From Rupert’s Land to Northern Lights: A New Name for Canadian Anglicans

By Iain Luke – Prolocutor of The Ecclesiastical Province of the Northern Lights

Originally Published by the Anglican Diocese of Edmonton


What is an ecclesiastical province?

In the Anglican Church worldwide, local church communities (parishes) are clustered together in a grouping called a diocese, under the oversight of a bishop. A cluster of dioceses is known as a province. This creates opportunities for mutual support and accountability between the dioceses and their bishops. In Canada, there are currently four such provinces.

The origins of the Province of Rupert’s Land lie in the creation of the first diocese in the Canadian Northwest, in 1849. The bishop of this diocese was based in Winnipeg, but was responsible for the development and leadership of church missions in a vast area, covering the Prairies, the far north, and the areas around Hudson’s Bay. The diocese took its name, Rupert’s Land, from the charter of the Hudson’s Bay Company, by which King Charles II directed the Company to trade in, colonize, and exercise control over the entire drainage basin of the Bay. The area became known as “Rupert’s Land” after Prince Rupert of the Rhine, Charles’s cousin and the first Governor of the Hudson’s Bay Company. The Company continued to exercise jurisdiction in the region until the newly-formed Dominion of Canada purchased the land in 1870.

Subsequently, as missions and settlements became established in this territory, the original Diocese of Rupert’s Land was divided into a number of new dioceses, but the whole area retained its identity as the Province of Rupert’s Land. As of 2024, there are ten dioceses in the Province: Athabasca, Edmonton and Calgary in the civil province of Alberta; Saskatchewan, Saskatoon and Qu’Appelle in the civil province of Saskatchewan; Brandon and Rupert’s Land in Manitoba; the Arctic, covering the whole of the Northwest Territories and Nunavut as well as the Nunavik region in northern Quebec; and the Indigenous Spiritual Ministry of Mishamikoweesh, stretching across northwestern Ontario and northeastern Manitoba.

Why change the name?

When the HBC charter was conferred in 1670, as the Canadian Encyclopedia puts it, “almost no thought was given to the sovereignty of the many Indigenous peoples that had lived there…” This began to change in the era of the numbered treaties, when the new nation of Canada entered into agreements with the First Nations who held its western lands. History has exposed deep flaws in the treaty-making process, but it stands at least as an initial recognition of Indigenous title and control over the lands in question.

This process of change has continued through to the 21st century, when the Anglican Church and the nation of Canada have begun to recognize, in formal apologies and in practical commitments, that the lands of Indigenous people belong to them, both in the economic and in the spiritual sense. This is borne out, for example, in the largest and most recent land claims settlement in the region, the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement of 1993, which laid the basis for the Government of Canada to recognize the self-governance and economic rights of the Inuit, and led to the creation of the territory of Nunavut.

As a result of these developments, it no longer made sense for the church to refer to its provincial jurisdiction as “Rupert’s” land. Even as a historic marker, this name undercut the inherent rights of Indigenous people to be acknowledged in their own lands, as well as the church’s commitment to be an active partner in the work of healing and reconciliation.

How was the decision made?

Once the question of changing the name was put on the table by the leadership of the Province, the first consultation took place with the Indigenous bishops serving in the member dioceses. The goal of this consultation was to determine whether Indigenous leaders, bishops and elders, could affirm the change of name as a suitable and timely goal. With their consent, the idea was brought to the Provincial Synod, meeting at Prince Albert in 2022.

As the bishops, clergy and lay delegates discussed the idea, it became clear that there was a widespread consensus in favour of changing the name, in order to reflect the Province’s contemporary commitment to being a place where Indigenous and non-Indigenous Anglicans come together for mutual support and encouragement. This commitment was evident at the meeting itself, which took place shortly after the rediscovery of unmarked graves at residential schools, first in Kamloops then elsewhere.

Synod received a time of teaching from an elder, about Indigenous practices of grieving. The guest of honour was the Archbishop of Canterbury, fresh from visiting the nearby James Smith Cree Nation where he offered an apology for the mother Church of England’s involvement in the system of residential schools. The Anglican Council of Indigenous People presented a report on the developing reality of a self-governing Indigenous Church within the Anglican Church of Canada. And Indigenous leadership was visible among the synod delegates, many of whom came from dioceses which were majority or almost completely Indigenous in their membership.

All these aspects of the synod helped to develop a sense that the time was right to move towards a new name. While a change of name can sometimes be seen as a token gesture, the experience of this synod meeting suggested that it would be symbolic of something more substantial.

How was “Northern Lights” chosen?

As discussion progressed in 2022, the greatest energy centred around a name which would connect to the Northern Lights. There were a number of reasons for this focus:

1) While it was important to tie the new name to the land, the diversity of landscapes across the Province made it impossible to identify a single geographic feature which would unite us;

2) Yet the sky is something we all have in common, and the phenomenon of the Northern Lights is something distinct to our region, since the lights are regularly visible all over the Province;

3) The Northern Lights have spiritual significance in the many Indigenous cultures across the Province, being treated with great respect and regarded as “dancing spirits” or as a sign of the continuing presence of those who came before us;

4) Light is a central image in the Christian story, as well, symbolizing the creating and redeeming work of God as well as the call to disciples to be light to the world; so it was noted that the people of the Province are called to be the “northern lights” in this sense.

There were several possible names relating to the Northern Lights which were put forward for consideration. The 2022 Synod asked dioceses to consider the range of possibilities and be ready to make a decision when Provincial Synod reconvened in Calgary in 2024. At that meeting, several options were considered, and Synod as a whole accepted the name “Province of the Northern Lights.” This will be the operating name of the Province for now, and will become the legal name once the necessary legal steps are taken, including a further vote in 2027.


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