Father Jules Dion: Forty-five Christmases in Nunavik
This Christmas Eve, Father Jules Dion will preside over his forty-fifth midnight mass in Nunavik.
IQALUIT — Christmas this year will unfold much as it has in the past for Father Jules Dion, Kangiqsujuaq’s long-time resident priest.
On Christmas Eve, Father Dion will say mass at midnight, then on Christmas Day he will preside over more religious services for his small Catholic congregation.
Father Dion will also attend the community’s traditional feasts, although, at age 71, he says he’s “a little stiff” now to join in any games.
For the past 45 years, Father Dion has celebrated Christmas in much this same way — and always in Nunavik.
“I arrived in Quartaq in July 1955, from Belgium, and stayed there for 10 years,” he told Nunatsiaq News. “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 Quartaq.”
Families arrived by dog-team and built individual igloos by the mission, in time for celebrations that began in earnest on Dec. 24.
“Everyone would be wearing their beautiful new clothes, made for Christmas,” recalled the priest. “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.”
Games and dancing
On Dec. 24th, Father Dion always said midnight mass, and afterwards everyone shared tea, biscuits and candy.
“The games and dancing went on until three or four in the morning,” Father Dion recalled. “Then, everyone went out for a rest. On Christmas Day, as soon as there was enough light, all kinds of games for every age, for men, women, young and old, started up again.”
Around the time of December’s first full moon, an army plane would make a parachute drop of mail and gifts over Quartaq.
“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,” Father Dion 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 hold many good memories, there were also hard moments, reflecting the difficult reality of life in Nunavik during the 50s and 60s.
Once, Father Dion recalls, 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 Quartaq, 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 to the south later on, in mid-January.
But another woman was not so lucky. On Christmas Eve, while Father Dion was saying midnight mass, this woman gave birth.
“The baby was born, but the placenta never came out and the woman began to hemorrhage. No one wanted to disturb me, to tell me the news and disrupt the tea, games and the dance. So, I didn’t learn about it until the morning,” he recalled. “Unfortunately the woman had lost a lot of blood. We wanted to evacutate her and there was a plane in Kuujjuaq, but the nearest pilot was in Iqaluit.”
The pilot couldn’t make it to Kangirsuk until the 26th. Before he could arrive, the woman passed away, putting a sad and abrupt end to that year’s Christmas celebrations.
Back in those days, Father Dion often served as a doctor as well as a priest.
“There were no nurses. Nothing. In fact, the nearest doctor was in Pangnirtung, and we would consult on the radio.”
After seven years in Quartaq, Father Dion went out of the north for the first time. By then, he spoke Inuttitut fluently.
In 1965, he was transferred up the Ungava Bay to Kangiqsujuaq, which at that time was a much larger community, with schools and even a small store. The Catholic mission there had existed since 1936.
In Kangiqsujuaq, the Christmas games were organized by the residents, not by the missionaries or the Hudson Bay manager, and community feasts with country foods were also integrated into the festivities.
Even a Christmas tree was parachuted down into the community before the holidays. To Father Dion’s amusement, it was fiercely coveted by all the Qallunaat in the settlement.
“Everyone fought over who would get that tree,” Father Dion said.
When the local store began to carry a wider variety of stock, Kangirsuamiut also began to exchange small presents.
“It was always a joyous, peaceful occasion. Now, it’s more commercial. We see people who spend a great deal of money on presents and decorating their houses,” noted Father Dion.
But Christmas is still a tranquil time in Kangiqsuajuaq. Before the beginning of the holiday season, no booze is permitted to come into the community.
“This Christmas, I would like to wish a very good holiday to all readers of the Nunatsiaq News,” Father Dion said. “May they find joy, peace and be full of hope.
And I would encourage everyone to set their priorities wisely and not in fleeting pleasures, such as drugs and alcohol.”