The Rev. Leigh Kern, an associate priest at St. James Cathedral, is the diocese’s new Coordinator of Indigenous Ministries and Reconciliation Animator, effective March 1.
Ms. Kern, who is Metis through her mother’s side of the family, brings years of experience in the Indigenous community to the position, formerly known as the diocese’s Indigenous Native Priest. She succeeds the Rt. Rev. Chris Harper, who became the Bishop of Saskatoon last year.
“It’s a huge honour and privilege to be asked by the (Indigenous) community and the diocese to take this role on,” she says.
Ms. Kern will focus on working in and with Indigenous communities in Toronto and the GTA. Toronto has the largest and most diverse Indigenous community in Ontario, with between 45,000 and 70,000 people.
“The role is really about creating those spaces where Indigenous wisdom and knowledge and leadership can shine and be shared with the broader community,” she says. “As churches, if we’re invited into that work with people, we can really amplify those voices.”
Before leaving the cathedral on Feb. 17, she helped to plan the opening ceremony for Shades of Our Sisters, an exhibit about Canada’s missing and murdered Indigenous women. The exhibit is being held at the cathedral until March 1.
Organizing and participating in such events is one of her passions, she says, and is something she will continue to do in her new role. “Our society is increasingly secular, but people still have that need for ritual and doing things in community. As a Church, we pray – that’s our gift to the world. We can do that with other communities.”
Ms. Kern has already done some innovative work in the Indigenous community. With a grant from the Anglican Healing Fund, she started the Neechee Circle, a healing circle held every Thursday at Allan Gardens in downtown Toronto. The spiritual ceremony is led and attended by Indigenous people, some of whom live in and around the park. It is barrier-free, meaning that people do not have to be sober or free of drugs to participate.
Ms. Kern has also helped to organize an annual water festival in Toronto. The interfaith, public ceremony is led by an Indigenous elder on the shores of Lake Ontario every spring. The event includes prayers for the healing of the lake and its contributing streams and rivers, a prayer walk through the city and a barbecue at St. James Cathedral.
One of the things she plans to do in her new role is minister to Indigenous people in prisons, particularly at the Toronto South Detention Centre in Mississauga, which does not have an Indigenous chaplain. She says prisons are a continuation of the residential schools system, whereby Indigenous men and women are taken out of their communities and forced to assimilate through corrective behaviour.
“That’s something that’s not being talked about or reflected upon critically,” she says. “We can say we acknowledge that the residential school system was wrong, but we’re pretty far from acknowledging that the whole way that we do corrections is wrong.”
Social justice has been a major part of Ms. Kern’s life. While studying for an MDiv at Yale Divinity School, she worked as a chaplain at a soup kitchen run by Christ Church, New Haven, a city with one of the highest crime rates in the United States. For her clinical pastoral education, she was a chaplain at CAMH (The Centre for Addiction and Mental Health) in Toronto, where she ministered to men who were serving prison sentences for sexual assault.
She credits her parents for instilling in her a passion for helping others and working in and with the Indigenous community. The Rev. Stephen Kern, the incumbent of St. Philip on-the-Hill, Unionville, and Dr. Anne Kern were among a handful of people who were discussing the need for urban Indigenous ministry in the diocese back in the 1990s. “Those early conversations happened around my parents’ dining table when I was just a little kid,” she recalls.
After becoming ordained in 2016, Ms. Kern worked as an assistant curate at the cathedral and then became an associate priest there last year, in charge of adult Christian education. “It was a beautiful ministry and I’m going to miss it,” she says. But she’s looking forward to the next chapter of her life. “I’ll continue to seek out the consultation of elders where I should go.”