Whitehorse Bishop Gary Gordon Register file photo

The challenging capacity of Canada’s far north

  • June 5, 2012

WHITEHORSE, YUKON - On my first visit to Canada’s territories, and the farthest north I have ever travelled on the globe, I was even more curious than I usually am, and asked a lot of questions of those who were kind enough to meet me. One word kept being repeated in almost every answer: “capacity.” The bishop of Whitehorse explained the importance of it, the premier of the Yukon emphasized it, a young couple raised it in relation to housing, an aboriginal shop-owner mentioned it in terms of suppliers — even the receptionist at the local newspaper spoke of it in terms of the newsroom.

The Yukon is an immense territory — larger than many European countries — with a tiny population. Some 35,000 people live here, with nearly three-quarters of those in Whitehorse itself. At the end of May the weather was spring-like and the sun out till after 10 p.m., but for most of the year the severe cold and expansive darkness make it a forbidding place. There are roads which are only open in the summer, meaning five months a year: May 1 to Oct. 1. It is spectacularly beautiful, but in the winter it is too dark to enjoy the scenery. Geographic isolation — it’s a three-day drive from B.C.’s lower mainland — means that it is expensive to obtain the resources required to sustain life in the far north.

So they talk a lot about capacity — what are a hardy band of Yukoners capable of to make a go of things? The premier speaks of moving the Yukon toward fiscal self-sufficiency, but that it is a long way off. More than $700 million is transferred here from the federal government, well over half of the annual territorial budget. The economy here is simply not large enough to generate sufficient tax revenues for the government services required. Indeed, in many ways the Yukon is government. A labour force of some 18,000 includes 8,000 public sector workers. Many of the rest are service workers dependent on the purchasing power of the government payroll. The premier observes that everyone either works for the government or is married to someone who does.

A local political activist speaks about the massive hydroelectric potential of the northern rivers, but connecting any future development to the North American grid might cost as much as $2 billion. A population of 35,000 largely public sector workers does not have the capacity for that kind of capital investment.

Gary Gordon, bishop of Whitehorse since 2006, speaks about capacity a lot. He has one diocesan priest, a few remaining Oblates and some outside help.  The Catholic community — 11,000 in the Yukon, 8,000 of those in Whitehorse — is no bigger than a large parish in Toronto. There is simply no capacity to serve the immense territory.

Bishop Gordon speaks about the heroic work done for generations by the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, the great missionaries of the west and the north. The once formidable religious order was a “conduit of capacity,” bringing personnel from France and eastern Canada to the north, and the money necessary to sustain both missionaries and missions. The Oblates were, in resource allocation terms, an efficient means of transferring capacity from the south to the north. After an impressive run, the Oblates themselves are running low on capacity. There is one left in active ministry in the Yukon, serving as rector of the cathedral. He lives with two others, well into their 90s, one of whom still offers Sunday Mass in a local mission. Unable to attract new vocations for generations, the Oblates now belong to the history of the Church’s mission in the north, not the future.

Bishop Gordon thus faces the challenge of finding other conduits of capacity to bring southern personnel and resources north. He calls himself a fisherman, but not only in the traditional sense of a bishop fishing for souls — he roams the south fishing for others who will come north to fish. He fishes for fishermen. An impressive man who transparently loves this frozen section of the Lord’s vineyard, he is having some success, but the task would overwhelm a lesser man.

I offered the Holy Mass in a mission church under the patronage of the Immaculate Heart of Mary — the same patronage as that of my own parish. Separated by such a great distance, but united in the same faith, I admire those who go fishing for souls in the north.

At the same time the Yukon raises questions that the entire Church is facing in terms of evangelization — difficult, even painful questions. More on that next week.

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