“You Meant Nothing,” He Said
You were a door down a hallway that led to another hallway, both converging in an alley where only you knew the exit,
and if I were in the situation again, I wouldn’t enter it, just acknowledge the complexity of the passageway with a nod,
taking my own taxi, asking to be driven out of town the slowest way, windows down, until we get to a parking lot
where screaming for hours on your knees won’t get you arrested, and that would’ve been it: a little agony.
He later served as a cabinet member in the government of the new territory. He has also been a bornagain Christian for much of his adult life, rooting his politics in those religious beliefs. When I reached him — he’s now in his seventies — he said that Armbruster “is like a brother to many of our communities. He’s not one you would call a major prophet. He’s a helper more than anything else.”
Community leaders have embraced the NAR ’s message of Christian healing. Eva Deer, a former mayor of Quaqtaq in Nunavik, the Inuit region of northern Quebec, appeared in the Transformations movie and works closely with apostle and prophet Russ Moyer (an ambassador of the International Coalition of Apostles— the original network started by Wagner). She runs a publicly funded healing centre that treats intergenerational trauma through prayer and Christian counselling. “Only the spirit of God can really heal a person,” explained Deer when I reached her by phone. “Psychologists cannot heal a person.” Armbruster spoke at the centre’s official opening. Johnny Oovaut, who was also featured in the Transformations movie, has organized “Men Arise” events, which supposedly bring Christian healing to Inuit men. In 2010, the conference featured a presentation by a missionary who claims to have overcome homosexuality through religion. Both initiatives are funded through Ungaluk, a Nunavik crime prevention program financed by the Quebec government.
“I believe there is a spiritual authority that has been given to the original peoples of the land,” says Armbruster, who explains that his role is to help Indigenous communities, both in Canada and abroad, carry out their ultimate commission: to “fill the earth with sons and daughters who will reflect His image.”
The NAR has promoted its theology through books, schools, and ministries. The crown jewel in its promotional efforts is the Transformations series, pseudo-documentaries that purport to show the dramatic economic and societal transformation visited on communities that accept God’s glory.
According to the Sentinel Group — which produces the movies and denies any association with the NAR — the Transformations series has been translated into thirty-one languages and viewed more than 200 million times. It has also played a key role in the NAR ’s shift from converting individuals to societies; when shown in churches, movies are accompanied by instruction on spiritual-warfare techniques.
All of the movies feature a similar narrative: an impoverished region turns to God, eradicates non-christian beliefs, and undergoes societal and economic healing. In Kenya, a witch doctor is driven from her community, resulting in a decreased crime rate. In Fiji, an Indigenous community burns sacred masks, putting a dramatic end to a violent civil war.
In 2001, Transformations II shone a spotlight on the Canadian North, which—along with other featured regions like Uganda— came to symbolize a theocratic tabula rasa, a world ripe for conversion. The easternArctic segment of the movie opens with an animated scene: a spiritual leader of a nomadic Inuit clan learns of a new God, Jesusie, from a travelling Inuk. The leader vows to accept Jesusie if he has a successful hunt. On a moonless night, he kills a seal, then brings it back to his clan, who eat from its meat, accepting Christ as their Lord and saviour. Only later, after missionaries arrive, do they learn the whole story of Christianity.
The movie then cuts to testimony from born-again Inuit. Over lurid images of bruised bodies, they describe widespread physical and sexual abuse and alcoholism. Inuit children push rocks into a shallow grave — the eighth suicide of the year, explains the voice-over, making their rate more than twenty times the national average. Demons, according to one Inuk believer, had invaded their communities. Even the land had turned its back: caribou and berries began to disappear.
Had God abandoned the Inuit? No; God was “looking to re-establish the relationship” their forefathers had long ago accepted. Over triumphant music, the movie depicts a frenzy of baptisms and impassioned church services — the revival that was gripping the territory. People in Pond Inlet, so moved by the Holy Spirit, gather all their ungodly possessions — drugs, pornography, heavy metal music — and with the aid of the RC MP set them ablaze. “The
fire of the Lord is spreading!” exclaims an ecstatic Inuk woman. Inuit are portrayed as being healthier and happier — even suicide is on the decline, they say. (A 2014 study by a Nunavut land claims group contradicts this assertion.)
