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Fr. Barry BercierAugust 20, 2017

Reflections from Fr. Barry Bercier, who recently began ministry to an Inuit Catholic community in Igloolik, north of the Arctic Circle in Nunavut, Canada (and its two mission). Having previously spent some time in Greenland, he begins by making a few comparisons:

“…. Nunavut is not like Greenland much at all, even though geographically they are close neighbors.  Just today after Mass I had a conversation with one of the locals who sometimes works on fishing boats that pull into Nuuk (Greenland) we ended up comparing the two places.  Nuuk is, by arctic standards, a big city.  It has water pipes and sewers, paved roads, tall buildings, a hospital, a big active port and a heavy dose of Danish influence—things tend to be orderly, smooth functioning and fairly prosperous.  Though it has serious social problems, they seem fairly well-managed.

Igloolik, overviewIgloolik, overview

None of this applies to Nunavut.  Maybe in the capital, Iqualuit, which I only glimpsed from the airport, but not in the tiny isolated towns that constitute the rest of the place.  The past two Sundays I’ve been in Hall Beach, the smaller of my two missions.  Igloolik is my base and I’ll be headed back there tomorrow.  It’s just a 15 minute flight.  Hall Beach is part of the Melville Peninsula and Igloolik is a little island just off the northeast coast of the peninsula.  Both places are flat, featureless, colorless expanses of grey rocky rubble--no trees or bushes, just mosses and lichens and some patches of ragged grass.  Greenland’s mountains and fjords cut a different profile altogether.  The population here is mostly Inuit, with a smattering of ‘kabluna,’ people from the outside, professionals of different sorts.

I had hoped to deal with more of the Inuit in Nuuk, but they were almost entirely Lutheran.  Here the Oblates of Mary Immaculate evangelized and so there are lots of Catholics, and it’s a thoroughly native church.  Bit by bit I’m trying to learn how to do the Mass in Inuktitut.  (That will take me some time!)  But the people are very patient…and are so accustomed to doing the services without a priest that where I hesitate or stumble, they jump right in and roll on without me!

The elders among them don’t speak much English at all, though the younger ones all do.  The elders remember life here as it used to be, living on the land, hunting and fishing for survival, toughing it out in the dark and frigid winter.

Almost everyone is missing teeth!  They have lots and lots of kids, so many that they often give them away to other members of the community to raise—they seem to do this as a matter of course.  The kids are sweet, smiling easily, often coming right up to me to ask my name and tell me theirs. (A couple days ago I met a kid named Jessie James! I asked him who gave him that name.  He said, “My mother!  Who gave you yours?”)

They run all around without supervision.  A few weeks ago they were riding their bikes across the ice floes that had drifted into the bay in Igloolik!  At 4 in the morning!

Parish church, IgloolikParish church, Igloolik

They have very little by way of education and don’t think much of school.  The situation now, between the stone age of their grandparents and the computer age they are living with…and the inadequate but still pervasive social services provided by Canada, offers them few prospects.  Many of them don’t work, so the younger people see no reason to get schooling.

They have the kinds of problems we see further south with the Native Americans.  Alcohol and drugs, domestic violence, suicides…

It’s too much to ask of a people that come straight from primitive nature that they should immediately become 21st century denizens.  It’s killing.

But still (and to use the expression Bishop Drainville used when he was preparing me to head to my old village, Parent, Quebec) they seem to me “attachants.”  There’s something sweet about them, something a universe away from the cynicism, irony, distance and pretension we’re more accustomed to.

I had a brief conversation with three Inuit men earlier this week here in Hall Beach. They were doing some repairs on their boat.  I was walking by when one of them, a guy about 50, said, “Hey, boy!”  I wasn’t sure I heard correctly and I wasn’t sure it was addressed to me.  But he said it again, so I walked over to them.  They thought maybe I was a teacher, since the white people have been showing up. (This Thursday was the first day of school.)   I told them I was here for the church.  They introduced themselves in a very friendly way and if they had intended to insult me at the beginning, my inability to take it that way dispelled that intention. But the fact is I don’t think they really intended an insult at all. My guess is that this is Inuit humor.    They …laughed at themselves, and then laughed at me, saying for sure I’d be burning lots of oil come winter.  They suggested I eat some “aged walrus.”  …When they kill a walrus, they bury it for several months and then, when it’s rotted, they eat it.

The days are shortening now, so by midnight it’s nearly dark.  I’m fine, though, with 24 hour sun.  It didn’t bother me in Greenland or here at all.  It’s the coming 24 hour dark and deep, deep cold that will be the challenge.  I got a glimpse of it two Christmasses ago at Thule, but that was just a little more than a week and there was the big, bright airbase and lots of American kablunas that all made that experience easy, plus really terrific food, and that in abundance.  The food here is not so good and astronomically expensive.  (I had some caribou last week, though, and it was great!)  But, no doubt, the winter will be the test.

Map, indicating Igloolik and Hall Beach
Map, indicating Igloolik and Hall Beach

Last Updated on Wednesday, 30 August 2017 08:58
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