Praying for a miracle
Story by John Stackhouse. Photos by Patti Gower.
The Globe and Mail, November 10, 2001
Part 6 of 8: Easing the marriage of cultures
The complex relationship - priest and worshipper, teacher and student, liberator and liberated - is often portrayed these days as paternalism at best and oppression at worst. David Goa, curator of folklife at the Provincial Museum of Alberta, disagrees. "It needs to be seen in light of modernization and the enormous struggle of moving into the modern culture," he says.
After interviewing many elderly Oblates, including men who had met the first generation of missionaries, Goa has come to see them as "animators" rather than just an institution. They sought to ease the marriage of cultures, he says, and in many places, preserved native languages and traditions by recording them. They also tried to help natives to organize themselves in completely foreign ways.
Ironically, Goa believes, those who promoted this as liberation theology may have caused harm. Just as the arrival of the horse and gun introduced notions of possession, he argues, the development ideals of the 1960s "belittled" native culture. They promoted Western values of individualism, hierarchy and progress with which many traditional communities are still struggling.
“The traditional Cree way is not to hoard power. It's very European."
Rev. Garry LaBoucane
At the same time, the Oblates remained followers of Rome, whose conservatism is increasingly blamed for the order's failure to follow the lead of other churches and recruit aboriginal men.
Rev. Garry LaBoucane, a Métis Oblate working in Slave Lake, Alta., believes that Rome's rules, and its notions of power, are why so few natives have followed him into the priesthood. The Vatican's stance on celibacy is an obvious barrier in a culture that considers family to be the core of society. But even if this one central requirement were relaxed, LaBoucane sees his own church's power structure as being contradictory to native values.
"The traditional Cree way is not to hoard power," says the 53-year-old priest, who wears a fedora and gold earring. "It's very European. It's very, very hard for them [the church] to understand. It's something about institution; it does something to people. They get stuck by rules."
Despite his own calling, LaBoucane does not encourage many young natives to consider the priesthood. But he believes in the power of the pilgrimage, and has assumed a new role as a native spiritual adviser to draw more diverse elements of faith into the festival.
With so many aboriginal people involved, the event has already assumed the spirit of a modern native gathering. In the morning, once the rain has stopped, a lawn connecting the shrine to the campground fills with young people playing hackeysack and soccer. Farther away, across a gully, hawkers have set up souvenir stands, chip wagons, amusement rides and stalls packed with fireworks, which sell briskly.
Unlike the order that created it, the festival of Ste. Anne shows no sign of weakness. This, according to Charles Wood, should surprise no one. His people understand ordeal and decline, as they do renaissance. Natives, he believes, will save the Oblate spirit from itself.