Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of December 4, 2000
In the middle of nowhere
Oblate spent 58 years ministering along Arctic Coast
By ANH HOANG
WCR Staff Writer
Oblate Father Leonce Dehurtevent has done more camping than most die-hard outdoor enthusiast.
For more than half a century, he travelled throughout the northern communities of the Northwest Territories, sometimes on dogsled, sometimes walking. If he couldn't get to his destination before nightfall, he'd pitch a tent in the middle of nowhere. He fished everyday and hunted for what he needed.
"I loved it," said the smiling 96-year-old priest. "God put me in the right place."
For 58 years, Dehurtevent did missionary work near the Arctic Coast, 48 of those years in Paulatuk, about 300 km east of Inuvik.
It was in the middle of nowhere. The ground was frozen and covered with snow almost nine months of the year. In the earlier years, a boat would bring in supplies once every spring. There was no such thing as mail service.
But Dehurtevent couldn't imagine a better place to be. If it was up to him, he'd still be there now.
"I miss it," said Dehurtevent who has lived at Placid Place, the Oblate's retirement residence, since 1996. "I still can't get used to Edmonton - it's so big."
He misses the people he worked with, some of whom often pop into Placid Place to visit when they are in town.
"I baptized a lot of them, married them . . . baptized their children."
Ordained in 1936, Dehurtevent left France for Canada a year later. Working with the Inuit, he learned the basics of their language in a year and was soon accepted within the community.
"It's easy once you speak their language," he said. "They accept you."
The blistery cold weather did not take a toll on Dehurtevent. He remembers his missionary work with great detail, from the routes he took with the dogsled to the way Inuit families converted their summer tents to winter lodging.
His skin does not show the signs from 50 years of tundra winds. In fact the wrinkles have been kind to Dehurtevent. He has maintained his strong French accent, and sometimes alternates from English to French and back to English again when speaking with the other retired Oblates.
"It was good to be where I was. A lot of people would not like it. There were not many people around, no entertainment. You only have radio in the winter because it's better (frequency). It's a lonely place, but I never felt lonely. There were always people to see."
The people are few in the north region, but the land is vast. Dehurtevent and his dogsled would travel up to 100 km just to visit one family. It was often a two-day trip in the most severe snowstorms.
"All that snow blowing around, it was easy to get lost," he said. "Yes, I got lost a couple of times, but I always managed to come back home."
In the 1960s when the federal government began grouping Inuit families into smaller villages with promises of housing and education, Dehurtevent's work got a little easier. He didn't have to travel for days to meet with families. He could easily walk from one house to the next.
Life changed for the people as well, many of them abandoning their native tongue and picking up English instead. By then the dogsled gave way to a snowmobile.
"For the first 25 years, life was very simple. It was a nice way to live. I saw things that I will never see anywhere else. The sunrise on the snow . it was so beautiful, you will never see it like that anywhere. The Northern Lights . . . you see the sky vibrating with the colours - everything is so beautiful there.
"It was a good place for me."