Canada's racist policies toward natives humiliated his father, a First World War veteran, who did not have the right to vote for the government that sent him to battle. He needed written permission from a local Indian agent just to leave his reserve in Saddle Lake, Alta.
The Canada of Wood's youth was an apartheid society - segregated by law as well as by custom - in many other ways as well. He was 9 when a Mountie came to the house and told his father he would go to jail if young Charles did not get in a truck headed for the Oblate-run Blue Quills Residential School, 20 kilometres away.
Once there, Wood was told that he would go to hell if he did not attend chapel twice a day. Whenever he failed to speak English properly, the Oblates yanked on his ear so hard that it wound up with scabs. It was all deeply confusing for a child who had attended sweat lodges and sun dances as well as church with his parents and grandparents. He had thought that Christianity and native spirituality were one belief, tempered by aboriginal culture.
"Our belief is there's no such thing as hell. All souls end up with the Creator.”
"Our people have always said there is but one Creator for all mankind and that deity does not favour one people over another," Wood says. "Our belief is there's no such thing as hell. All souls end up with the Creator."
The school he attended is in St. Paul, northeast of Edmonton, and has been described in lawsuits as one of the worst havens of abuse. The suits claim $195-million in damages, and contend that 230 former students suffered "brutal, in-humane and cruel treatment."
Wood is hesitant to discuss the school's past. He will not say the allegations are fabricated, as Piché believes most of them were. Yet the only abuse he remembers is of a harsh learning environment, and being away from his parents. In fact, when the federal government tried to close the school in 1971, native people launched a protest and eventually gained control. They still run Blue Quills.
Like many children of his generation, Wood accepted what the priests told him, if only to avoid another yank on the ear. He even came to respect the self-discipline taught at the school, something he rarely saw in Saddle Lake, and credits the school for setting him on a good path.
He went on to become an influential native leader and helped to create the Assembly of First Nations, a powerful national council for aboriginal peoples. He also launched the first Aboriginal Games. And he remained a devout Catholic.
"I can't change the past," he says of his former school and why he won't sue it. "I don't even want to go there. I want to move ahead."
In June, 2000, he got that chance when Piché called to ask him for help. The priest wanted Wood, who had become vice-chief of the Treaty 6 Confederacy, which includes most bands on the Prairies, to co-chair with him the effort to save the Ste. Anne pilgrimage. The aging priests had already run up $300,000 in debts and, with lawsuits abounding, were in danger of losing the property and festival, along with their order.
Piché knew that the poor and illiterate natives of his youth had gained wealth, thanks to oil and mineral rights, and learned how to manage it.
Almost immediately, the new native organizers helped to bring a more businesslike approach. The corner store and snack shop were contracted to the local Alexis First Nation, which runs similar businesses year-round.
The gift shop franchise went to a national chain, Blessings Christian Marketplace, which had an inventory and supply network the old priests could not have imagined. Even the campground is now looking at user fees.
Wood has also raised the idea of turning the 14-hectare site into a year-round healing centre, for people of all races. "All humanity, in my humble opinion, needs a sacred place to come to terms with them-selves and their Creator." He would like it to become a federal historic site too, not least of all to protect it from legal action.