Bern Will Brown

Bern Will Brown

July 21, 2014

COLVILLE LAKE, N.W.T. – From mushing dog-teams 100 kms in minus 40C blizzards, to helping unionize a mine, Bern Will Brown had a job like few Catholic priests.

Born in Rochester, N.Y., in 1920, Brown went to the Canadian Arctic in 1948 as an Oblate priest and travelled extensively by dog team throughout the region.

Over the course of his life he served as a priest, a bush pilot, a dog musher, a painter, a journalist and a storyteller.

In addition to his religious duties, he performed routine medical work such as delivering babies, sewing up axe cuts and pulling teeth. He also served as a fire warden, dogcatcher, storekeeper, postmaster and newspaper editor.

In 1962 Brown was sent to Colville Lake, a short distance north of the Arctic Circle, in the traditional homeland of the Hareskin Dene. On the shore of the lake he built a log church, Our Lady of the Snows, in what was soon a growing community of log buildings.

Today the Dene people at Colville Lake and throughout the Northwest Territories are remembering Brown as one of their own. Brown died July 11 at his home. He was 94.

Throughout his life, Brown recorded the places where he lived and traveled, and the people he came to know in photographs, on film, in paintings and in his books.

In 1971 he took up with Margaret, a part-native woman from Tuktoyaktuk, and this event precipitated his leaving the priesthood.

Along the way he and Margaret established the Colville Lake Lodge, a hunting and fishing resort that has entertained European royalty, politicians, movie stars and just plain rich folks. He had a museum and art gallery on site where he used to sell his paintings.

His books include Arctic Journal, Arctic Journal II and Free Spirits. His most recent book, End-of-Earth People: The Arctic Sahtu Dene, was published in March. In it, Brown provides insight into the Sahtu Dene's history, physical appearance, character, language, food, social practices and beliefs.

In an interview following the publication of End-of-the-Earth People, Brown told the WCR he admired the Sahtu Dene's ability to withstand the cold and endure the harsh northern environment.

One reason for that, he said, is the Dene are built slightly different than the rest of us. "Their extremities have a profusion of small capillary veins that result in a much greater circulation of blood which keep them warmer," he explained.

He loved the Sahtu Dene, whom he described as caring and helpful, but had no problem criticizing them. Despite changes in the North, women and animals are still mistreated, he said in the book.

Speaking of women, Brown said, "There is not one of them who don't wish she had been born the opposite sex." Animals also suffer, especially dogs, which are often chained and half-starved and not given enough water in the summer.

"These are defects (of the Dene)," according to Brown.

In a statement, N.W.T. Premier Rob McLeod called Brown a Renaissance man.

"He had amazing recollection of detail, of life in the North, and I think that you don't get too many personalities like that," McLeod said. "He added a lot of colour to the North and he will be missed."