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Isaac Stringer was born on April 19, 1866, in Kingarf, Ontario, located 10 miles from Kincardine in Bruce County. He was a good student and was encouraged to pursue higher education. In 1888, he began courses at the University of Toronto and Wycliffe College, the Anglican Divinity School, studying the arts and theology.

In early 1892, the Bishop of the Mackenzie Diocese, William Day Reeve, addressed the Wycliffe students about the need for missionaries to go to the Arctic to work with the native people there. Stringer was very intrigued with the idea, but had some misgivings about the distance and isolation that he would endure. His father initially refused to support him, but time was running out and Stringer had to make a decision before Bishop Reeve left for England. Eventually as he stated in his diary, "The way seemed plain to me and so I decided to go." He accepted the posting on February 17.

A missionary in the isolated North was more than a teacher; he was also expected to be a doctor, dentist, druggist, and social worker to the people. Consequently, during his last term, Stringer was excused from his theological classes and took courses in dentistry, obstetrics, and minor surgery in preparation for his position. Isaac recorded his progress -

"As a special Easter Day celebration I pulled a tooth for my father."

Events moved quickly. On May 15, 1892, Stringer was ordained and the next day departed for the North. He arrived at Fort McPherson on the Peel River in the Northwest Territories after a journey that lasted 60 days and included travel by train, ox cart, foot, scows, and steamers. Meeting the boat was Archdeacon McDonald, a veteran of 30 years service in the Arctic. McDonald greeted Stringer warmly and introduced him to missionary life.

© Old Log Church Museum 2002. All Rights Reserved.

Black and white photo of Isaac Stringer

Isaac Stringer

Archives Anglican Church General Synod

© Archives Anglican Church General Synod

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Isaac Stringer’s first visit, in the summer of 1892, to the Inuvialuit village of Kittigazuit was not encouraging. The Inuvialuit initially ordered him away but he managed to stay two weeks before returning to Fort McPherson. Stringer wrote in his diary,

"They had never learned the name of God except as an expression of profanity from the whalers. They did not seem anxious to learn."

Though Stringer felt quite discouraged Archdeacon McDonald and Mr. Firth of the Hudson’s Bay Company were impressed with his success, they remarked,

"We had given you two or three days at the most, and we think you have done very well to have stayed two weeks and come away alive."

In the spring of 1893, Stringer made his first visit to Herschel Island. To his surprise, the whaling captains were very receptive to his arrival and readily provided accommodation for him on one of the ships. He spent three weeks with the whalers, visiting, talking, and forging a relationship with them. His presence brought a moral influence to the Island that was welcomed by the captains.

Thus encouraged, Stringer continued to make frequent trips to the north coast. From 1893 to 1897 he divided his time between Herschel Island, the Inuvialuit settlements in the area, and the mission post at Fort McPherson (also known as Peel River).

© Old Log Church Museum 2002. All Rights Reserved.

Black and white photo of two Inuvialuit men

Inuvialuit men on Herschel Island

MacBride Museum
c. 1898
© MacBride Museum

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Isaac Stringer had left Ontario with an "understanding" that he would marry Sarah Ann "Sadie" Alexander, a friend from high school. In his letters home he encouraged her to prepare for life in the North. Sadie took his advice and enrolled in nursing courses at Grace Hospital in Toronto and attended the Deaconess Training School.

On March 10, 1896, Isaac and Sadie were married. Two months later, they set off together on the long trip north. As Sadie remembered,

"…both of us were burning with a missionary zeal laced by a sense of adventure on the far side of the cold horizon."

That summer, the Stringers spent 3 weeks on Herschel Island and then returned to Fort McPherson for the winter. In December 1896, Sadie gave birth to Rowena Victoria, the first of five children. In the spring of 1897, they returned to Herschel Island and set up a mission and remained here until 1901.

© Old Log Church Museum 2002. All Rights Reserved.

Black and white photo of Isaac, Sadie, Rowena and Herschel Stringer

Isaac, Sadie, Rowena and Herschel Stringer

Archives Anglican Church General Synod

© Archives Anglican Church General Synod

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In the spring of 1897, Isaac and his wife Sadie established an Anglican Church mission on Herschel Island. Stringer’s main purpose was to bring Christianity to the Inuvialuit. He began to preach weekly sermons that were interpreted by an Inuvialuit, David Copperfield. Whenever possible he and Sadie would gather the Inuvialuit together to teach them hymns and prayers and instruct them in the Bible. He slowly learned the Inuvialuit language and eventually translated the Lord’s Prayer, Grace Before Meat, The Ten Commandments, many texts of scripture, and 20 hymns. Each word was phonetically written into the English alphabet and then when he had enough material in writing he began to teach the native people to read.

