Jehovah's Witnesses, Sikhs, Muslims: New Religious Groups Race to Arctic

From Nunavut to Norilsk to Nome: They're coming.

What was once a slow advance of religious groups into the far north has turned into a gallop to the high latitudes, starting around the 60th parallel, a circle around the Earth just shy of the Arctic Circle and encompassing cities such as Fairbanks, Alaska, and Yellowknife, in Canada's Northwest Territories.

Although Lutherans, Anglicans, Catholics and Russian Orthodox believers have been in the far North for centuries, the newcomers - ranging from independent Baptists to Baha'is - are drawn by growing populations, in part the result of climate change. As the North can be a lonely place, houses of worship can provide instant community.

Ole Hammeken with sled dogs in Greenland
Explorer Ole Jorgen Hammeken leads a dog sled team on the sea ice of Uummannaq Bay in northwest Greenland, the same region of the country where he once encountered a shaman. Galya Morrell

Last month, a group of Jehovah's Witnesses in Iqaluit opened their first worship center in Canada's vast Nunavut province. This sub-Arctic city on eastern Canada's Baffin Island made headlines earlier this year when Pope Francis dropped by for a few hours to apologize for past abuses of indigenous youth in Catholic residential schools.

One day before the July 29 papal visit, enormous tractor-loaders were hauling 12 sea containers and three huge shipping crates into downtown Iqaluit from the tidal flats of Frobisher Bay. Inside were the makings for a two-story, 3,296-square-foot building covered with brown and silver insulated panels.

This was the Jehovah Witnesses' new CA$1.24 million (or $880,370 US) kingdom hall, shipped up from Becancour, Quebec. There being no construction materials available in this treeless area nor any roads from the mainland, everything has to be built, then shipped or flown in.

Believers, who had been meeting in a local gym, were jubilant.

"It's really opened doors to our meetings," said Jason McGregor, the project coordinator.

"Knowing there's a permanent place of worship for us in Iqaluit gives people a chance to learn good news from the Bible, which is a huge blessing. And the building says the Witnesses are here to stay. We're not going anywhere."

Other religions are making inroads as well. In Yellowknife, the capital of the Northwest Territories province, a 7,500-square-foot mosque is being built for an estimated 300 Muslims - the fifth such in Canada's far north.

In the western province of the Yukon, the most famous personality on social media (21,000 followers on YouTube, 209,000 on Twitter) is Gurdeep Pandher, a Sikh famed for his Punjabi dance videos in -45-degree weather and his emphasis on inclusion, diversity and joi de vivre. In July, his fellow believers in nearby Whitehorse completed the restoration of a new Sikh gurdwara (prayer hall).

There have been pioneering efforts to the east, such as the establishment of Greenland's first Baptist church in the tourist capital of Ilulissat and, to the west, a tiny group of Seventh-Day Adventists hangs on in Gambell, a village on Alaska's St. Lawrence Island a mere 35 miles across the Bering Sea from Russia.

Mia Bennett, a University of Washington geography professor with a specialty in Arctic studies, said houses of worship are one of the few gathering spots available in these remote locales.

"When I go to do field work in the Arctic, I typically try to visit a church to meet people, as they are strong community centers," she said. "In Inuvik (a western Canadian city north of the Arctic Circle), there's two churches and a mosque. Not only do they offer religious services, they also often host coffees and caribou barbecues, where it's easy to meet people."

Recalling a visit to Tuktoyaktuk, a Canadian hamlet of 900 people on the Beaufort Sea: ""Near the Catholic Church, a woman named Sister Fay ran a small community center that residents could visit for a hot meal or just to chat. She wanted to make sure people were welcome and connected. I don't want to underplay the cruel legacies of church abuses and residential schools, which have resulted in multigenerational trauma. Yet it is possible for worship centers today to play a meaningful role, especially in smaller-scale places."

ship with Jehovah's Witnesses construction containers
Building materials for a new Jehovah's Witnesses kingdom hall were loaded into 12 sea containers and 3 oversized shipping crates, and transported to a port near Montreal, Quebec. From there, they traveled through the St. Lawrence Seaway out to the Atlantic and finally to Frobisher Bay. As there is no port to accommodate large vessels, the containers were transferred to barges. Tugboats pulled the barges to shallow waters, and when the tide went out, loaders retrieved the containers and brought them ashore to Iqaluit. Jehovah's Witnesses

This is especially true in off-road communities such as Iqaluit (pronounced ee-cow-loo-it), which is only ice-free from the end of July to mid-September. The new kingdom hall, which opened Oct. 16, gives added fuel for the Jehovah Witnesses' proselytizing around town.

"There is door-to-door in Iqaluit," McGregor said. "We definitely dress for it."

The Jehovah's Witnesses weren't the first to transport an expensive building to Baffin Island. In 2016, the 60-85 Muslims living in that frigid locale completed their own 3,900-square-foot mosque for $800,000 Canadian.

"It was 56 below for the dedication ceremony," said Hussain Guisti, a Winnipeg doctor who helped found the Iqaluit Masjid. "It was crazy."

As oil and extraction industries have migrated north, so has a religiously diverse workforce. When Guisti moved to the isolated mining town of Thompson, Manitoba, in 2006, there were no mosques. Instead, Muslims met in the basement of a Mennonite church. Guisti founded the Zubaidah Tallab Foundation, a charity through which he could raise money for a 1,564-square-foot building for 80-100 people. The resulting building is called the Zubaidah Tallab Masjid.