The film concludes by highlighting how God is “raising up” a new set of Inuit leaders who are “not shy about declaring the Lordship of Christ.” A teacher boasts how all her pupils are Christian, and municipal councillors defiantly state that no meeting starts without prayer. One of the last shots is of Armbruster. He’s hunched down in the atrium of Nunavut’s newly built legislature, gazing at a mace made of narwhal tusk. The Lord’s prayer, he declares proudly, is encased within. “It’s brought into the legislature every time they meet to do official business!”
Many Indigeno us Christians speak about their faith in terms of empowerment. But some Indigenous leaders, angered by Western religion, have started to fight the encroachment of what they describe as modern-day colonizers — be they Pentecostal, Catholic, or the NAR .
Last year, on a cold February afternoon in Winnipeg, Larry Morrissette took me for a tour of the North End. An elegant community organizer, Morrissette — who died a few months after we spoke — wore his saltand-pepper hair slicked back, like a character from The Outsiders. The residential streets, a mix of tightly packed bungalows and social housing, looked serene under a fresh blanket of snow. This, however, is one of Canada’s most violent neighbourhoods, where kids as young as eight can be found working the sex trade. The growing community attracts Indigenous people from around the province, many of whom live in poverty and are alienated from the city’s non-indigenous majority.
As a child, evangelists would pick Morrissette up off the street and bring him to church basements; they would give him food and tell him about the Lord. They meant well. But he felt that their underlying message — that poverty was the result of a moral defect — was deeply damaging. As we passed by a mission serving lunches, he lamented the number of Indigenous people who have internalized that belief. “You find my friends and relatives in these lines — their stories are often related to personal failure. But it’s not true.” Christians, he explained, are fixated on promoting the idea that God can rescue you, and they ignore the systematic issues, such as the legacy of residential schools and lack of economic opportunity, that underlie the dysfunction.
Many businesses, fed up with the crime and poverty, have fled this neighbourhood, leaving boarded-up buildings. There are, however, plenty of churches and faithbased charities. You can’t find a grocery store, but you can “step out of your house and get converted,” Morrissette said.
As a result, he felt that the North End was under siege and that the relentless proselytizing ran counter to a growing project to “decolonize” the neighbourhood: to build up Indigenous business, revitalize Indigenous culture, and move away from Western systems of healing and belief.
Such proselytizing, he felt, flew in the face of the final report from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC ). Released in 2015, the report lays out how Canada’s residential school system — where thousands of children died — was operated primarily by Catholic and Anglican churches that aimed to “take the Indian out of the child” and create a serf class of Christian labourers. Indigenous beliefs were demonized, leading to deep rifts between Christians and non-christians that continue to be a source of tension, particularly in small communities where efforts to decolonize can rub up uncomfortably against deeply held religious beliefs.
In 2011, Oujé-bougoumou, a Cree community in northern Quebec, went so far as to outlaw traditional spirituality after a member of the community constructed a sweat lodge. “The community was founded by Christian faith and values of our elders and past leadership,” stated the band council’s resolution. Traditional spiritual practices “do not conform with the traditional values and teachings of our elders.” South of the border, in an Ojibwe community in Wisconsin, a ceremonial lodge and two sweat lodges were burned to the ground in 2012. Many in the community feel it was likely someone associated with an onreserve NAR -related Pentecostal church that had shown the Transformations videos.
To Morrissette, the NAR is another ugly example of Christians’ ongoing efforts to “reprogram” the worldview of Indigenous peoples. Up north, he felt, many people had internalized Christian values and viewed
the land as a commodity rather than a vital part of their spiritual life. That is why, according to him, northern communities have struck agreements with industry to develop their territory. The ultimate goal of Christians is “to rid our people of who and what we are,” he said.
