Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of January 24, 2000
Arctic Journal needs more reflection
Arctic Journal IIby Bern Will Brown, Toronto, Novalis. 350 pages, (plus 48 pages of photos/paintings), 1999.
Review by WAYNE HOLST
Special to the WCR
In his foreword to the first volume of Arctic Journal (reviewed in the WCR, Aug. 24, 1998), Stuart Hodgson, former commissioner of the North West Territories writes of the author and of Canada's Arctic in this way: "(Brown's) life at times has been very difficult and no doubt lonely, but I know of nowhere else in this great country where one can be closer to his Maker and at peace with himself."
Volume Two amplifies these comments and demonstrates how Bern Will Brown has, over 50 years, come to terms with his life in the North.
Arctic Journal II is sub headed A Time For Change. After summarizing in the first volume his initiation and early northern experience as an Oblate priest, this volume reflects his priestly maturation during the late '50s and '60s.
During this period Aklavik, at the Mackenzie delta, becomes Brown's ministry base as he helps found the new settlement of Inuvik. Brown is then transferred south to serve at Fort McMurray before that town began to boom.
Finally, he returns to the Great Bear Lake region to build a rustic settlement in the wilderness, establishing himself permanently at Colville Lake. The purpose of this community was to construct facilities using logs from the region and to preserve native life on the land.
The reader participates in Brown's vocational transformation as he evolves from an ambitious and highly mobile individual to one more settled and reflective; as he adjusts from being the efficient, multi-talented American missionary with high expectations of himself and of others to a laicized priest who takes out Canadian citizenship and identifies with this land and its realities; and as he metamorphoses from a restless celibate into a happily married man at age 50.
After receiving papal permission to leave the formal priesthood, Brown wedded Margaret Steen who is part Inuit. He then reinvents his career into that of an entrepreneur while continuing to minister to his community in a lay capacity with the Church's blessing.
Through these vocational changes there are constants. Brown develops further his career as a builder, settlement creator and pragmatic realist. He hones his skills as a community leader, recreational director and artist/photographer. He introduces many investigators to the awesome beauty and profound pathos of the land with its human and non-human inhabitants.
In spite of the marvellous narrative contained here, there are certain limitations to this memoir. Essentially, it was written as a chronology of events in the life of a very unusual man. As such, the reader is exposed to a series of stories but their impact is reduced because the author, who presents himself as a rather private individual, does not venture many personal opinions or extensive evaluations of his experience.
Second, the combined volumes tell the story of half of Brown's 50 years in the North. It is hard to imagine that more recent life at Colville Lake is confined to expanding and enhancing the facilities, trips away and receiving increasing numbers of guests.
What secrets worth revealing from the past 25 years lie hidden in the experiences of Bern and Margaret? What advice might they have that is worth sharing with others?
Thus far, readers are exposed to little of Margaret's perspective. What learnings from this successful, 30-year cross-cultural marriage might be offered to others contemplating a similar venture?
What wisdom could be offered regarding future northern models for ministry and community/economic development? As a loyal son of the Church, Brown respected the authority of his superiors. But he obviously believes that celibacy for priests, especially in the North, should be made optional.
Because of the author's demonstrated integrity, more intensive writing on these and other topics would command respectful attention - if not total agreement.
For all Brown's love for the native people, he seems to convey little interest in the modern aboriginal perspective or in advocating for their rights. His use of the term "Eskimo" rather than "Inuit" throughout the text is a case in point.
Brown hesitates to discuss the changes in their lives or their evolution as a post-colonial people. His summary comment on the Thomas Berger commission report on the Mackenzie pipeline in the 1970s is that it had the effect of driving a wedge between the cultures.
Just as Brown's life has undergone significant changes, so also have the lives of many Dene and Inuit. The impression sometimes given is that the native people of the North are locked in a time warp.
For these and other reasons, the preparation of a third volume of reflections focusing on a number of key themes and issues would turn this writing venture into a worthy trilogy. Even if some of his views are admittedly controversial much useful discussion could ensue.
Brown has demonstrated considerable adaptability in the past. The suggestion of a book focusing on personal views and visionary ideas is not unrealistic. Though the author approaches his 80th birthday, he continues to possess a keen mind and an obvious zest for life. Readers deserve to know more from one who stands admirably as a bridge between past and future.
(Rev. Dr. Wayne Holst was a research associate at the Arctic Institute of North America and is a lecturer at the University of Calgary.)