(This story was first published in the February issue of the Anglican Journal.)
Bishop Adam Halkett is so good with numbers that Mary Brown, diocese of Saskatchewan bookkeeper, once teased him about it, saying, “What are you doing here? You could make a lot more money in the business world.”
Despite his gravitation toward mathematics in high school-and he still likes to check the numbers-the pull of the gospel was stronger. Halkett, since 2012 the first Anglican Indigenous bishop of Saskatchewan and a principal architect of Indigenous self-determination within the Anglican Church of Canada, attended James Settee College for Ministry in Prince Albert, Sask. He became a deacon in 1999 and was ordained in 2000, serving as priest-in-charge at St. Joseph’s, Montreal Lake. He was made an archdeacon in 2005, and in July 2012, he was elected bishop of the diocesan area of Missinipi (the Cree name for the region of the Churchill River and its basin).
Each year, the 61-year-old bishop drives thousands of kilometres in his trusty Chevy Colorado pickup, bringing the balm of his ministry to his people, many of whom are locked in the anger and despair of reservation life.
Halkett gives others the credit for his quick rise to prominence in the church and his visionary leadership in Indigenous autonomy. “I feel it was passed on to me by my elders and also by Indigenous youth wanting to move forward from all the pain endured at the residential schools,” he said. He himself attended Prince Albert Residential School, but not till age 16 and only for a few months. “I went there to improve my English,” he said. “I didn’t suffer abuse… but I saw the pain of those who did.”
The affable Halkett has an infectious grin-and a wicked sense of humour to match. “I get it from my parents-they were both funny. And I sometimes use humour in my sermons to break the ice.” According to the diocesan bishop of Saskatchewan, Michael Hawkins, “Bishop Adam has a profound humility and sense of humour that are distinctly Christian and Cree.”
But his humility and gift for lightening heavy situations have not hindered him from taking a strong leadership role in Anglican First Nations autonomy. “Adam sees the dynamics of the future better than anyone else,” said National Indigenous Anglican Bishop Mark MacDonald. “He’s one of our great visionaries in terms of the self-determining Indigenous church. He’s been a great friend, support and partner.”
Born in 1954 in Swan River, a remote trapline in northeastern Saskatchewan, Halkett grew up in Red Lake and also on the Montreal Lake Cree Nation reserve, where his father was a band member. Imbued with a deep respect for the land, he followed the autochthonous hunting and fishing way of life. Although he now lives in downtown Prince Albert, he still feels close to the land and maintains the family home in Montreal Lake, about an hour’s drive north of the city.
His parents, Alice and Isaiah, were staunch Anglicans, and baptized their five children in the church. Halkett, however, grew away from the church in his teens and began using alcohol and drugs. He still considers himself to be an addict in recovery. In fact, he met Theresa, his wife of 29 years, while she was serving as an addiction worker at Montreal Lake.
Halkett finds it healing to talk about his struggle with substance abuse. “People really cared about me and prayed for me, especially Theresa’s dad, who was an Anglican priest,” he recalled. In 1982, he committed his life to Christ and became a lay reader for 17 years. Later he became a devoted husband and the father of two sons and two daughters, now all grown. “He’s been a very good husband and father,” Theresa said.
Freer now from family responsibilities, Halkett devotes himself to the challenges of ministry. Like many Indigenous clergy, he faces Herculean tasks, with far-apart parishes carrying more than their share of social problems-poverty, school non-attendance, teenage pregnancy, poor health, domestic violence, substance abuse and, worst of all, suicide, which he said affects not just youth but a growing number of people of middle age. Since January 2015, he has put almost 20,000 km on his truck, driving from reserve to reserve. He makes a particular point of visiting families who have lost loved ones to suicide.
Halkett strives first and foremost to counteract the anger and despair that is rampant in some Indigenous communities and culminates all too often in self-destruction. For this task, he reaches back into the remembered strength of his parents’ support when he was struggling with drug use. “They taught me the power of fellowship and communal prayer and hymn singing to give hope,” he said, and this comfort he brings to his parishes. It takes time, but gradually the communities are responding to this approach and his exhortations to go forward and embrace a better future.
“Adam attends the funerals and wakes of people who have died by suicide,” said Russell Ahenakew, a former rector’s warden on the Ahtahkakoop Cree Nation reserve. who Halkett said “took him under his wing” in the early days of his priesthood. For me, he’s like a brother. He’s a very fair and humble man and a worthy disciple of Jesus Christ,” Ahenakew said.
Halkett was a constant presence and facilitator during Saskatchewan’s wildfires in early July and continues to visit the homes of returned evacuees. He points to a lingering anger over government’s poor communication and actions with regard to the disaster. “First the ministry [of Aboriginal Affairs and Northern Development Canada] said there was no danger and to stay put, then they gave people two hours to evacuate,” he said. “And they wouldn’t let First Nations firefighters help put out the fires, but sent in military instead. We know how to put out forest fires.” He’s determined to put in place a better communications strategy and action plan for future wildfires.
In this and other plans, Halkett has the confidence of people like Ahenakew. “I think that under Bishop Adam’s leadership, we are going to see some leaps forward and some problems solved.”
Halkett notes that his fellow clergy play essential roles in strengthening communities’ response to endemic ills. Working bilingually in Cree and English, they’re often limited in their ministry by the need to hold outside jobs since half of them are non-stipendiary. “I would like to see more of them become stipendiary clergy,” he said.
Ever looking to the future, the bishop hopes to see more partnership between Native and non-Native members of the church. “I would like to see more walking together, more sharing of the gospel, but I am experiencing some of this already,” he said. “My co-bishop, Michael, encourages me to go to parishes where there are no First Nations people, and I am connecting and making friends.”
Going further, Halkett envisions the development someday of an independent Indigenous church paralleling the main church and having its own primate.
In the meantime, he continues to walk with non-Native Anglicans in the Christian partnership known as Mamuwe Isi Miywachimowin (Cree for “together in the gospel”). And he returns to Montreal Lake as often as he can to be with his family, to fish and to commune with the ancestral land.