"For us Muslims, especially those in these remote outposts, a mosque is the epicenter of our life," he said. "We pray five times a day there. It's where the sisters meet for classes, the kids attend Islamic school, where we have monthly potlucks. If you do not have a mosque, you do not have a thriving permanent community. You just have immigrants who will leave."

He turned down all foreign offers of financial aid. "All the help I got was Canadian."

Buoyed by this success, he began looking for other communities that needed mosques and has since founded four more. In 2010, his foundation built a second mosque in Inuvik in Canada's far northwestern quadrant on the Mackenzie River not far from the Alaskan border. Inuvik also had about 100 Muslims out of a total population of 3,200 people.

A 1,554-square-foot mosque was built in Winnipeg, then trucked 1,500 miles to Hay River, the northernmost town on the national road system. It was then put on a barge for the remaining 1,000 miles. Called the Midnight Sun Mosque, it's the world's second most northerly mosque after one in the Siberian city of Norilsk.

construction of Kingdom Hall Iqaluit Canada
Local contractors work on the two-story, 3,296-square-foot Jehovah's Witnesses kingdom hall, located at 1018 Iglulik Drive in Iqaluit, Canada. The church opened Oct. 16. Jehovah's Witnesses

Even though the mosque cost CA$146,000 to build and CA$113,000 to transport, Guisti said it was a bargain deal.

"Up in the Arctic, the going rate for construction is $600/per square foot," he said "Labor is $90 an hour. In Winnipeg at the time, it was $130 per square foot and labor was $15 per hour."

Guisti also had a hand in raising CA$638,000 for a mosque in the provincial capital of Whitehorse in Canada's far west. A former trucking warehouse, the Whitehorse Islamic Center, completed in 2018, serves about 300 Muslims.

Muslims have flooded into the Russian Arctic in recent decades as well, according to "Polar Islam: Muslim Communities in Russia's Arctic Cities," a 2020 academic paper by Marlene Laruelle of George Washington University and Sophie Hohmann of the Paris-based National Institute for Oriental Languages and Cultures. Many seek jobs in Russia's oil and natural gas-producing centers in Siberia.

"Arctic cities continue to attract a relatively young and mobile population that moves to the Far North to accumulate financial and social capital and acquire unique work experience," they wrote, adding that the latest wave of newcomers have been migrants from the North Caucasus, Azerbaijan, and central Asian countries.

In 10 major Arctic cities and their environs, the researchers found 59 mosques, prayer houses and prayer rooms, all new since the turn of the century. Mosques weren't allowed in the Arctic during the Soviet Union era, Laruelle said.

Jehovah's Witnesses kingdom hall  in Iqaluit, Canada
Advanced construction technologies are used for the foundation system, the exterior walls and floor system and roof system for this new Jehovah's Witnesses kingdom hall in Iqaluit, Canada, where permafrost and temperatures into the minus 40s affect all construction. Jehovah's Witnesses

As these newer religions have moved farther north, they encounter faiths that have been there for at least a century, including the Russian Orthodox, Lutherans, Anglicans, Roman Catholics, Pentecostals and shamanism. Ole Jørgen Hammeken, a Greenlandic explorer and actor, has observed that Greenlandic youth are drawn to shamanism because it feels closer to their cultural roots.

One problem is the lack of genuine shamans. Traditionally, training took 15-20 years and involved feats of herculean endurance.

"It was a solitary training with enforced hunger, nakedness," Hammeken said. "Suffering was the biggest thing in becoming a shaman. That is how you met the darkness. Shamans need to have vision during the dark times of the year."

He believes he met the last true Greenlandic shaman in 1995 while on a five-week dogsled trip near the shores of Melville Bay along the northwest coast.

"I went to shake his hand, but my courage slipped, and I didn't do it," Hammeken said. Nevertheless, the shaman noticed him and merely said, "The ravens are happy."

A few days later, Hammeken's dog team was blocked by high snow drifts. Suddenly, a raven appeared, and the dogs began leaping through the snow in pursuit, creating a path. Hammeken believes the shaman sent the bird.

"Later," Hammeken remembered, "we learned he committed suicide."

Suicide is the hidden scourge of Arctic living. As a country, Greenland has the world's highest suicide rate at 85 per 100,000 people; in terms of portions of a country, the Nunavut province tops Greenland at 116.7 per 100,000 people.

Bishop David Parsons of the Anglican Diocese of the Arctic, which oversees Nunavut, knows this all too well. His is the oldest Christian tradition in eastern Canada. He oversees 49 church communities spread out over 1.5 million square miles across the northern half of the country and has made suicide prevention a top priority.

St. Jude's Anglican Cathedral in Iqaluit Canada
St. Jude's Anglican Cathedral in Iqaluit, Nunavut, Canada, is the seat of the Anglican Diocese of the Arctic, which covers all of northern Canada except for the Yukon province. David Parsons

He guesses that 35 of these outposts attract 10 percent or more of the local population into church on a given Sunday, a far higher percentage than the rest of Canada.

"Proportionally compared to the south, we have large amounts of people attending church," he said. However, "the day after I was made bishop in 2012, someone from the government asked me what I was going to do about all the suicides."

After much prayer, the answer he came up with was youth helping out their own peers.

"We need to train teenagers to help teenagers," he said. "This is no quick fix and it's going to take years...and everyone needs a loving person to talk to."

Which is why Guisti is so intent on providing mosques to give residents an alternative to the hopelessness, boredom, alcohol and drug abuse, broken families and peer and gang affiliation up in the Arctic. Not only do they provide an alcohol-free meeting place, but he insists the culture itself supports intact, two-parent families that discourage children from joining gangs.

"I've been in Canada for 20 years," Guisti said, "and have yet to hear of a suicide amongst a Muslim child."