Nunavik’s longtime Oblate missionary, Father Jules Dion, dies at 89
Father Dion arrived in Nunavik in 1955
For nearly 60 years, Oblate missionary Father Jules Dion—better known in Nunavik by his Inuktitut name, Pirtiu—served as priest, mechanic, carpenter, dog team runner, hunter, fisherman, doctor, dentist and part-time snowmobile salesman to several generations of Inuit in Quaqtaq and Kangiqsujuaq.
Dion, who had retired from his mission in Kangiqsujuaq, died Dec. 25 at the Résidence Notre-Dame de Richelieu, where he has lived since 2015.
He was 89 years and nine months old.
Dion arrived in Quaqtaq on Nunavik’s Ungava Bay in July 1955, as a newly-ordained Oblate missionary.
He wanted to go to Canada’s Arctic as a missionary even at a young age, and, at 19, entered an Oblate monastery.
Ordained as a priest on April 25, 1954, he landed in Quaqtaq a little more than a year later.
“I arrived in Quaqtaq in July 1955, from Belgium, and stayed there for 10 years,” he told Nunatsiaq News in 1999.
“At that time, there was just the mission, one building, and most people were living out along the coast. Only at Christmas time would everyone come into Quaqtaq.”
Families arrived by dog-team and built individual igloos by the mission, in time for celebrations that began in earnest on Dec. 24, Dion said.
“Everyone would be wearing their beautiful new clothes, made for Christmas,” he said. “And we would then begin the games, competitions and dog-team races. One relay involved bringing blocks of ice that we’d cut to use for water during the winter down from the lake to the mission. As well as being a race, it was a service.”
On Dec. 24, Dion always said the Midnight Mass, and afterwards everyone shared tea, biscuits and candy.
Around the time of December’s first full moon, an army plane would make a parachute drop of mail and gifts over Quaqtaq.
“But sometimes the parachute wouldn’t open and the basket would split open on the rocks and the presents would get all battered. Once we received a fruit cake, but its tin was crushed, and all the beads that the women were to use for decorating their clothes ended up in the fruit cake. So, we finally cut up what was left of the cake into small pieces, and when all the older men and women came over to the mission to play cards, we munched on the pieces of the cake and,in this way, we managed to recover the beads,” he said.
“And the cake, it was excellent!”
There were also toys for the children, collected by the army and shipped up by boat in the summer, which Father Dion would wrap for distribution at Christmas.
Although these early holidays held many good memories for Father Dion, there were also hard moments, reflecting the difficult realities of life in Nunavik during the 1950s and 1960s.
Once, Dion recalled, a man travelling to the Christmas festivities stopped to feed his dogs from a meat cache—but the hungry dogs ran off, leaving him to walk alone to Quaqtaq, for hours, in stormy weather.
He arrived with frozen feet, but managed to keep some of his toes, thanks to injections of penicillin and an evacuation south later on, in mid-January.
“There were no nurses. Nothing. In fact, the nearest doctor was in Pangnirtung, and we would consult on the radio,” Dion said.
After seven years in Quaqtaq, Father Dion went out of the North for the first time. By then, he spoke Inuttitut fluently.
“I was so happy to be with the Inuit,” he said in the book, Fifty Years Below Zero, which tells the story of Father Dion’s long and deep connection with Nunavik.
A party was held in 2004 to celebrate his 50 years in Nunavik, and Dion received certificates of appreciation from the communities of Kangiqsujuaq and Quaqtaq.
“These 50 years of life in the North have made me happy because this fulfilled my deepest desire, which was to go and live with the Inuit. I have never regretted asking to come among them. I was well prepared, ready for everything and nothing surprised me. If I was to redo everything all over, I would make the same choice,” he said in the book.
A visitation for Father Dion will take place at the Residence Notre-Dame 460, 1st Street Richelieu, Que., J3L 4B5 on Friday, Jan. 5, from 6:30 p.m., with prayers at 7:30 p.m., and again on Saturday, Jan. 6, from 12:30 p.m. to 2 p.m., when the funeral is scheduled.
Interment will take place at a later date at the Oblate cemetery in Richelieu.