A Saskatchewan-born son of a residential school survivor has been chosen to lead Indigenous ministry in the diocese of Toronto.
The Rev. Chris Harper, a Plains Cree man who has served as rector of St. Michael and All Angels in Thunder Bay, Ont., for the past four years, began his term September 1 after being named to the position earlier this year. He succeeds Canon Andrew Wesley, who has retired.
One of Harper’s first moves has been to change the name of the position. Wesley was known as Aboriginal priest for the diocese, but Harper prefers the title of Indigenous native priest, because it combines terms for First-Nations people that are current in both Canada and the U.S.
“It’s my way of saying I don’t see borders,” he says. The Canada-U.S. border, which now separates Mohawk families, for example, did not exist before the arrival of Europeans, he points out.
One of his main tasks, he says, will be to help parishes of the diocese understand the needs of Indigenous ministry, especially in terms of implementing the 94 Calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Harper says he wants to help churches see and acknowledge the Indigenous people that sit in the pews around them-“or else, if not that, why they’re not in the pews around them. Because Indigenous people are everywhere.”
According to the diocese of Toronto, there are an estimated 60,000 Indigenous people in the city of Toronto. Within this population, whose members are drawn from first peoples across the country, there is at the same time both diversity and a strong sense of community, Harper says. It’s one reason, he says, why he doesn’t think it will be a challenge for him to adapt to big-city ministry, despite his rural origins.
“The wonderful blend of all First Nations congregating in one city brings this wondrous diversity of tradition and practice,” he says. “You don’t see yourself as an individual from your reserve, but you see all the other First Nations [people] as brothers and sisters…I think this affords a wondrous opportunity, especially in ministry. Doors naturally open.”
The diocese also includes Curve Lake First Nation, outside Peterborough, Ont.
Harper says he also wants to raise awareness in the diocese of Indigenous spirituality and worship, to find areas of common ground with non-Indigenous spirituality and worship, and “bring the two worlds together.” It’s a role, he says, for which his background as an Indigenous Anglican priest has prepared him well.
“In some senses, I guess you could say trying to bridge two worlds-that’s something I’ve always done all my life…I’ve always walked two worlds,” he says.
Harper was born in Saskatchewan and grew up there and in Alberta, with an Anglican upbringing. He has worked as an emergency medical technician and served as head of Emergency Medical Services at Onion Lake Cree Nation, Sask. He studied theology at James Settee College in the diocese of Saskatchewan and Wycliffe College at the University of Toronto, earning his master of divinity degree there in 2005. He was priested in the same year, serving for a time as rector of a multi-point parish in the diocese of Saskatchewan. For the past four years, Harper has served as rector of St. Michael and All Angels in Thunder Bay, Ont.
In an article on Harper’s appointment published this summer on the diocese of Toronto’s website, Archbishop Colin Johnson said at least half of the First Nations, Métis and Inuit people of the diocese are Anglican.
“That’s a huge population, so this offers an opportunity to serve them more effectively,” he said.