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Baptizing babies and chopping wood
Bishop Denis Croteau reflects on a half-century of mission work in the North

Kassina Ryder
Northern News Services
Monday, June 15, 2015

When Bishop Denis Croteau came North nearly 55 years ago, a day's work meant hitching up a dog team and traveling for days to minister to families tending traplines in the bush.

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Denis croteau: Recalls how he has watched the territory change over the course of 55 years of mission work in the NWT.

It was a hard life, but he loved it.

"I was 32, 33. You're pretty tough in those days and I could take the cold quite well," Croteau said. "I really enjoyed it. When you're young you can take it."

Croteau arrived in Behchoko, then known as Fort Rae, in 1960. As part of his duties as a priest, he traveled by dog team throughout the area doing everything from baptizing babies to helping chop wood.

"They just trained me to handle the dog team," he said. "That was part of the training in those days when you came to be a missionary."

Learning to speak dogrib, now known as Tlicho, was important to Croteau. In 1963, he asked to spend time living on the land with two local families during the trapping season.

He left Behchoko on Jan. 14 with Joe Mackenzie and Louis Mackenzie and headed for the families' camping spot a three-day ride away.

Croteau said he will never forget the cold he endured on that trip. The men slept on spruce boughs on the snow in -50 C temperatures and Croteau's borrowed sleeping bag had been previously washed, bunching up the material inside and leaving bare spots.

"I didn't even sleep an hour a night because I was freezing," he said.

"The cold was coming right through as if I had nothing on."

He said he wasn't the only one who lost sleep due to the intense cold.

"Nobody could sleep, not even the dogs," he said. "They were just in a ball, you lost them under the frost. You had to almost stretch them to put them in their harnesses."

Days were spent running behind the sleds, navigating them around obstacles along the way.

"You have to steer your sled like you steer a canoe to avoid stumps and stones," he said.

The group arrived at camp a few days later and Croteau lived in a tent with Joe and his wife Julie, along with their three children and grandmother.

During his two months living with the Mackenzie families, Croteau went hunting and fishing alongside Joe and Louis, as well as hauling dead trees for firewood and other chores.

He said one day Julie called to him from the tent and told him it was lunchtime. Croteau said in the North in those days, the concept of eating at specific times of the day was still foreign and he asked Julie what she meant.

"She said it's noon and you're a white man," he said, laughing at the memory.

"You have a clock in your stomach and it's time for you to eat."

Croteau said kindness was just one of the qualities he admired about people in NWT.

Daily life could be difficult and Croteau said people had to work hard for things sometimes taken for granted today.

"They had three little girls and they always had clean clothes," he said about the Mackenzie family. "They were always working, working, working. They never stopped."

Croteau said he arrived in the territory at the end of an era. Television arrived in 1969 and people started spending their evenings watching shows instead of going out visiting.

And once the Mackenzie Highway was complete, Behchoko was connected to the rest of the world.

"After I arrived, within two or three years people started staying more in town. The majority were still going to the trap line, but you could see the change even at that time," he said.

"The Mackenzie was built so you could drive to Yellowknife."

The road meant people stopped using dog teams in favour of trucks and snowmobiles.

"Today people jump on their four by fours and come to play bingo in Yellowknife," he said. "They come just to get Kentucky Fried Chicken and go shopping at Walmart."

Though much has changed, Croteau said the nature of his work remains the same.

"The life of a priest is most interesting because you're always with people," he said.

"I really enjoyed that experience."

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