New Indigenous suffragan bishops for northern Ontario, Manitoba

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National Indigenous Bishop Mark MacDonald, flanked by representatives from the Indigenous Spiritual Ministry of Mishamikoweesh, addresses the synod of the ecclesiastical province of Rupert’s Land May 4. Photo: Diocese of Edmonton

Indigenous Anglicans in northwestern Ontario and northern Manitoba and Saskatchewan can expect soon to have their own suffragan (assistant) bishops after decisions taken at the synod of the ecclesiastical province of Rupert’s Land earlier this month.

Meeting in Edmonton May 3-May 6, the synod voted to create two new Indigenous suffragan bishop positions to help Lydia Mamakwa, bishop of the Indigenous Spiritual Ministry of Mishamikoweesh, provide pastoral care and leadership to Oji-Cree and Cree-speaking Anglicans.

One of the new suffragan bishops will be responsible for that part of northern Ontario that falls within Mishamikoweesh, which itself straddles northwestern Ontario and northeastern Manitoba. The other new bishop will cover the Manitoba half of Mishamikoweesh, plus a number of largely Indigenous parishes further to the west that fall within the dioceses of Brandon and Saskatchewan.

The proposals to create the two positions originated from the Spiritual Ministry of Mishamikoweesh, but the dioceses of Brandon and Missinippi—the Indigenous part of the diocese of Saskatchewan—endorsed them and participated in their development, says National Indigenous Bishop Mark MacDonald.

It’s hoped the northern Manitoba bishop will be elected as early as this fall, MacDonald says. No timeline has as yet been laid down for the election of the northern Ontario bishop, Mamakwa says.

The main focus of the bishops’ work, Mamakwa says, will be to help provide urgently needed pastoral care to the people of these parishes.

“These are areas that have huge social challenges—poverty, unemployment, changing cultural realities related to climate change, and other things,” MacDonald says. “The bishops…will provide direct assistance to people who are dealing with some of the most intense social challenges that you will find on our continent.”

They will also provide confirmation to the many young Anglicans in these areas and help identify future leaders—lay readers, catechists, deacons and priests, he adds.

Lydia Mamakwa, bishop of the Indigenous Spiritual Ministry of Mishamikoweesh, says her preference will be that the new bishops speak the languages of the Indigenous people they’ll be serving. Photo: Diocese of Edmonton

Many of these communities, says MacDonald, are facing a crisis in spiritual leadership, given that some have no clergy at all while a number of others have non-stipendiary (unpaid) clergy. Clergy in many of these areas are also aging.

“We desperately need to be raising up the next generation of leaders, and it’s absolutely essential that there be a bishop on the ground to help oversee this process, and to a great degree drive this process,” he says.

Mamakwa says her preference will be that the new bishops speak the languages—Cree and Oji-Cree—of the Indigenous people in these areas.

“It’s good that people can call into our office and speak in their own language to talk to us,” she says.

Funding for the new positions, MacDonald says, is likely to come from a number of sources. Among them is the diocese of Brandon, which will be providing $56,000 to Mishamikoweesh over the next four years to help pay for the northern Manitoba bishop. Mishamikoweesh, which already receives some money from the Council of the North, will probably apply for more funding from the council, he says. And there is also some leftover money from the diocese of Keewatin, which still exists legally as a corporation even though it ceased functioning in 2014. But much—possibly most—of the funding is expected to come from the congregations themselves, MacDonald says.

Indigenous Anglicans in these communities are so excited by the prospect of having two new suffragan bishops, he says, that it’s widely expected that they’ll make the extra contributions needed despite the poverty many of them face. A gospel jamboree held over the Easter weekend in Winnipeg, which was meant only to acquaint people with the idea of having the two extra bishops, raised a few thousand dollars’ worth in donations even though it wasn’t intended as a fund-raiser and no donations were requested, he says.

Mamakwa and MacDonald say Indigenous Anglicans in northern Manitoba and Ontario have been hoping and praying for bishops of their own for many decades. Church documents show there were discussions about it as early as the mid-1960s, MacDonald says, but some elders say it had already been envisioned before then. For some reason or combination of reasons—perhaps entrenched institutionalism, colonialism or a lack of funding, he says—it took a long time to bear fruit.

“It’s an idea that has been frustrated again and again, but now appears on the cusp of realization,” he says.

Mamakwa says she’s thankful for the prayers and support that led to the successful resolutions at synod, and is asking for continued prayers as the process moves forward.

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Tali Folkins
Tali Folkins has worked as a staff reporter for the Law Times and the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal. His writing has appeared in The Globe and Mail and The United Church Observer.

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