The TRC report calls on faith groups to “respect Indigenous spirituality in its own right.” For Morrissette, whose mother survived a Catholic residential school, the message of the report was clear. “The missionary days are over,” he said.
In 2004, Armbruster and Curley travelled to Fiji, where, along with other highprofile NAR affiliates, they were introduced to a spiritual-warfare technique called the Healing the Land Ceremony. As evidence of its effectiveness, they were taken to a remote Indigenous community called Nootko that had, a couple of years earlier, carried out the ceremony. Once plagued by infighting, the tiny community, they were told, had healed. Even the land reacted — a stream, once polluted, now ran clean.
The technique excited Armbruster. The ceremony traces a community’s presentday conditions to the sins of its forefathers. There are five principal sources: the generational disconnect between fathers and their children; the shedding of innocent blood (murder); sexual sin (homosexual acts, sex out of wedlock); the breaking of covenants (promises and treaties); and idolatry and witchcraft (any non-christian form of religion or spirituality). According to NAR theology, sin “wounds” the land, allowing Satan’s forces to control communities.
On a sunny morning in the summer of 2007, Armbruster performed the Healing the Land Ceremony on the outskirts of Clyde River, Nunavut, a community of some 900 people. “God chose the places for people to live,” he explained, standing in a circle of community members. “When God created the earth, he created everything good — but our sins have defiled the land.” Armbruster clutched his well-worn bible in his left hand. “Much of what we received from our forefathers was good — but we have to atone for what was not.”
An elderly Inuk in a long black coat spoke next; an Inuk woman stood beside to him, translating his testimony. The man pointed toward the water. “This spot is where they prayed to the evil spirits,” he relayed in Inuktitut. “Satan used to wait out there to devour and destroy people.” The man looked ashamed. “The Lord has also shown me where a mother gave birth, then fed it to the dogs. Because of these sins the earth has been defiled. And because it’s been defiled, we have suffered much and gone through hardship.”
Armbruster, who stood to the left of the pair, nodded approvingly. “Amen,” he said.
In the days after I watched the video of this ceremony, certain images — weeping teenagers begging for God’s grace; an Inuk man confessing in a circle of community members that he had molested a young child — lingered with me. James Arreak, a former pastor who now leads a major land claims organization, was at the event. I asked him why the reaction was so emotional. People get tired of being anxious and depressed, he said. Within the past fifty years, the government has forced Inuit to give up their way of life, settle in communities, and attend residential schools—a series of violent experiences that have caused Inuit to “resort to coping mechanisms that aren’t good for us.” The ceremonies provided a safe and healthy venue for people to “confess their sins.”
Like other Inuit Christians I spoke to, Arreak believes faith in God is essential to overcoming the painful legacy of colonialism. “Without Jesus, we’re not going to have mechanisms that pull us through and keep us healthy and upright.”
One night, I joined Mclean and a group from his congregation for a post- church tradition: Tim Hortons. Mclean and two of his friends — whom he’s known for thirty-plus years — alternated between English and Ojibwe. It was the first time I’d heard Raymond speak Ojibwe, and I asked if he was fluent. “I’m losing it,” said Mclean, looking sheepish. A while back, he explained, he had been visiting a reserve and was asked to deliver a sermon in Ojibwe. He took out his bible, turned to Psalms 23, and began translating its famous first line out loud: “The Lord is my Shepherd; I shall not want.” It didn’t go well. “I got it all wrong,” he said, looking down and covering his face. “I said the sheep trampled over the Lord.” All three shook with laughter.
I said goodbye and caught a ride with Mclean’s married friends Harold and Anne. It was dark and icy, and Harold drove
cautiously as the couple told me their story. Harold introduced Anne to Pentecostalism in the 1980s, and she fell in love with it. She told me it offered something more meaningful than the Catholic Church ever did.
“I never told the priests my secrets,” said Anne. “I would never confess them to a man.” Because he was a man? I asked.
