Praying for a miracle
Story by John Stackhouse. Photos by Patti Gower.
The Globe and Mail, November 10, 2001
Part 5 of 8: Begging forgiveness
Most of the older pilgrims who flock to the lake grew up learning that white culture was superior in many ways to their own. It was the core of their school curriculum. And it was taught openly by the Oblates and Grey Nuns who ran their residential schools.
In 1991, two years after the Ste. Anne pilgrimage celebrated its centenary, Doug Crosby, president of the Oblate Conference of Canada, gave a public apology to all aboriginal people for what had gone on.
The apology was well received, but the order still faces 1,700 claims in the region and is spending $500,000 a year to process them, even though, in Father Piché's estimation, "90 to 95 per cent" are too vague to deserve attention. Those are the ones that have been copied by lawyers, name no perpetrators and state gross violations such as forcible hair cuts, a disrespect of language and culture and use of the strap.
For the older missionaries - the ones who drove dog sleds around the Northwest Territories and saved countless people from starvation and suffering - the many lawsuits have cut a deep wound.
For the older missionaries - the ones who drove dog sleds around the Northwest Territories and saved countless people from starvation and suffering - the many lawsuits have cut a deep wound. "They say it's like denying all the work they did," Piché says as he watches a 92-year-old Oblate laughing and chatting in Dene with former parishioners. They have not seen him in years and line up to receive his blessing.
Next to the elderly Oblates, the 63-year-old Piché seems youthful, an image accented by his nylon Nike jacket and black Dockers pants. He also appears calm, even in the midst of a storm that has brought into doubt his life's work.
As another crowded Eucharist empties into the campground, Piché finds a chair and sits under a cedar tree to avoid a slight rain that has started. He does not mind the elements, having spent most of his adult years in the Northwest Territories and northern Alberta. He even sees them as helping his commitment.
The youngest of six children, he grew up in southern Saskatchewan amid Prairie racism, which segregated native and non-native societies and always deprived the latter.
Still, his Catholic parents instilled the notion of service in him, and after his ordination he moved to the Arctic, in 1964, to join an uncle who was bishop of the Mackenzie Delta diocese. The Oblate order then had 105 brothers in the region; today, there are five.
For 30 years, Piché served the natives of the north. He learned Slavey and Chipewyan, and helped to develop a school residence in Fort Smith that produced leaders such as Nick Sibbeston, now a senator, and federal cabinet minister Ethel Blondin-Andrew.
"I don't agree they were only short-changed," he says of the students. The school and residence enabled Dene, Dogrib, Métis, Crees and Slavey children from different communities around Great Slave Lake to attend the same school and experience other cultures, usually for the first time. Piché remembers it also allowed them to escape the ruts of their isolated homes.
"The negatives - of course, of course, of course - are being away from your parents."
Residential schools had been around for decades, and there were already concerns about abuse, both sexual and cultural, but in the North, the Oblates still believed they were on a common journey with natives, helping them to enter a new age, very much a Western one that would be shaped by commerce and settlement.