Pope John Paul II Visits Fort Simpson

When Pope John Paul II announced that he would visit the Northwest Territories during his 1984 Canadian tour, devout Roman Catholics in the North were ecstatic. For many Indigenous Catholics, the visit of their spiritual leader would be the event of a lifetime.

The Dene Nation had invited the Pope, urging him to visit the small Mackenzie valley community of Fort Simpson, not the Northwest Territories’ capital city Yellowknife. This proved to be logistically more complicated but would allow the Pope to meet the Dene in a more traditional setting. More than 4000 people gathered in Fort Simpson on a cool, wet morning on September 18, 1984, to be part of the momentous day. Dense fog forced the Pope’s airplane to be diverted to Yellowknife. The people gathered at Fort Simpson were disappointed, but the Pope promised to return.

On September 20, 1987, almost three years after his cancelled visit, the Pope landed in Fort Simpson to celebrate with thousands from all over the North. The Pontiff blessed those things sacred to the Dene: the land, water and air. He met with representatives of the Dene Nation and urged the Canadian government to settle Indigenous land claims and become a “model for the world.” At Fort Simpson, the Pope lent his voice to the growing call for the equitable settling of land issues and the acknowledgement of the unfair treatment that Indigenous peoples had endured.