“No — because a man is not the Lord,” she said.
Both said they’re uncomfortable with the idea of bringing elements of Indigenous culture into the First Nations Family Worship Centre — a tactic some churches have used to compromise with Indigenous non-believers and to bring in new converts. Smudging, feathers, and powwow dancing are okay outside of the church, they said, but they have no place within.
What, I asked, would bother them about it?
“According to God’s words, it’s not a part of our worship,” said Harold.
“That’s a different way of believing,” said Anne.
They pulled up to where I was staying. I got out and thanked them for the lift.
“God bless you. We’ll pray for you,” they said.
In the early 2000s, Tagak Curley wanted to retire. After decades of negotiating land claims, he was tired of territorial politics, and his father-in-law was sick. But Armbruster pressed him to reconsider, telling him God wanted him back in the political sphere. For two years, he resisted. Then one night — when Curley was in prayer — God questioned him. God said, Why are you keeping all these doors shut?
A lot was at stake. Nunavut’s legislature, just four years old, had passed legislation banning discrimination against homosexuality, outraging Curley and the territory’s growing population of born-again believers, among them NAR sympathizers. Homosexuality, they argued, was not a part of traditional Inuit culture. On a promise to amend the legislation and oppose same-sex marriage, Curley decided to run for office. For Curley and his supporters, the issue was grafted with larger issues of identity and independence: homosexuality, they felt, was an import from the south, and the southern-educated premier, Paul Okalik, had no business normalizing it. The election was increasingly framed as a fight between Curley, a true Inuk, and Okalik, a man whose integrity had been compromised by his time in Ottawa.
In an act of defiance, Curley briefly stopped granting interviews in English. He ran as the candidate who would preserve traditional Inuit values. “We’re giving a special category, apparently, of certain rights that are not defined,” he said early on in his campaign. “But if you believe in your Creator, in your God, what does he say about those things? Is that acceptable to God?” He won his local seat of Rankin Inlet North.
Under Nunavut’s consensus-based government system, which does not involve political parties, individual MLA s from around the territory choose the premier. Many of the members had also campaigned on repealing protection for gays and lesbians under the new Human Rights Act. Almost three tense weeks passed before a secret ballot was held to determine the future leader. Finally, after a series of deal-making sessions, Okalik was re-elected. The legislation remained in place.
At many NAR -affiliated conferences over the years, Armbruster has often spoken in grandiose terms about how church has merged with state in Canada’s North.
But according to Jim Bell, the long-time editor of Nunatsiaq News, Armbruster’s influence needs to be put in context. When I reached Bell by phone, he chuckled a bit, thinking about the gap between Armbruster’s claims and reality. Nunavut, he said flatly, is no theocracy. The territory has gone on to defy conservatives on hotbutton issues, including same-sex marriage, bringing the legislation in line with the rest of Canada.
Bell also had a theory: fundamentalist Christianity has become central to the recreation of Indigenous identity for many Inuit. Curley and others don’t draw a distinction between evangelical and Inuit values, said Bell. “Now you could argue that they have reinvented Inuit culture in their own image. But they don’t see it that way. They believe this church is not just the expression of religious identity, it’s also an expression of a really important cultural identity.”
And that, he suggested, is why the 2004 election got so intertwined with messy questions about identity and tradition. Inuit Christians were asserting their culture and resisting what they perceived as a colonial overreach. “They were not saying we oppose protecting the rights of gay people because gay people are sinful — they were saying that we oppose this because it is not consistent with Inuit culture.”
There may also be other cultural reasons for the NAR ’s success. Armbruster’s ministry caught the attention of French anthropologist Frédéric Laugrand, who has written about the Healing the Land Ceremony. He believes that the ceremony mirrors elements of Inuit shamanism, such as connecting present conditions to past events and using public disclosures to bring communities together. And, like shamanism, it is highly emotional in nature. Laugrand also feels that the popularity of the ceremony — which was practised in more than twenty communities, sometimes multiple times — owes much to political forces. At the time of the Inuit revival, Indigenous groups were frustrated with the federal government and the protectionist agenda of environmental groups. In contrast, Armbruster and missionaries working in the region came with a very different message: that God gave Inuit dominion over the land, and it should be theirs to use.
