Canada 150: The Church in Canada’s North

Map of the northern part of Canada

Editor’s note: In commemoration of Canada’s 150th anniversary a project was undertaken by missionaries Roy and Carma Prete to compile a book depicting the history of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints in Canada. Several writers authored chapters describing separate aspects or periods of that history.

That book, titled “Canadian Mormon: History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Canada”, has been completed and has now been released.

With the Pretes’ permission, a number of the authors were contacted and invited to provide articles based on, or related to their chapters in the book. The following is one of those articles.

We at wish to extend our appreciation to Brother and Sister Prete for their kind assistance and for allowing this to happen, and to the authors who have agreed to participate.

Canada’s three northern territories—the Yukon, Northwest Territories, and Nunavut—comprise nearly 40 percent of the total land mass of Canada, but with a total population of less than 120,000. (See Northern Canada - Wikipedia)

In 2017, this sparsely-populated region was home to only 400 members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

A major challenge to the growth of the Church in the north has been a transient population. In addition to government services, a significant share of the northern economy is based on natural resource development, such as mining, oil and gas, and forestry, which are subject to the ups and downs of global markets. Church members move to the northern territories in response to employment opportunities, but when mines close or oil prices fall, it becomes necessary for them to move elsewhere to find employment.

Church members in the far north also face other unique challenges, including vast distances, isolation, and sometimes extreme weather conditions, but they share with other Canadian Mormons their love of the gospel and willingness to build up the Church in their areas.

Yukon flag

In 1952, Norman and Beth Drayton and their son John moved from Australia to Whitehorse, Yukon, where Norman accepted employment as a telephone engineer. They were the first known Church members in Yukon. In due course, a few other Church members moved to Whitehorse. The small group began holding home Sunday School meetings, and in 1959 the first Relief Society was held.

When a branch was formed there in 1963, Norman Drayton became the first branch president. In 1964, when the mission president visited their branch conference, there were 35 people in attendance, 100 percent of the total branch membership.

Finding a place to hold church meetings was a challenge for the Whitehorse Saints. Initially, they met in members’ homes and in the Whitehorse Vocational School. From 1965 to 1967, the branch met in the Old Masonic Hall, which had a temperamental oil furnace which exploded from time to time, leaving a layer of soot on chairs, tables, and other surfaces. Branch members had to arrive early for meetings to clean away the soot before anyone could sit down.

Winter in Whitehorse

Fundraising was an important focus of the branch, as they looked forward to the day when they could build their own meetinghouse. As the years went by, the goal of having their own chapel seemed as distant as ever.

When Douglas T. Snarr arrived in Anchorage in July 1978 as president of the Alaska Anchorage Mission, which included the Yukon, he recognized that meetinghouses were the key to the progress of the Church in Whitehorse and in other places in his mission, and that innovative solutions were required. After study and investigation, President Snarr proposed that pre-cut, pre-fabricated buildings, made of planed, tongue-in-groove cedar logs and designed to be suitable for the heavy snows and cold temperatures of the far northern climate, be constructed in selected locations in the mission, including Whitehorse.

Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Whitehorse

These buildings had an additional advantage: Local members could provide a considerable amount of the labour on the building, thus fulfilling their requirement for local financial contribution. The branch began meeting in their new phase-one meetinghouse in 1981, and since that time a second phase and a family history centre have been added.

Mormon Church

Having a local meetinghouse, nonetheless, did not resolve the problem of the remoteness of the branch from the stake centre or the temple. According to a 2013 report, going to stake conference is a major undertaking for members of the Whitehorse Branch. Church members drive for two hours from Whitehorse to Skagway, Alaska, where they board a ferry for a 7-hour ride to Juneau, Alaska, the headquarters of their stake. Attending the temple requires even more time. Driving from Whitehorse to the Anchorage Alaska Temple takes 13 hours with ideal road conditions, but can take much longer in winter.

Nowthwest Territory flag

Another branch flourished in the far north in the 1960s in Inuvik, a town that had been constructed by the Canadian government to be the northern headquarters for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Northern Affairs, the Canadian military, and various other government agencies. The town, located on the Mackenzie River delta 200 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle, was designed and built to meet the needs of government and military employees and a supporting civilian population living there in extreme Arctic conditions.

January weather in Inuvik

Abiah and Ora Clark and their family arrived in the new town in 1961, where Abiah was employed as superintendent of power installations in several northern communities. Other Latter-day Saint families also moved to Inuvik, and a dependent branch was formed there in 1964.

Relief Society sisters in Inuvik

By 1967, the Inuvik Branch was an independent branch of 50 members, with Abiah Clark as branch president. One Sunday in February 1968, the branch minutes show that 19 hardy Saints attended sacrament meeting in Inuvik, when the temperature was -62°F (-52°C).

Sunday School in Inuvik

The branch held youth firesides, seminary, teacher training classes, and a genealogy course in addition to regular Sunday and auxiliary meetings, and home teaching was organized.

In the years that followed, families moved away from Inuvik, causing the closure of the branch in 1972.

Winter in Yellowknife

Church members moved to Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, as early as 1965. By 1973, there were 26 Church members in Yellowknife. Members gathered together to hold Sunday School, Relief Society, and sacrament meetings. A branch was formed in Yellowknife in 1983. In 1988, the branch had 100 members, of whom 50 lived in and near Yellowknife and 50 lived in scattered distant communities. During the 1970s and 1980s, for example, the Gordon and Sylvia Haslam family held regular sacrament meetings in their home in Fort Smith, even though they were technically members of the Yellowknife Branch, nearly 750 km away.

Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints meetinghouse

The Yellowknife Branch held meetings in the Northern United Place for a time, and in 1996 a meetinghouse was dedicated in the city, which included a satellite dish, a family history centre and living accommodations for missionaries.

The Yellowknife Branch became part of the Edmonton Alberta North Stake in 2011. The stake utilized available communications technology, such as web-casting and personal video conferencing, to enable Church members in the Yellowknife Branch to more fully participate in stake meetings and conferences.

In November 2012, when the Edmonton Alberta North Stake held a youth conference, five youth from the Yellowknife Branch attended. What was unusual was their means of travel. Because Yellowknife is 1500 kilometres from Edmonton, the Church paid for the youth to fly to and from the conference.

Nunavut flag

For a few years there was also a small branch of the Church in Iqaluit, Nunavut. In 2004, after an Iqaluit resident was baptized while visiting Ottawa, David O. Ulrich, president of the Canada Montreal Mission, sent two missionaries, Elder Gamble of Preston, Idaho, and Elder Marsh of South Jordan, Utah, to Iqaluit to support the new convert and to begin missionary work there.

Missionaries of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints

By the end of 2004, Ulrich reported that a small branch had been created in Iqaluit, with about 10 Church members and with a missionary serving as branch president. The branch existed for a few years and was visited by at least two mission presidents, but people moved away, and in 2009 it was necessary to close the branch.

Winter in Iqaluit

In 2017, there are only two branches of the Church in the vast northern territories—Whitehorse, Yukon; and Yellowknife, Northwest Territories. These two branches, with larger population bases, have survived the economic downturns, but have still felt the pinch during periods of shrinking membership.

As Church members in the northern territories support one another, meeting the challenges of distance, climate, and isolation, their faith and dedication is an example to us all.