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

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Fines for contravening the fire ban start at $1,150 and could go as high as $100,000. File photo
Yukon campgrounds will open on May 1 this year. (Black Press file)
Yukon campgrounds to open early

Yukon campgrounds will open on May 1 this year. The early opening… Continue reading

Whitehorse Chamber of Commerce executive director Susan Guatto and program manager Andrei Samson outside the chamber office in downtown Whitehorse Feb. 23. (Stephanie Waddell, Yukon News)
When business models shift

Whitehorse chamber offers digital marketing workshop

Yukonomist Keith Halliday
Yukonomist: The aesthetics and economics of highway strips

One of the many cultural experiences you enjoy while driving from Whitehorse… Continue reading

Submitted
Artwork by Grade 2 student Faith showing her thanks for everyone.
Artwork by Grade 2 student Faith showing her thanks for everyone. (Submitted)
Yukon kids express gratitude for nature, pets and friends in art campaign

More than 50 children submitted artwork featuring things they are grateful for

Team Yukon skip Laura Eby, left, directs her team as Team Northern Ontario skip Krysta Burns looks on at the Scotties Tournament of Hearts in Calgary on Feb. 22. (Jeff McIntosh/CP)
Team Yukon reports positive experience at Scotties

Team Yukon played their final game at the national championship in Calgary on Thursday afternoon

Tom Ullyett, pictured, is the first Yukoner to receive the Louis St-Laurent Award of Excellence from the Canadian Bar Association for his work as a community builder and mentor in the territory. (Gabrielle Plonka/Yukon News)
Tom Ullyett wins lifetime achievement award from the Canadian Bar Association

Ullyett has worked in the Yukon’s justice ecosystem for 36 years as a public sector lawyer and mentor

The Blood Ties outreach van will now run seven nights a week, thanks to a boost in government funding. Logan Godin, coordinator, and Jesse Whelen, harm reduction counsellor, are seen here on May 12, 2020. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Blood Ties outreach van running seven nights a week with funding boost

The Yukon government is ramping up overdose response, considering safe supply plan

Ranj Pillai speaks to media about business relief programs in Whitehorse on April 1, 2020. The Yukon government announced Feb.25 that it will extend business support programs until September. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News)
Government extends business relief programs to September, launches new loan

“It really gives folks some help with supporting their business with cash flow.”

Whitehorse City Hall. (Joel Krahn/Yukon News file)
A look at decisions made by Whitehorse City Council this week

Bylaw amendment Whitehorse city council is moving closer with changes to a… Continue reading

Susie Rogan is a veteran musher with 14 years of racing experience and Yukon Journey organizer. (Yukon Journey Facebook)
Yukon Journey mushers begin 255-mile race

Eleven mushers are participating in the race from Pelly Crossing to Whitehorse

Legislative assembly on the last day of the fall sitting in Whitehorse on Nov. 22, 2018. As the legislature prepares to return on March 4, the three parties are continuing to finalize candidates in the territory’s 19 ridings. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Nine new candidates confirmed in Yukon ridings

It has been a busy two weeks as the parties try to firm up candidates

David Malcolm, 40, has been charged with assaulting and attempting to disarm a police officer after an incident in Whitehorse on Feb. 18. (Phil McLachlan/Capital News)
Man resists arrest, assaults officer

A Whitehorse man has been charged with assaulting and attempting to disarm… Continue reading

Yukon Energy in Whitehorse on Aug. 4, 2020. A site on Robert Service Way near the Alaska Highway has been selected as the future home of Yukon Energy’s energy storage project. (Crystal Schick/Yukon News file)
Site selected for Yukon Energy battery project

Planned to be in service by the end of 2022

Most Read