Portrait of a Congregation

In the Ottawa neighbourhood of Vanier, a group of Inuit Anglicans gather to worship every Sunday at 11:00, following the 9:00 English service. The hymns and liturgy are in Inuktitut and now, since the completion of the Inuktitut Bible in the summer of 2012, the Bible readings are too. These worshippers are some of around 2000 Inuit now living permanently in Ottawa.

The distinctly Anglican worship also has an Arctic-style liturgical sense. “There is always a strong sense of the presence of the Spirit of Christ and silence, which Inuit are culturally never afraid of, becomes a regular part of the liturgy,” says the Rev. Roger Briggs, Chaplain for the Inuit congregation. Briggs usually preaches sitting down, and invites questions and comments. He says, “Other members of the congregation help with the readings and prayers, which…sometimes develop naturally into extempore prayers from folk in the pews.”

While Anglican ministry to Ottawa’s Inuit population has, in various forms, been going on since the late 1970s, the congregation has been worshipping at St. Margaret’s for about 10 years. But the story really begins long before that— in the mid-1950s when the federal government adopted new policies for the Arctic. Formal southern-style education was introduced into Inuit communities…These new English-only community schools were to complement the already existing residential schools and “provided grades only up to an inadequate Grade 6 or 7,” explains Briggs. “What was to happen educationally for students wishing to enter the upper Grades was dealt with in two ways in the 1960s. More Residential Schools were established but an increasing number of students were brought south.” Added to the adult Inuit who came to Ottawa for work or medical reasons, by the early 1970s there was a sharp growth in Ottawa’s Inuit population. “The folk to whom we once went are now come amongst us,” says Briggs.

The Diocese of Ottawa, recognizing that these newcomers were mostly Anglicans, encouraged several congregations and individuals to organize support. At times this was in the context of a more formal partnership between the Arctic and Ottawa. But while that relationship is no longer a formal one, the ties are still strong. Bishop John Chapman explains, “There’s a licenced layreader [Aigah Attagutsiak] at St. Margaret’s; she’s currently [on leave] in the Arctic. And she does have a view toward ordination. She’d be ordained for the Diocese of the Arctic and would be basically ‘on loan’ to the Diocese of Ottawa.”

This deep sense of partnership is also visible in the relationship between St. Margaret’s Vanier’s original congregation and this fledgling one. In fact, Bp. Chapman sees it as a model for how Indigenous and non-Indigenous Anglicans can work alongside one another: “I think the thing I’m most excited about is that I do not detect the presence of any kind of paternalism…They very much share the place.”

Canon Bill Fairlie, just-retired Rector of St. Margaret’s, has been a guide and a model of hospitality to the two congregations. He says, “We are very pleased for the Inuit community settling in this parish.” The parish is entering another time of transition, having opened its doors to nearby All Saint’s Anglican and its Rector, the Rev. Rhondda Mackay, in a process of amalgamation.

As all three congregations learn and grow together, the ongoing mission for Briggs, whose 50-yr. ministry has gone back and forth between the Dioceses of the Arctic and Ottawa, is to train new leadership to replace him. Closely involved in the training of Deacon Aigah, he also mentions several other capable layreaders and describes a “fragility you don’t see in other congregations.” “These Southern aboriginal or Inuit congregations, it depends very much on strong leadership. And you get the wrong person in there, it’s like a very fragile, beautifully-turned glass jar. It can so easily be knocked off the table and the glass shattered.”

Doubtless this congregational fragility mirrors the fragility of a culture that has undergone an incredibly compressed cultural transition. Briggs recalls, “Having first come north when people were still living in snow-houses and tents, using dog-teams for travel, to be there when the Inuit were given their chance for self-government was deeply moving.” Briggs, as much a spiritual companion as he is a guide, says, “When you look at their history and what they’ve survived under and will survive…but they have a wilderness to go through and we cannot, cannot leave them in that wilderness,” he says.

In all of this, St. Margaret’s Anglican, the “Church in the Heart of Vanier,” has been a testament to the power of hospitality and to the Anglican Church’s commitment to be a vital presence both in the geographical North and among northern peoples—wherever they are living.

Sharon Dewey Hetke
Council of the North Communications

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