The Reverend Chris Harper will be ordained and installed as Bishop of the Anglican Diocese of Saskatoon on Saturday, Harper is an Indigenous priest who grew up on the Onion Lake First Nation in northwest Saskatchewan and was as a parish priest in Birch Hills and Prince Albert. Harper stands for a portrait inside St. Johns Cathedral in Saskatoon,Sk on Friday, November 9, 2018. KAYLE NEIS
In a year marked by deep hurt and division between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in Saskatchewan, much hope is focused on Saskatoon’s new Anglican bishop.
On Saturday, Rev. Chris Harper will become the first Indigenous person to lead the Diocese of Saskatoon, a geographic band stretching across central Saskatchewan from Manitoba to Alberta.
“I am hoping and I am praying that I might be able to offer myself as a mediator, as a bridge builder,” Harper said in a recent interview.
Leaders and dignitaries attending the service will include the Primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, the mayor of Saskatoon and the treaty commissioner.
For Harper, his new role is a virtual homecoming. He was born in Paradise Hill and raised in Onion Lake Cree Nation, two communities just over the northern boundary of the diocese he will lead.
A former emergency medical technician, Harper was ordained as an Anglican priest in 2005, and served in the Parish of Birch Hills/Kinistino/Muskoday, southeast of Prince Albert.
He then went on to serve a parish in Thunder Bay, Ont., before moving on to work with Toronto Urban Native Ministries.
Harper said his mother, who attended residential school, taught all of her children that “our faith base, our foundation, needed to come from and through the Church.”
Despite the Anglican Church’s own failings in operating Indian residential schools, Harper said in his mother’s view “the church did no wrong.”
He did not attend residential school, but lived with the fallout of broken familial care lines, he said.
Now in the era of reconciliation, Harper maintains Indigenous people still need their pain and brokenness to be heard.
“There’s a lot of listeners, but a lot of ones who come in with either a bias or else if not that, an agenda, rather than just to listen,” Harper said. “The hope is that the church today will be able to envision, to walk with, to embrace the people who have lived this experience and live it today.”
Among the faithful expected to attend Harper’s installation is Gordon Yarde. He is an 80-year-old deacon, originally from the Caribbean, who serves several First Nations in the Battlefords region, including Red Pheasant, home of Colten Boushie, the young Cree man whose shooting death in a farmyard was a subject of fierce controversy.
Yarde hopes his new bishop will help replace mistrust, both towards the Church and between communities, with trust. That could be accomplished through attendance at more functions in the area, creating greater visibility, he said.
Yarde has already had a preview of Harper, who recently conducted a Sunday service in North Battleford. He said he liked what he saw, describing Harper as “gentle,” “down to earth,” and “very approachable, easy to talk to.”
“The Church can offer a new sense,” Harper said of healing rifts, adding that the only way to survive is for all peoples to come together.
“Any time there is mistrust, that means that there has not been enough honest dialogue,” he remarked.
Having lived half his life on reserve and half off, he is also very aware of how concerned rural communities and family farmers are about their own economic survival, he said.
The theme of unity while respecting diversity has surfaced in other ways in Harper’s career — such as ecumenism, the promotion of unity among Christian denominations. In Kinistino, he served as Lutheran Pastor every other month. He has also conducted ecumenical services at the penitentiary in Prince Albert as well as seniors’ homes.
Rather than being a source of division, different religious rites and viewpoints can be shared and accepted, he said.
The Anglican Church itself is making room for its Indigenous members to express their faith in their own way. In 2010, a new church law established a self-determining national Indigenous ministry.
At St. John’s Cathedral in Saskatoon, a treaty medal plaque was mounted during a smudging ceremony conducted by Indigenous elders. Each year, the cathedral celebrates National Indigenous Peoples Day.
Meanwhile, Harper’s appreciation for diversity extends to other religions, cultures and traditions.
Returning from Toronto to Saskatoon, he saw how much this city has grown and changed in the last decade, he said.
“This is the reality now that is on our doorstep. And if we don’t embrace it, we isolate ourselves. And if we isolate ourselves it is to the detriment of our own growth as Canadians and Saskatchewanians.”
In that spirit, traditions will come together at Harper’s installation. Following his ordination, he must physically leave the cathedral, knock on the door, and ask to be admitted to the cathedral to be bishop of Saskatoon. The dean, Rev. Scott Pittendrigh, will let Harper in and bring him up the central aisle to a throne-like chair called the cathedra, symbolizing the teaching authority handed down from the apostles of Jesus. Harper will then be given a crozier, a pastoral staff resembling a shepherd’s hook, which symbolizes his office as the figurative chief shepherd of the diocese.
Also built into the ceremony will be Indigenous drumming and an honour song, to be performed by Bluejay Linklater and the drumming circle from St. George’s Anglican Church in Saskatoon.
Along with civic and provincial dignitaries and First Nations leaders, leaders of other churches and inter-faith groups are also invited.
The service is set for 2 p.m. at St. John’s Cathedral on Spadina Crescent. Doors open at 1 p.m., and the event is open to the public and media.
A reception at HMCS Unicorn on 24th Street East will follow the service.
“Since I’ve been the dean here I’ve really tried hard to reach out to the city, and to tell the city this is their cathedral,” Pittendrigh said.
He’d like the wider community to be connected to this important event in the life of the Church.
“We’re having a new leader taking office. And there’s great hope with that, and there’s great potential.”