Father Jules Dion: 55 years of service to Nunavik

New book honours one of the Arctic’s longest-serving missionaries


Mechanic, carpenter, dog team runner, hunter, fisherman, doctor, dentist, priest and part-time snowmobile salesman: these all describe Father Jules Dion, better known in Nunavik by his Inuttitut name, Pirtiu.

Father Dion arrived in Quaqtaq in July 1955, as a newly-ordained Oblate missionary. Today he still lives in Nunavik, in Kangiqsujuaq.

Father Dion has given up driving dog teams and skidoos in favour of a red compact car, but even after serving more than 55 years as a priest, Father Dion still looks after his small Roman Catholic congregation.

The recently published book, Cinquante ans au-dessous de zero (Fifty Years Below Zero), tells the story of Father Dion’s long and deep connection with Nunavik.

Written by Raymonde Haché, the book is based on her many interviews with Father Dion. Haché, a teacher, first met Father Dion when she taught in Quaqtaq in 1978, where they started an enduring friendship.

Missionaries like Father Dion, who arrived in the Eastern Arctic during the 1950s and 1960s, were “doctors in spite of ourselves,” Dion says in an interview with Haché, sewing up gaping wounds, delivering babies, dealing with frostbite, tuberculosis, measles, and influenza.

Father Dion, who turned 78 earlier this month, is no exception.

During the flu epidemic of 1958, Father Dion and a fellow priest, Father Meeus, traveled by dog team from camp to camp, providing what help they could to Inuit who lay sick and dying in their snowhouses and tents. “We boiled snow, so they could drink… we also carried out the honey buckets.”

This is just one of the stories from Cinquante ans au-dessous de zero.

“Father Dion has much to teach us by the way he lives with Inuit,” says Haché’s introduction to the book.

Above all, her book is a testament to a life guided by faith, modesty and love. But whether bad or good, sad or happy, Father Dion’s stories are all told with simplicity. And the book, filled with photos, relates Father Dion’s life as he might himself tell it, in the first person.

Father Dion’s stories tell themselves. Some are lighthearted and joyous recollections of Christmas festivities past, but other anecdotes are more sombre, of how epidemics, starvation and accidents took lives in a period when isolation was a fact of life.

The story begins in Belgium, where Dion was born nearly 78 years ago, on April 4, 1928. He wanted to go to Canada’s Arctic as a missionary even at a young age, and, at 19, entered an Oblate monastery. Dion was ordained as a priest on April 25, 1954. A Little more than a year later, he landed in Quaqtaq.

“I was so happy to be with the Inuit,” he says.

Learning Inuttitut filled his first weeks in northern Quebec.

“I was meeting the people for the first time. Their welcome was the warmest imaginable, even if my linguistic bumbling and mistakes amused them immensely.”

Father Dion said mass in Latin every day, visited the camps, and eventually converted and baptized enough new Catholics to sustain the mission of Saint Anne in Kangiqsujuaq.

Throughout the book, Father Dion provides telling detail about what life was like during the 1950s, 60s and 70s, when, as he says, “we had a lot of work with what I will call survival.”

“Because of my isolation, I had to become a handyman, often being the only person able to do mechanical repairs, plumbing, carpentry, electricity. And even health care. It didn’t matter whether I wanted to or not. I learned a lot, sometimes at my own expense.”

Photos from those days, reproduced in their original black and white, show a relaxed Father Dion in a variety of activities: baking bread, fixing pipes and slicing open a fish with a cigarette hanging from his mouth, always with a smile on his face.

In the book, Father Dion also shares what he learned from Inuit — about learning by example, the traditional respect for others, and the importance of community.

There’s also a lot of history in the book, mainly about Catholic missions in the Eastern Arctic and Father Dion’s personal experiences as a missionary. When he mastered Inuttitut, Father Dion produced scores of translations of religious materials in Inuttitut. His vision was to have an open-door mission, reflecting a sense of community that he says “is not seen today.”

Father Dion also talks about the impact of evangelism in northern Quebec.

“Since the arrival of these sects in 1978, we haven’t had any conversions,” he notes. “The Holy Spirit has helped me not to become discouraged in front of small results.”

But Father Dion has nevertheless had many memorable moments in recent years: a visit to see the late Pope John Paul with some of his congregation in 1984, a party to celebrate his 50 years in Nunavik in 2004, and receiving 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.”

The affection Father Dion has feels for his fellow man surfaces throughout the book, and he mentions his long friendship with the late Jugini of Kangiqsujuaq several times.

Jugini, who died of lung cancer in 2002, had a sixth sense and was “a truly extradordinary man,” says Father Dion. Jugini was always able to find his way through even the worst storms, Father Dion remembers. “Because of him I never ended up staying for an entire day in an igloo. Never, never, never.”

Near the end of his life Jugini told Father Dion: “Now, the trip is over, I am leaving and you too, you will also leave.”

We should be grateful to Haché for writing such a fine book about Father Dion, however, it’s a shame that Cinquante ans au-dessous de zero is not available in English or Inuttitut. At 260 pages, Cinquante ans au-dessous de zero is too short, unlike another recently published book of about the same length that is much too long.

Impressions boréales by Alexandre Chouinard, who spent a brief time as doctor in Nunavik, is notable mainly for its many avoidable spelling errors and misunderstandings about Nunavik and Inuit. Chouinard left the region after less than two years, “nostalgic for all the beautiful moments I had experienced, but happy to go on to something else.”

Nunavimmiut can be happy Father Dion came and never left.

Cinquante ans au-dessous de zero Raymonde Haché Éd. Anne Sigier ISBN 2-89129-496-3: $22.95.
Impressions boréales d’un séjour au Nunavik Alexandre Chouinard. Arion (Arion voyage) ISBN 2-923300-13-0: $18.95.

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