Old Crow’s ‘spiritual leader’ passes away

Every spring Reverend Dr. Ellen Bruce hiked up King Edward Mountain and prayed that the people of Old Crow would have a good harvest and that the caribou would come. Now it's the people in her community who are praying for her.

Every spring Reverend Dr. Ellen Bruce hiked up King Edward Mountain and prayed that the people of Old Crow would have a good harvest and that the caribou would come.

Now it’s the people in her community who are praying for her.

Sunday evening, the 98-year-old, better known as “Auntie Ellen,” passed away.

She was the first aboriginal woman in the North to be ordained as a church minister.

Bruce dedicated more than half of her life to the Anglican Church where she served as a lay reader, deacon and finally a minister in 1987.

In 1991, she received the Order of Canada for her commitment to the Anglican Church.

“Ellen was a natural leader,” said Ron Ferris who was bishop of the Anglican Church at the time.

“She was a really wonderful, wise church leader who really cared about the community and her people.”

Bruce was born in 1911 in Rampart House, a small trading post in the North.

As a child she lived in a tent with her family, following the caribou and moose.

“While growing up, people they move around this country everyday to look for food. Caribou, moose, ducks, rabbit and even just one weasel was good,” said Bruce in an elder’s statement posted on the Old Crow website.

“Meat juice was our juice, bone juice is what I fight over with my siblings – it taste sooo good.”

Bruce’s love for the church was passed on through her family.

Her grandfather was trained in catechism by the first Anglican missionary to visit the Gwich’in people.

He passed the skill on to his son who eventually passed it on to Bruce.

Bruce was the only person in Old Crow who could read the Old Testament to people in the Gwich’in language.

And because of that, she was a hot commodity in other communities in the North, said Ferris.

After Bruce was ordained she travelled to Arctic Village to lead church services there.

“People went in droves, especially young people,” he said.

Bruce first got involved with the church in 1929.

“She dedicated her whole life to the church,” said Robert, Bruce’s son.

“She didn’t do anything else.”

Bruce’s efforts were so well-recognized she was labelled Old Crow’s “spiritual leader,” in a 2003 book, coedited by Margaret Atwood, celebrating inspiring women in Canada.

Bruce worked with the Old Crow women’s auxiliary and was instrumental in passing along the Gwich’in language to young people.

She was a fixture in the community.

“She helped raise me and the other kids in the community,” said Old Crow MLA Darius Elias.

“I have a special place in my heart for her.”

Bruce held a lot of clout in Old Crow.

If someone wanted to hold an event on Sunday, they had to ask Bruce if it was OK.

“If Ellen said, ‘No,’ it was a no,” said Robert laughing.

“She was a really strong woman,” he said, explaining his mother would always take her children out into the bush.

“Even 10 to 15 years ago she was still out snaring and working with skin.”

But in the last couple years she got weaker and went to live with her daughter in Inuvik.

This past August, she noticed her health deteriorating and travelled one last time to Old Crow.

“She wanted to see all her people,” said Robert.

At nearly a century old, Bruce lived long enough to see five generations of her family.

“She was the epitome of dedication,” said Elias.

“She loved her people and it showed.”

A church service will be held for Reverend Dr. Ellen Bruce Thursday, October 21 at the St. Luke’s Church in Old Crow.

Contact Vivian Belik at


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