'Not my choice to leave:' retired Anglican priest reflects on 60 years in the Arctic

After 61 years on Baffin Island and more than 41 years of work with the Anglican church in Kimmirut, Cape Dorset, Pangnirtung and Iqaluit, Mike Gardener is moving to Ottawa next week with his wife, who needs long-term care not available in Nunavut.

At 85, Mike Gardener is moving to Ottawa with his wife Margaret, who needs long-term care

Retired Anglican priest Mike Gardener outside St. Jude's Cathedral in Iqaluit. Gardener left the United Kingdom in 1955 and arrived in Kimmirut via the sealift. He spent the next 61 years living in the Eastern Arctic. (Vince Robinet/CBC)
  • This story was originally published on June. 29.

With a heavy heart, retired Anglican priest Mike Gardener is preparing to leave Iqaluit after a lifetime of work in the Arctic.

"It's not my choice to leave," says the 85-year-old. 

After 61 years of life on Baffin Island and more than 41 years of work with the Anglican church in Kimmirut, Cape Dorset, Pangnirtung and Iqaluit, Gardener is moving to Ottawa next week.

His wife, Margaret, is moving into a special facility for Alzheimer's patients.

"And I want to be there in the place she is," he says.

Gardener says he is anxiously waiting for a facility to open in Nunavut that can accommodate patients like his wife, who need special care.

A group of people in Iqaluit, spearheaded by Gardener's daughter, MLA Pat Angnakak, is proposing to build an 80-person long-term care elders facility in Iqaluit as early as next year.

Mike Gardener learned Inuktitut during his years of service with the Anglican church in the Arctic. He says 'anyone can speak Inuktitut if you can read syllabics.' (submitted by Mike Gardener)

'The power of syllabics'

Gardener left London in 1955, aged 24, to work as a minister for the Anglican church. He arrived in Kimmirut — then Lake Harbour — by boat during sealift.

He remembers the hamlet as a place dotted with numerous tents, with families coming into town to collect their yearly supplies.

"I really liked the place, soon as I got there," he says.

"Nearly everyone went to church when there was a service."

That very first Sunday, he was asked to preach his first sermon — in Inuktitut, with no translator. Luckily, he had already taught himself how to read syllabics, although he didn't understand Inuktitut at the time.

"That's the power of syllabics," he says. "Anyone can speak Inuktitut if you can read syllabics."

Within a year Gardener advanced from reading Inuktitut without understanding the words to being able to hold a conversation in the language. To this day he's still learning new words and more about the nuances of Inuktitut.

"It's a very interesting language and a very expressive language and it's far easier to learn than French because it's regular and it's got a lot of expression and motion in it," says Gardener.

Margaret and Mike Gardener. The couple is leaving Nunavut next week for Ottawa so Margaret can have access to specialized long-term care. (submitted by Mike Gardener)

'Stone age to the space age'

Gardener says that life in the region has changed drastically in the past 60 years.

"It has changed from the stone age to the space age," he says.

Gardener became an avid sled dog driver learning the tricks of the trade from Inuit.

"There were no Ski-Doos," he says. "The first one was in 1961."

The biggest change, according to Gardener, is with the prevalence of social issues such as addiction.

"There were no real bad problems," he says. "There were no suicides. How different from now."

He says changes to the traditional nomadic Inuit lifestyle and close-knit family structure are at the heart of these problems.

"It was really the government getting people in from the small isolated camps, making sure people stayed," he says, referencing the killing of Inuit sled dogs on Baffin Island from the 1950s to the 1970s.

Margaret and Mike Gardener married in 1956 on a boat off Baffin Island. The couple had three daughters and adopted a son. (submitted by Mike Gardener)

'You meet in the middle'

While Gardener was in Kimmirut, his soon-to-be wife was working in Pangnirtung as a cook for the mission hospital. The two got married in 1956 on a boat.

"Like all good marriages, you meet in the middle," he says.

But Gardener says he encountered some of the roughest sea on the way to his wedding and was three days late for the ceremony. The couple went on to have three daughters and adopt a foster son.

In 1961, Gardener and his family moved to Cape Dorset where he oversaw the building of the Anglican mission house and taught religion. Ten years later, he moved to Pangnirtung to teach theology. One of his first students was Andrew Atagotaaluk, who became the first Inuk bishop in the Diocese of the Arctic.

Gardener says he was unaware of the issues that Inuit faced with residential schools and abuse at the hands of clergy.

"We weren't aware of it, I'm afraid," says Gardener.

"It doesn't mean it didn't exist. It was not an issue in my ministry, rightly or wrongly, but it is a real issue now and it's got to be dealt with. 

"I trust that there can be forgiveness and healing," he adds.

In 1981, Gardener and his family moved to Iqaluit where he worked as a priest until 1996, when he retired.

"I've enjoyed the time here very much. I've met many wonderful people," he says.

Gardener says his happiest memories are of groups of people playing traditional Inuit games in front of the church.

About the Author

Sima Sahar Zerehi is a reporter with CBC North. She started her career in journalism with the ethnic press working for a Canadian-based Farsi language newspaper. Her CBC journey began as a regular commentator with CBC radio's Metro Morning. Since then she's worked with CBC in Montreal, Toronto and now Iqaluit.


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