By Stuart Mann
As a Plains Cree and an Anglican priest, the Rev. Chris Harper says he walks in two worlds. His journey is about to take a new turn as he becomes the Indigenous Native Priest of the Diocese of Toronto, beginning Sept. 1.
Currently the rector of St. Michael and All Angels in Thunder Bay, Mr. Harper says he is looking forward to coming back to Toronto, where he attended Wycliffe College from 2002 to 2005 and obtained his Master of Divinity degree.
“I’ve always loved Toronto,” he says. “It’s one of those great melting pots of all peoples and nations. There are opportunities there for new levels of acceptance and ministry. There is the opportunity of special grace in trying to understand and reach out to the person beside you.”
He admits that he didn’t see much of the city when he was a student because he went back to western Canada during the summers. This time, he plans to explore it further with his wife, Tracy. “My hope and dream is to see more of it this time around, but from a ministry point of view – to see all the areas and know the people. I realize that’s a huge undertaking, but it’s a wonderful place and I very much look forward to it.”
His background has prepared him well for new experiences. Born in Saskatchewan and raised there and in Alberta, he has held a variety of jobs, including emergency medical technician in Alberta and Saskatchewan, and head of Emergency Medical Services at Onion Lake Cree Nation in Saskatchewan.
A lifelong Anglican and the son of a residential school survivor, he studied at James Settee College in the Diocese of Saskatchewan, earning a Certificate of Indigenous Anglican Theology, before going to Wycliffe College. He was ordained a deacon at St. Thomas, Huron Street in Toronto in 2005 and priest at St. Alban’s Cathedral in Prince Albert later that year.
Before becoming the rector of St. Michael and All Angels in Thunder Bay, where he has served for the past four years, he was the rector of a multi-point parish in the Diocese of Saskatchewan, where he was also the Warden of Lay Readers.
He says his first priority upon coming to the Diocese of Toronto is to “get the lay of the land, find the people and, at the same time, honour and respect the land I will be entering into. It’s much like when you enter a new parish – you need to know the community, what their needs and concerns are, what is important to them and why, and to speak the common language of faith.”
The City of Toronto has one of the largest Indigenous communities in Canada, with an estimated 60,000 people. The diocese also includes Curve Lake First Nation, north of Peterborough. “It’s a wide blend of absolutely everybody from professionals to the homeless, from very faithful, religious people to people who are discovering their identity, tradition and culture, from students to elders,” he says.
“As an Indigenous Native priest, I will be ministering inside and outside the church, on the streets and in homes, in hospitals and prisons, to anybody in need. The challenge for us as Christians is not to be just Christians on Sunday morning, but to live it in daily faith life, in what you say and do and how you pray, bless, forgive, love and bring peace.”
He says it’s exciting to be the diocese’s Indigenous Native Priest at this point in Canada’s – and the Anglican Church’s – history. “Because of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and its work and the life stories that were shared, we’re at a watershed moment. We have a chance to be blessed and to grow and share in healing. Especially for the church, we have this moment to really do something. The danger is that we become complacent and allow it to slip away, or, if not that, we diminish it and don’t take it for the significant moment that it was and is. If we can continue to work together, to respect each other, to love each other, to bless, heal and forgive, we can really do something – together.”
He adds: “Please pray for our ministry as we begin a journey together. Pray for healing, peace, respect and understanding, for true and open conversation, and for mutual blessing.”
Archbishop Colin Johnson says he’s looking forward to Mr. Harper’s arrival. “Chris is a great person and comes with high recommendations from the National Indigenous Bishop and the bishop of his diocese (Algoma). I’m really looking forward to having him here.
“We’ve invited Chris to look at how Indigenous ministry is being done in the diocese with a view of both expanding it and reshaping it so that it meets the needs of the very large Indigenous community that is here. At least half of the First Nations, Metis and Inuit people in the diocese are Anglican. That’s a huge population, so this offers an opportunity to serve them more effectively.”
Mr. Harper succeeds the Rev. Canon Andrew Wesley, who has retired but is still active in the diocese’s Indigenous community.