The little Yellowknife Branch thinks big – 500,000 square miles big
With branch boundaries spanning over 500,000 square miles, in-person gatherings for members of the Yellowknife Branch require dedication and sacrifice akin to Jonah journeying to Nineveh. Pre-Covid, members of the tiny branch in the Northwest Territories sometimes traveled hundreds of miles to meet for socials and meetings.
Vast borders aren’t the only challenge faced by membership in a branch with boundaries that cover more area than any other in the Church. Temperatures can dip as low as minus 50 C, something Branch President Cooper has experienced firsthand when trying to get his car started for Sunday morning meetings.
Isolation doesn’t prevent dedication in Yellowknife
Its remote location can also feel daunting. Yellowknife is located 1,454 km north of Edmonton on the North Arm of Great Slave Lake between the borders of the Yukon and Nunavut.
“Some people think it’s hard to live here at the edge of civilization surrounded by a whole lot of tundra,” said Yvette Cooper, wife of the branch president. “It can be difficult to stay active in such a small branch.” For this reason and others, membership tends to be transient.
All that said, there are plenty of things that compensate for the tough stuff. “The coolest people in the world live here,” said Yvette. “We have a retired sister, Lisette Self, who flies to her cabin in the middle of nowhere for months at a time. Her heart is full of service. One time I asked if she could bake a few dozen cookies and she baked cookies for the entire branch. She’s so funny and humble.”
The 500,000 square mile Branch that keeps on going and going and going
Violet Kimiksana lives in Inuvik, over 1,500 km away from Yellowknife. She actively posts on the Branch Facebook Group and attends sacrament meetings by Zoom.
And then there’s Charlie Poon, a single member and new convert from Hong Kong who shows up every Sunday and handles all the technical stuff. And so many more that I can’t name them all. I’ve been a member of the Church all my life, but I often think, ‘Maybe I can be as good as these people someday,’” Yvette said.
Mike appreciates the opportunity for growth that being a branch president for the past four years has brought. Though he is accustomed to being in leadership positions in his job as a social worker and supervisor for Family Preservation Workers, he says he never expected to be “considered righteous enough to lead a congregation.”
“It’s been humbling,” said Mike, who is a convert of about 20 years. “Yellowknife is a small branch and there’s not a lot of help to go around. You know everyone. It’s so evident how human I am, how far from perfect, and how far from what Heavenly Father deserves me to be. But I am what He has, so I do the best I can. How am I supposed to guide these folks? That’s my biggest challenge. The biggest revelation for me has been that none of us are going to be completely up to callings like this, but when we open ourselves up to the Spirit, He provides a way.”
A perfect place to view the aurora borealis and Gospel dedication
The Coopers moved from Edmonton, Alberta, about seven years ago with their four children when Mike was offered a job in Yellowknife. Yvette was not thrilled about the possibility of leaving the town where five generations of her family had lived.
“I said, ‘We need to pray about this,’” remembers Yvette. “We got the answer that we should go. I said, ‘We should pray again.’ Again, we felt we should go. I said, ‘We should fast and pray.’ We kept being told we should go, so we did. But I couldn’t believe it. It was only the third time I’d left the province.”
Despite feeling prompted by the Lord to move to Yellowknife, it was a tough adjustment for Yvette who suffered from feelings of depression. “Moving up here was hard for me,” she admits. “I’d never lived away from my family. This was not my plan; this was God’s plan.”
Comparing herself to a butterfly emerging from its cocoon, Yvette jokes that she was in the goo stage for a long time. Just as she was feeling stronger, Mike was asked to be branch president. “I cried,” she remembers. “I’d finally gotten over being depressed and was taking showers again. We turned the calling down. But as we drove home, we knew we’d say yes, the next time. Six months later we were asked again, and said yes.”
Surrounded by tundra, the Yellowknife Branch views isolation as opportunity
The Coopers say they’ve been blessed many times over for moving to Yellowknife and serving in the little branch where Yvette is currently the Young Women president. Some of their children have challenges such as dyslexia, ADHD, autism and Tourette's syndrome, and have been blessed to receive more help and support than would have been available in Edmonton. Other opportunities for the kids have been huge, such as attending culture camps, learning to skin rabbits, eating delicious muskrat and trout cheeks, and going dogsledding.
Their careers have prospered. Yvette operates an in-home daycare and Mike is in social work. Both feel they are making a positive impact in their community. Yvette says, “I’ve grown in ways I never would have in Edmonton. I’m more compassionate now. I’ve made rewarding, beautiful friendships. Even when I know someone isn’t going to stay, I’ve put myself out to be a friend and it’s been worth it.”
The beauty of the area is also a plus. Yellowknife is known internationally as the best place in the world to view the aurora borealis. Fishing and big-game hunting are also big tourist draws.
Remote meetings? Perfect for a remote Branch
Zoom church has been an unexpected and huge blessing for Yellowknife, allowing many more people to participate, challenges notwithstanding. Ruth Johnston, probably the branch’s longest standing member, much prefers attending church in person and wishes more than five or 10 members showed up each week.
“It can be isolating up here if you don’t have family,” she reflects. “It’s sad how Covid has done a number on our branch. It’s shrunk dramatically over the years.”
With valiant and optimistic members like the Cooper’s and Johnston’s, and pandemic restrictions hopefully in the rear-view mirror, in-person membership will build back up. And people in the far-reaches of the territory will be blessed with the ability to worship remotely online.