Living with the people
Bishop John Sperry recalls the life and times of a missionary

Mike W. Bryant
Northern News Services

NNSL (Aug 09/99) - Bishop John Sperry contends that his first few years in the North were not easy ones.

Having just arrived in the Arctic for the first time in 1950, as a newly-ordained Anglican minister, Sperry found himself in a world much different than the one he grew up with in England.

"Everything was new of course," Sperry says.

"One had to learn from the start again -- how to travel, how to dress and learn a difficult language.

"You're far more of a learner than a teacher. That was the process in those days."

Sperry had come to the Far North to work as a missionary in Coppermine (now Kugluktuk). In a short period of time, Sperry would find himself serving the Inuit people in the vast region surrounding the fledgling hamlet as pastor, translator, pharmacist and dentist. His first moments in the High Arctic, however, took some getting used to.

Flying the depths

"I remember flying in a single-engine Norseman that had no seats with veteran pilot Ernie Boffa," Sperry recollects.

"We were delayed for a week near El Dorado because there was still ice on the Coppermine River.

"I stayed with an old trapper named George Magrum waiting for breakup. I ate black bear meat every meal for a week."

Eventually, Sperry did make it to Coppermine and immediately went to work among the people who lived there.

"My first experience there was watching the arrival of the ship with the year's supplies for the settlement."

"There were only about seven Inuit families living in Coppermine at that time and about 12 southerners.

Coppermine, as it turned out, would be his home for the next 19 years. He would get married there, raise his children there and learn all the trades necessary to function as a minister among people who were little acquainted with the culture he brought with him from England and the south.

"We only travelled by dog sled up until the mid-'60s," Sperry says. "On the trail we took along medical supplies and would travel about 3,000 miles in a season.

"The people all lived in snow houses north of Coppermine. In a hunter's camp, one would be the host, usually in the largest house. Fish, caribou and seal was their main diet and bannock made from the flour they received from trading stores would supplement them as well."

After two years in Coppermine, the occupation of town dentist fell on him after the resident missionary left.

"It was all straight extractions with lots of anaesthesia," Sperry says.

"But the teeth of the people in those days were particularly good, which was fortunate."

On April 14, 1952, Sperry married his wife Elizabeth, whom he met earlier in 1946 in England, at the mission church in Coppermine.

Elizabeth served one year as a midwife followed by a year of nursing at the Anglican hospital in Aklavik before joining Sperry in Coppermine.

For many of the Inuit in Coppermine, the concept of courtship among southerners was new to them.

"I remember when we were first married," Sperry laughs.

"Because of the local customs, the people thought that we had been promised to each other since we were small children."

The newlyweds settled comfortably in Coppermine and would soon add two more residents of their own to the community, their children Angela and John.

"My children really appreciate their early days in the North," Sperry says.

"It was a very stable community."

Prying eyes were on him

As they became more accustomed to life in the Far North, Sperry began realizing the paradox that life for a white man living in the Arctic can be subject to the prying eyes and ears of the outside world.

For Sperry, the romantic fascination of southerners with the North, at times, bordered on the ridiculous.

"On one of my trips there was dog sickness going around the North," Sperry recollects. "We were on a six-week itinerary returning from Holman to Reed Island and on to Coppermine.

"Four of our dogs (out of 11), including the leader died. My companion and I, Alfred Okkaitok, took turns at being "leader" with a sort of harness.

"The good news was that we were only 80 miles from Reed Island. It was spring time with bright, sunny weather and it was not particularly traumatic or dangerous.

"This news of our journey got on the wire press of the south and the Seattle paper ended up printing that an Anglican priest travelling in the Arctic had lost his dogs and had to travel 2,000 miles to get home."

After 19 years in Coppermine -- years that were spent watching the tiny hamlet bustle and grow as more and more people from the inland hunting camps moved into the more settled community life -- Sperry and his family left there beloved home in the Far North to Fort Smith, where Sperry served as minister for four years.

In 1973, Bishop Donald Marsh of the Anglican Arctic Diocese passed away and Sperry was subsequently elected as his successor. Sperry was now representing the church across all of what the NWT and Nunavut is today, including the northern top third of Quebec.

Sperry was then off to Iqaluit, where he served as bishop for the following two years. It was then off to Yellowknife, where he has lived with his wife ever since.

"Yellowknife was the capital, so I came here," Sperry remarks.

The duties and life of an Anglican bishop were much different than that of the Northern outpost missionary. He found himself engaged in conversations with politicians and royalty, something he would of never expected growing up in England.

"Meeting royalty in the North was something that never happened in England," Sperry says.

"I never saw royalty in Britain ever, but I think the people in the North expected to see them."

After years living at the periphery of civilization, life in the busy city of Yellowknife offered Sperry opportunities that he had not been acquainted with for years.

"For the first time in my adult life I could own and drive a car," Sperry muses. "I also grew an interest in gardening, which you obviously could not do in the High Arctic.

"Feeding wood into a woodstove was a bit of a novelty as well, because we had no wood in Coppermine."

Including his role as Bishop for the Arctic Diocese, Sperry was also the chaplain at Stanton Hospital, the Royal Canadian Legion and the Canadian Forces Northern Area chaplain. Sperry was a busy man, but he didn't mind.

"We developed a great appreciation for the native people we worked with as well as the long-time Northerners we've been associated with for a number of years," Sperry says, reflecting on the life he has made here with his family and the countless people who had entered his life over the years.

"We are so completely at home in the North, I can't think of anywhere else we could be."

After serving the Arctic as bishop for 16 years, Sperry retired in 1990. These days, on top of many hours of volunteer work, including his most recent role as the NWT/Nunavut representative for the United Nations International Year of the Older Persons, Sperry is content to relax and reflect on the many wonderful years of service he has offered Northerners over the years.

"I think the significance of this work is to see the people that were largely independent -- harvesting the fruits of their country -- change from isolated hunting lifestyles to comparatively large communities with enormous influences from southern society," Sperry says.

"One hopes with the division of the Northwest Territories and some of the present divisive aspects of political and cultural life, we may eventually develop a strong unity of a Northern people who still have a lot in common and a special need to appreciate our histories and the gifts we can offer and share with us all."