When The Rev. Canon Major Chris VanBuskirk considered going on a Royal Canadian Navy deployment as a chaplain (Reserves), he was most worried about home.
Home is St. George’s Anglican Church in Moncton’s inner city. Every day more than 100 homeless and otherwise needy people drop in for breakfast, a shower, to get their laundry done. It takes a lot of willing hands to make sure it all runs as it should.
“The Bishop graciously gave me permission, and [Canon] Kevin Stockall stepped in to do Sundays and Thursdays. And Esther, Norm and Carolyn — and others — stepped up,” he said.
Esther is the church secretary, Norm the deacon, and Carolyn, Chris’s wife.
“It worked by the grace of God,” he said.
Chris was gone from August to October to Canada’s high arctic on a Royal Canadian Navy ship called the HMCS Harry DeWolfe.
“It’s one of the new arctic offshore patrol vessels,” said Chris.
For eight weeks he ministered to the crew as chaplain, advised the command team as required, conducted religious leader engagement in communities, and when all hands were required on deck, he picked up a mop like the rest of them.
The deployment included stops in the Nunavut communities of Iqaluit, Resolute Bay, Pond Inlet, Pangnirtung, Devon Island, Beechey Island and even Nuuk, Greenland, taking Chris to 75 degrees north latitude. To compare, Deer Island, New Brunswick sits at 45 degrees north of the equator.
Devon Island is the largest uninhabited island in the world and has an RCMP cemetery. Beechey Island is where the ill-fated Franklin expedition, searching for the Northwest Passage, wintered in 1845. It has three graves from crew members and one from a later expedition.
On visiting the National Historic Site of Beechey Island, Chris said, “It’s like they left yesterday. It’s incredible.”
Chris found that Iqaluit, with a population of only 7,700, has the same issues as Moncton: poverty, homelessness and crime. It has three jails.
The ship had 89 souls aboard, including RCMP officers and scientists, and its mission was to patrol the Northwest Passage and maintain a presence to further solidify the sovereignty of Canada in the High Arctic.
It is disputed by Russia, and as the ice melts, Canada also faces increasing pressure from China, which is seeking a northern trade route it calls the Polar Silk Road.
“The ship went further north than any Navy ship has gone in recent memory,” said Chris. “It’s another world up there. With the ice retreating, it’s like a desert.”
By far the greatest impact on Chris was a visit to Resolute Bay, where he met Tony, a layreader.
From Chris, in his own words:
During the deployment, the ship visited Resolute Bay, a small community of approximately 250 people. It was established between 1953 and 1955 when the federal government relocated Inuit families to support Canada’s sovereignty in the North.
Needless to say, that was (and continues to be) a very controversial action, due to the extreme hardships endured by the Inuit families, and because the government failed to fulfil its promise to the Inuit who wanted to return to their homes after two years.
This failure, on top of the killing of the Inuit sled dogs, and the abuses suffered at many Residential Schools, has caused much pain and suffering.
But with the Lord there is healing and hope. And I don’t say that casually or easily. By the precious blood of Jesus, the powers of sin and darkness have been defeated. Through Christ’s resurrection, death and all its forces have been conquered; and by the Holy Spirit who dwells in us, we have new life and peace — a peace which the world cannot give.
During my visit to Resolute Bay, I was reminded of this new life by Tony, the local layreader. We met at St. Barnabas Church, which was built in 1962, just seven years after the relocation.
Tony greeted me with a big grin and a warm hug. Once inside, he showed me the seal-skin Altar frontal with the words ‘St. Barnabas’ in Inuktitut.
Then we moved to the vestry room and he opened the original vestry book in which services are recorded. The number of people was neatly printed in the attendance column, and the words ‘Morning Prayer’ and ‘Evening Prayer’ were written in Inuktitut, in their proper columns.
As we talked, Tony explained that he was born at Fall Strait on the south end of Somerset Island, and his family lived in the traditional Inuit ways.
Then, in 1954, when he was seven years old, he went to St. Albert’s Residential School in Alberta. He was there for five years.
At the age of 12, he returned home, but life for the Inuit had changed drastically by then. After a few years more of living on the land, his parents told him to move to Resolute Bay in order to look for work and a wife. By God’s grace, he found both!
Before leaving the church to meet Taaga, his bride of 52 years, I asked Tony about his time in the residential school.
“I left it all there when I left the school,” he said smiling. “I asked God to help me.”
“Was it bad?” I asked.
He nodded. There was a brief silence.
Then he continued: “Years ago, in December, I bought a ticket and flew to Toronto to see the minister who abused me. I found him in the hospital. He was dying of cancer. His sister was there.
“When I went into the room, I told him who I was. I wanted to make sure he understood because I was all grown up. Then I said to him, ‘Thank you. Thank you for everything you did for us down south.’
“There was no need to say anything else because he knew what he had done. I looked, and he was crying — tears were running down his cheeks.
“We talked some more, and when I left, both of our hearts were warm. He wrote to me a couple of times before he died in March.”
Since returning home, I have been thinking a lot about Resolute Bay and Tony’s visit. Instead of a litany of threats, instead of seeking revenge or trying to exact justice, he chose to leave the whole situation with the Lord. Two words were all he said: ‘Thank you.’ With them, one life was changed, and two hearts were warmed.
I am not able to comprehend the level of faith and gratitude it must have taken for Tony to do and say what he did on that December afternoon. But with God’s help, I will try to learn from him.
1. The Rev. Canon Major Chris VanBuskirk, rector of St. George’s in Moncton, stands with RCMP officers during a service at Dundas Harbour on Devon Island in Canada’s High Arctic. Devon Island is the largest uninhabited island in the world and has an RCMP cemetery.
2. Resolute Bay has a population of 250 and an Anglian Church called St. Barnabas.
3. Tony in front of the altar at St. Barnabas Church. The seal-skin altar frontal has the words ‘St. Barnabas’ written in Inuktitut.
4. Layreader Tony and Chris outside St. Barnabas Church in Resolute Bay, Nunavut.
All photos courtesy of Chris VanBuskirk.