Elders sort through clothing donations to their Arctic community through the Vincentians’ North of 60 program. Photo courtesy SSVP Western Region

Vincentians transform lives North of 60

  • June 1, 2024

What do you get when you combine the indefatigability of a religious sister, the impassioned altruism of a Calgary parishioner and the astonishing generosity and mobilizing power of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul (SSVP)?

The North of 60 Project, which since 2010 has been an awe-inspiring and impactful charitable giving effort to support communities in Canada’s Arctic region.

In 2010, Sr. Fay Trombley of the Sisters of Charity of the Immaculate Conception and the late Eileen Orysiuk, a devoted St. Pius X Parish congregant who died in 2013, challenged the SSVP Western Region to support Canadians living above the 60th parallel. The result of the steadfast efforts of Vincentians and partners over the past 14 years is that residents of eight to 10 remote Canadian Arctic communities receive a truck or sea container filled with basic food staples, clothing, sewing supplies, furniture, hygiene products and more. The guiding principles of North of 60 are only shipping what a community requests and supporting a locality as long as inhabitants ask for provisions.

Before her passing, Orysiuk demanded of Peter Ouellette, SSVP Western Region North of 60 president, that he keep the collection drive flourishing for many years.

“She phoned me from her hospital bed and put the fear of God in me,” said Ouellette. “She said if I don’t continue this program, she will haunt me for the rest of my life. That was my inspiration, and it worked.”

It is fair to assume that Orysiuk was so tenacious in her appeal to Ouellette because she knew North of 60 makes a transformative difference in communities like Tuktoyaktuk, Paulatuk, Fort Good Hope, Ulukhaktok and Inuvik.

Trombley, still a “non-stop sister” at 84, said this initiative not only meets physical needs in a challenging landscape, it is a bestower of social blessings. 

Hope is the first of the blessings identified by Trombley, who moved in 2005 to Tuktoyaktuk after finishing her teaching career at Newman Theological College in Edmonton. Not only are people being afforded “the hope and opportunity to find what they need,” they have “satisfied the heart” by volunteering particularly when there is a shortage of work opportunities. The Inuvialuit have assisted Trombley at the local thrift store and the community food bank shepherded by her for many years.  

Dorothy Loreen is one of the Tuktoyaktuk residents who helps operate the thrift store. She estimated that 50 per cent of the 950-1,000 people in the community request items provided by North of 60 “because most families do not have enough funds to order clothing.” Purchasing clothing articles is unfeasible for many considering food prices rose 10.2 per cent from 2022 to 2023 and another 6.6 per cent from 2023 to 2024. 

In addition to enjoying helping people at the thrift store, Loreen said she enjoys collaborating with Trombley. She joked, “If you have two of her you’d get a lot of things done.”

Another godsend from North of 60 is the thrift store organically blossoming into a hub of community fellowship. 

“It is a gathering place for people to visit, share their stories or news, help out or hang out,” said Trombley. “It is the place to go. Tuk has no coffee shop, no restaurants, no games place for young people — it just does not have those things around here. The thrift store has become that and we hope the Men’s Shed could become that for guys.”

Trombley has received approval and support from the hamlet council to bring a Men’s Shed to Tuktoyaktuk. Nearly 100 sheds for men have been established across Canada. These centres traditionally offer activities to promote physical and mental well-being and provide men an enticing alternative to social isolation. The need for such a program is urgent in the hamlet situated near the Mackenzie River delta where Trombley said five young men in their 20s or 30s took their own life over the past year. 

In addition to North of 60 fostering intra-community social bonds, it also champions inter-community dynamics as specific SSVP conferences in Alberta assemble their containers for a “sister” Arctic community. For example, Our Lady of Perpetual Help Conference in Sherwood Park stockpiles goods for Paulatuk; the Divine Mercy Conference in Edmonton amasses commodities for Fort Good Hope; and St. Albert Conference accumulates items for Ulukhaktok. 

As people unfamiliar with daily life in the Canadian Arctic can imagine, couriering containers filled to the brim with boxes to some of the most remote communities is not an easy proposition. Traditionally the containers are assembled and loaded onto trucks in church parking lots, driven up to Hay River and then transported to a barge (a flat-bottomed boat for carrying freight) that travels down the Mackenzie River to reach its designated community. Some communities require a transfer from a river barge to an ocean barge for a voyage along the Beaufort Sea.

However, the SSVP Western Region is being confronted with some unexpected obstacles this year. For one, the North of 60 team was informed its longtime shipping supplier, which provided its services for free, could no longer lend its support. And on May 9, it was announced that because of low water levels on the Mackenzie River, Marine Transportation Services cannot accept cargo at the Hay River terminal. 

Now, all containers must be shipped from Calgary and Edmonton up to Tuktoyaktuk directly (approximately 40 hours) by Aug. 1 to connect with marine transport there. The quoted price to ship nine containers is nearly $150,000 (over $16,000) apiece. The promising news is the SSVP National Council has approved a $50,000 interest-free loan that complements an earlier $10,000 disbursement provided in April. Around $90,000 is still required before the Aug. 1 deadline.  

In an email distributed to SSVP Western Region members, president Heather Schilling encouraged Vincentians to “invoke the SSVP tradition of the black bag.” She advocated that if each of the 1,000 active members “gave $20, that would contribute $20,000,” and an additional $40,000 could be raised if “every member tells two people who each contribute $20.”

Schilling, a Calgarian, has other irons in the fire. She has connected with Knights of Columbus councils near Calgary and Edmonton, and secured permission to solicit donations from all the Diocese of Calgary lay associations. 

Though the immediate need is securing the capital for this year, Schilling told The Catholic Register she has her eye on the years ahead.

“We also want to tell the story so we can look towards the future and how we can make this sustainable on a long-term basis,” said Schilling. “How do we continue this great effort to be able to support these communities in the North?”

Ouellette suggested there are some intriguing potential partnerships to be explored.

“This is a good opportunity to review where we have been and where we can go,” said Ouellette.”There are opportunities potentially with corporate sponsors on a longer-term basis. There are businesses in the Northwest Territories that could benefit significantly from joining forces with the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, particularly in the context of helping people in need and building support, especially food security.” 

To donate to North of 60, email Schilling at pres.ssvpwrc@gmail.com.

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