Stringer was a very likable, flexible, and tolerant man. He was able to accommodate himself to the Inuvialuit way of life with great patience, but he often found the work slow and at times discouraging. Alcohol and the influence of the medicine man were often obstacles to progress.

Stringer was appalled at the widespread consumption of alcohol and the promiscuity of the native women. Through lengthy negotiations and by threatening to go to the Canadian Government he persuaded 22 of the captains to sign a petition, dated May 11, 1895, to suspend the traffic of liquor to the Inuvialuit. Unfortunately the agreement was short-lived and trade eventually resumed, but on a lesser scale.

Home brewed liquor also posed a problem. An Inuvialuit named Avumnuk had created a concoction he called "Tonga" which "drove men to murder". During one of the periodic food shortages Stringer traded tea and tobacco which Avumnuk coveted, in return for his still. With 20 Inuvialuit watching, Stringer then proceeded to smash the still to pieces with an axe. That was the last they saw of "Tonga" brew.

The Inuvialuit were influenced by the medicine men who became openly hostile when their own remedies and beliefs were rejected by the white man. This struggle between the two cultures came to a head one winter.

A young Inuvialuit, Okpik, gravely ill with pneumonia, was given up for dead by the medicine men. Persuaded by Okpik’s brother, the Stringers decided to help and took him into their home. For days he hovered between life and death and the medicine men were quite happy that the white man’s medicine was not working. The Stringers knew that if he died in their home the Inuvialuit would never enter again and there would be no hope for a missionary on the Island. They were able to bring the young man back to health and as Stringer wrote "it proved to be the turning point of our career on the Island".

As Sadie also remembered,

"The most fruitful time lived amongst the Eskimos was the latter part of our stay there when all ships had left for the outside for the winter months, and when there was nothing to detract from the good influences and teachings. So I would say the years 1899-1901 were the most profitable amongst the Eskimos as far as religious instruction was concerned. They attended school regularly and genuine progress was made. When Sunday services were held for them every one on the Island would be present, even including babies, sleigh, dogs and all. It was an inspiration to us to see the joy in their faces when some spiritual light would dawn on them."

© Old Log Church Museum 2002. All Rights Reserved.

Black and white photo of Sadie and Isaac Stringer

Sadie and Isaac Stringer posing in Inuvialuit outfits they had made for the Royal Ontario Museum.

Anglican Church Collection, Yukon Archives

89/40 #247
© Yukon Archives

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In 1905, Isaac Stringer was consecrated second Bishop of Selkirk (Yukon) and the Stringers relocated to Dawson City, the jurisdictional See. In his new position, Stringer travelled his vast Diocese visiting the scattered parishes. On many occasions he would return to his beloved Herschel Island where his missionary career began.

On September 1, 1931, Isaac was elected Archbishop of Rupert’s Land and the Stringers moved to Winnipeg, Manitoba. It was with a heavy heart, Isaac accepted his new position and said goodbye to friends he and Sadie had made during more than a quarter century of service in the Yukon Diocese. His strong attachment to the Yukon is recorded in his diary -

"When everything was considered it did not seem right to refuse to accept the position. It has taken some time to get accustomed to the new outlook. I shall not cease for a long time to think in terms of Yukon. The change from Yukon to Rupert’s Land means a very serious break with the past. It will not be an easy matter to leave Yukon. Looked at in almost every respect it means saying good-bye to a work and a people that have become a part of my life."

The last few years of Stringer’s life were difficult ones. Plagued by re-occurring illness and worried about the church’s financial losses due to embezzlement by a trusted law firm, Isaac Stringer’s health was compromised. Sadly, he died of heart failure on October 30, 1934.

Archbishop Owen spoke simply and sincerely of the death of Isaac Stringer -

"A great soul has been taken from us - great in simple goodness…strong in quality and without guile. He was utterly genuine. Over the vast area of Canada there are tears of sorrow shed today. There is lamentation on the banks of the great rivers of the north, in the scattered communities of the Arctic Sea,…in the solitary tent and in the miner’s hut, in the trapper’s camp, for the one they called the Bishop is dead. Their companion, their father, their friend of 10, 20, 30 years has gone from them."

© Old Log Church Museum 2002. All Rights Reserved.

Learning Objectives

The learner will:
  • Identify a variety of reasons that led to the exploration of the Canadian North;
  • Identify the difficulties encountered when living in the Great North;
  • Explain the possible repercussions of those difficulties;
  • Analyze the relationships between Aboriginals and Europeans that led to many explorations;
  • Analyze the desire to spread the Christian faith in Canada and the results obtained, as well as the links and relationships that this created with indigenous peoples.

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