The secular territory

God isn't dead in the Yukon, but he isn't in peak condition. The Yukon has Canada's highest population of atheists and agnostics, making it the country's most secular jurisdiction. More than 11,000 Yukoners...

God isn’t dead in the Yukon, but he isn’t in peak condition.

The Yukon has Canada’s highest population of atheists and agnostics, making it the country’s most secular jurisdiction.

More than 11,000 Yukoners (37.4 per cent of the population) say they have “no religion,” according to Statistics Canada.

Canada-wide, the “no religion,” group only constitutes 16 per cent.

The remaining 60.3 per cent of Yukoners have slotted themselves in a sprinkling of other religions, be it Roman Catholic (21 per cent), Anglican (13.3 per cent); and even pagan (0.4 per cent).

Maybe Yukoners are just more honest when they take Statistics Canada surveys, joked Whitehorse Baptist minister Matthew Affleck.

“We need a marketing person,” said Dawson-based Anglican priest Ken Snyder.

The Anglican church is “laid back” and will “tolerate anything,” said Snyder.

“As a result we don’t have fighting troops near the battle line,” he said.

When congregations began to shrink, Anglicans weren’t the ones to start pounding on doors with ‘literature.’”

Or bribing newcomers with cookies.

Just after fur traders started to trek into the northern wilds, Christian missionaries were right on their tail.

Whether in the Yukon, the Northwest Territories or Nunavut, missionaries all arrived with the same mission – to turn First Nations into Christians.

But as hordes of unwashed miners started to flow in, Yukon missionaries found their attentions diverted.

“In the Yukon, the missionary and church work shifted from First Nations to newcomers during and after the Gold Rush,” wrote Yukon historian Ken Coates in an e-mail to the News.

More than 100 years later, aboriginal communities have largely kept the faith.

But among non-aboriginals, church attendance has plummeted.

The Yukon’s lack of worship may simply be a lack of First Nations.

Only one quarter of the Yukon population is aboriginal.

The Northwest Territories, on the other hand, counts just over 50 per cent of its population as First Nations.

NWT’s “no religion” group is only 17 per cent.

At 85 per cent, Nunavut holds Canada’s highest percentage of First Nations.

They also hold the country’s lowest population of atheists and agnostics (only six per cent).

Among First Nations, religion is much more “out in the open,” said Hart Bezner, a Catholic pastoral administrator for Teslin.

Bezner’s congregation is almost solely aboriginal.

“Teslin has had some very influential priests since the church came here and they left a very strong mark,” he said.

Church attendance may be down, but Catholic values remain prominent in the community, said Bezner.

Many Teslinites still pray before public functions – something that, in Ontario, is fast becoming a bizarre anomaly.

The Yukon’s non-aboriginal population, meanwhile, is largely composed of transients.

And a territory filled with drifters is no way to build a religious base.

In areas like Southern Ontario – Affleck’s former stomping grounds – parents, grandparents and aunts and uncles were usually around to haul their relatives to church.

“You had your faith, and each generation usually followed in the footsteps of the previous,” said Affleck.

In the Yukon, many of those church-going relatives are a continent away – and sleeping in on Sundays becomes guilt-free.

“When you get up and move, there isn’t that societal pressure (to go to church),” said Affleck.

Over in Alaska, the situation is similar.

The ultra-religious neo-conservatism of former Alaska governor Sarah Palin may have painted the 49th state as a God-fearing Mecca, but the average Alaskan stopped thumping the Bible long ago.

Only 22 per cent of Alaskans regularly attend church services – one of the lowest in the United States, according to a study by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

A further 31 per cent of Alaskans consider religion “not too important.”

In comments to the Anchorage Daily News, Evangelical Lutheran Bishop Michael Keys attributed mass-secularization to the state’s fierce individualism.

“We don’t want interference from anybody, whether it be government, or churches or institutions … Therefore (people think), ‘Why would I need a church?’” he said.

From a church perspective, interference is coming mainly in the form of new and better infrastructure.

Back when the church house was the only game in town, attendance was sky-high.

But every time an arts centre, games centre or movie theatre opens its doors, congregations have dropped.

Snyder was an Inuvik priest during the 1970s, and remembers his well-attended Sunday afternoon prayer sessions.

“And then the theatre guy set up a theatre … and that became competition for the church,” explained Snyder.

Soon, prayer sessions just didn’t have the same draw.

“The more things got built up and came in, the more competition it was,” he said.

“How you gonna keep them down on the farm, now that they’ve seen ‘Paree’?” wrote Northern historian Bill Morrison in an e-mail to the News.

Of course, the result may be a more devoted flock, said Snyder.

Yukon churchgoers show up because they want to, not just because their grandma is pulling them to communion.

For the non-Christians, the mere logistics of worshipping North of 60 may be prohibitive to taking up a Yukon address.

“You can’t be orthodox and live in Yukon,” said Rick Karp, a representative of the Whitehorse Jewish community.

Keeping kosher would be impossible, for one thing.

Unless, of course, one was willing to put up hundreds of dollars in freight to fly up brisket and kosher butter from Montreal.

Other religions, while “maybe not as rigid,” encounter similar difficulties, said Karp.

Contact Tristin Hopper at tristinh@yukon-news.com

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