Early in March, COVID-19 health restrictions were eased for long-term care in Slave Lake. This means monthly Cree church services and other events with in-person volunteers are starting back up. The long-term care hasn’t been allowed in-person volunteers for a year.
For two years before the lockdown, John Okemow led Cree church services at Slave Lake long-term care. He also held one for one year in High Prairie.
The first service in Slave Lake will be on April 6.
“I’m excited to go,” says Okemow. “People loved it so much,” especially the music.
Okemow plays guitar and sings country gospel, which he says is very popular with First Nations people.
Slave Lake long-term care has many Cree speakers, says Okemow. Some also speak English, and some don’t.
“They seem to understand more in the Cree service,” says Okemow.
In the service, Okemow preaches in Cree and then interprets it into English. He sings in both Cree and English.
Okemow was raised by his grandparents in Chipewyan Lake, where he still lives. Chipewyan Lake is north of Wabasca. It takes him three hours to drive to Slave Lake.
“I speak Cree fluently and English,” he says. His grandparents only spoke Cree. He started school in Chipewyan Lake in 1959, which was the year that Northlands School Division took over the mission school.
“What God did for me, I want to tell the world,” says Okemow.
God healed him he says of a stutter when he was 12 or 13. Then when he was 19, he experienced a Christian life for the first time.
Okemow is a member of Bigstone Cree Nation. He worked for the nation for a while, as part of the Aboriginal Police Service. His last posting was in High Prairie.
In 2000, Okemow started full-time work in Christian ministry. He travels all over preaching in churches and on the radio. His ministry is Okemow Ministries Outreach. He preaches each Sunday at 9:15 a.m. on Windspeaker radio.
Much of his ministry is in the Northwest Territories, he says. This is with the Dene, Inuit, Slavey, and Dogrib. These languages are not related to Cree, but everyone speaks English.