain, 2008-2012 (now with the Archdiocese of Keewatin-Le Pas)

Archbishop Murray is deeply loved and respected by the aboriginal peoples whom he served.  Bishop Murray listened to the people, adapted himself to their uniqueness and needs, modelled humility and patience, taught us to love and respect one another and supported his missionaries.  He strengthened the work begun earlier of forming aboriginal lay service and leadership.

Bishop Mark Hagemoen, 2013 to present

All our bishops have been close to the people through their simple lifestyle and manner, yet each bishop blessed us in their own unique way and we are so very grateful to them.

We now ask God’s blessing on the new bishop, Bishop Mark Hagemoen, who will love and serve us!

Sister Fay Trombley, of the Sisters of Charity of the Immaculate Conception, is pastoral leader of Our Lady of Grace mission in Tuktoyaktuk, Northwest Territories, in the Diocese of Mackenzie-Fort Smith.