For some her life embodied the gospel; for others, the struggles of Indigenous people in Canada. For all she was an inspiring figure.
On June 2, the Rev. Vivian Seegers, founder and gathering priest of Urban Aboriginal Ministry (UAM) in the diocese of New Westminster, died at Vancouver General Hospital from complications due to COVID-19. She was 62.
The first Indigenous woman ordained in the diocese, Seegers at the time of her death was assistant priest at St. Mary Magdalene in Vancouver. She previously served as a curate at St. Mary Magdalene and at St. Clement in Lynn Valley, and as a lay native minister at St. George, Vancouver, and St. Michael, Broadway.
She was also a Sun Dancer, which the diocese of New Westminster described as “a person who works in the spirit world helping people. The Sundance, sweat ceremonies, sacred circles and the Medicine Wheel were essential to [Seegers’s] spiritual practice and ministry.”
National Indigenous Archbishop Mark MacDonald highlighted the close bond that Seegers, who was Cree/Chipewyan, held with Indigenous people through her ministry.
“Although Vivian was able to speak pastorally and prophetically to many non-Indigenous people, she was a special window for Indigenous people who cherished being in the circle with her, sharing conversation, ceremony, and life,” MacDonald said.
Seegers, he added, “struggled against so many things in life, overcoming them all. I guess it never occurred to me that she would not overcome this.
“In the midst of her very Indigenous life, with its pains and triumphs, there was Jesus. To see Jesus in her was a powerful witness. We will miss her so.”
Born in Uranium City, Saskatchewan, Seegers overcame early struggles with poverty and addiction. She later worked as an alcohol and drug counsellor at the Fort Chipewyan Drop In Centre in Alberta and as a traditional healer with Métis Family Services in Surrey, among other positions.
From 1992 to 2003, Seegers studied at Vancouver School of Theology (VST), eventually obtaining her master of divinity degree. In January 2018 she was ordained to the diaconate and in December of that year as a priest.
During her time at VST, Seegers met the Rev. Mary Fontaine, now a minister of the Presbyterian Church in Canada and executive director of Hummingbird Ministries, an Indigenous-led Presbyterian ministry. The two eventually became close: Fontaine referred to Seegers as her “sister friend—she’s more than a friend, she’s a friend and a sister.”
“Vivian had a very tough time in many ways,” Fontaine said. “She came from a pretty tough, hard background with her family being Dene up in northern Saskatchewan. She lived with poverty and many different [forms of] human suffering.
“We helped each other through our struggles…. It sometimes had a lot to do with racism in the church,” she added.
But Fontaine also remembered Seegers as good company and fun to be with; a voracious reader and highly intelligent woman who often recommended films with a philosophical and theological bent. She was “on top of the community”, always aware of what was going on and ready to help those in need.
Seegers “worked all the time,” Fontaine recalled. “She was 24/7 responding to calls, taking people in from the streets that needed a place to stay for the nights … She was always getting calls to run off and help someone. She was very dedicated and devoted to the people that she served.”
UAM, which Seegers founded as a ministry of St. Mary Magdalene, was supported initially through grants and later by the diocesan outreach program care+share. Through UAM, Seegers led prayer circles, organized annual feasts on holidays, and provided pastoral care to the community: helping people move, offering assistance with basic necessities such as food and housing.
Demetrius Schwab, who worked at a local shelter in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, volunteered as a treasurer for UAM. He and Seegers knew many residents through their work in the impoverished neighbourhood—where, Schwab said, Indigenous people are overrepresented due to the lasting effects of colonization.
“One thing that I did notice and see was how much [Seegers] lived out the gospel … how she ministered and reached out to other Indigenous people in the Downtown Eastside and also in other urban settings,” Schwab said.
“She would have people in her home if they had nowhere to stay that night, and she would always feed them and find a way to make sure that they wouldn’t be hungry in the next little while…. [UAM] had budget to support people with food. But also when she felt like it was too much for that, she would give it out of her own pocket.”
The Rev. Laurel Dykstra, priest of the diocesan environmental justice ministry Salal + Cedar, knew Seegers for more than 10 years, three as an advisor to UAM. She described Seegers as “somebody who uncompromisingly embodied the Indigenous and Gospel values of giving to whoever asks and sharing what you have, however little, with those who need it.”
Dykstra attended a Sacred Fire at Crab Park in the Downtown Eastside to honour Seegers after her death. Besides friends, family and colleagues, Dykstra said, those present included “an amazing cross section of the people whose lives Vivian touched: Sundancers, Pow Wow drummers, environmental activists, urban core service providers, street-involved youth, Anglican clergy and lay people, community organizers.
“As I listened,” she added, “I heard a dozen versions of the same two stories—how Vivian had been there for them in a crisis and how Vivian would call them, almost always at the last minute, and convince them to take part in some good action: distribute sandwiches, move a tipi, bring a family a case of diapers and medicine for head lice, visit the hospital, cook for a feast, pick up a sewing machine, write a report.”
Many others have expressed their gratitude for Seegers. Archbishop Anne Germond, metropolitan of the ecclesiastical province of Ontario, worked with Seegers on the Anglican Consultative Council’s reference group on human trafficking.
“Rev. Vivian brought a depth and a perspective that not many of us have on the plight of those whose lives are caught up in modern-day slavery,” Germond says. “She was real and she pulled no punches.”
The Very Rev. Peter Elliott, the retired dean of Christ Church Cathedral in Vancouver, remembered Seegers’s work as an appointee of the Anglican Council of Indigenous Peoples (ACIP) on the General Synod 2019 worship committee.
“She facilitated the participation of Indigenous folks local to the Vancouver area, taking care especially that younger people be included,” Elliott said. “She took her work seriously and with ACIP’s other appointee, the late Norman Casey, brought good humour and deep spirituality to the work of the committee.”
The Rev. Dr. Ray Aldred, director of Indigenous Studies at VST, called Seegers a “strong Indigenous leader” who regularly attended the Indigenous Studies Summer School, bringing along many other participants. “She was always encouraging our people to get more training…. We look forward to the day when we will be reunited and all tears will be washed away.”
A memorial to honour Seegers will take place at Christ Church Cathedral on Oct. 2.
Clarification: This article has been edited from an earlier version to correctly state the year when Vivian Seegers received her master of divinity degree from the Vancouver School of Theology.