Over the past ten years, Armbruster has scaled back his trips to the North. But he recently visited Kangiqsujuaq, Nunavik, one of the communities featured in Transformations II. In a post-trip blog post, he celebrates the Lord’s continued presence: six of the seven municipal councillors are “born again” believers, and the church “is the most influential agency in the community.” He also praises the local council for green-lighting a major nickel mine. The council, writes Armbruster, “understands that the environment is to be managed and stewarded responsibly, not worshipped and remain undeveloped while the people stay in poverty.”
The blog post, though, also reflects on the past. He acknowledges that a lot of the issues the community grappled with in the early 2000s persist. Transformation — yes. But of a far lesser magnitude than what was presented. When I asked if he feels the revival was misrepresented in the film, Armbruster — who peppers his conversation with biblical references — had a well-rehearsed answer.
“If you look at the narrator’s comment at the beginning, he said transformation is both an event and a process. But I think sometimes, the way he presented it, it made it sound like these communities
are completely transformed — almost as if they already have heaven on earth. And that is not true. And if people think that way, they got it wrong,” explained Armbruster. “Everything in that video is true — it really happened. But it’s an ongoing process; it’s not complete.”
Last February, following a service, I joined Mclean and his wife, Jean, for a bite to eat. As I interviewed Raymond, Jean sat across from us in the booth, delivering the punchlines of the parables he was sharing. I asked if she had an official role in the church, and a mischievous look crept into Raymond’s eyes. “She’s the neck that turns the head!” he said. Laughing, his face scrunched up as he rocked back and forth on his seat.
They travel all the time — over the past fourteen years they’ve been to twentythree countries. They recently returned from Texas, where they visited Chuck Pierce’s Global Sphere Center, a sprawling 200,000-square-foot compound that boasts a gym, restaurant, and winery. Pierce is a high-ranking prophet whose word is considered particularly sacred. Services began at 6 a.m. and stretched late into the night. There were dozens of different speakers, and the anointing was so strong that people jumped out of their seats to give their offering. And they gave a lot: the deacons, recalled Mclean, would “haul money out with garbage bags.” The trips inspire Mclean, and he’s constantly picking up wisdom — “nuggets,” he calls them — that he integrates into his own ministry.
I hadn’t spoken to him for several months, and I was curious about what had transpired. The last time we talked, he was on fire, hoping his ministry would react like Caron’s, which — according to Caron — grew dramatically.
Mclean seemed a bit mellower. Joining the movement had caused some problems. In the weeks following Awakening Manitoba, the congregation began working through Caron’s book, Apostolic Centers: Shifting the Church, Transforming the World, which outlines God’s will for churches — that they ditch their governance systems, submit to apostles, and become “launch pads” for saints, who will purify the secular world. The book advocates both the NAR ’s controversial church structure and theology, and some members weren’t into either. A deacon who went to the first meeting hadn’t been seen since. Mclean called her. “I said, ‘What’s happening? You’re one of the leaders of the church and you are not coming?’”
She told him bluntly, “I don’t want to go that way.”
“I couldn’t stop her,” shrugged Mclean. There have been others too. But he accepts the losses. “God will bring in more people. And those are the ones who are meant to be there.”
Maybe, I suggested, the idea of living apostles and prophets is making people uncomfortable?
He agreed: every “new movement of God” makes people nervous. But it’s an important development. The bible talks about the five stations of the church: teacher, evangelist, pastor, apostle, and prophet. So why would the church exist without the apostle and prophet? “That’s like operating with an engine with only three spark plugs working when you could have five,” said Mclean. “If we say the bible is truth, why would we break away from its roots?”
What if a prophet misguides the church? I asked.
Grinning, he looked at me. “Then he’ll be a false prophet,” he said.