Every year, a crowd of 40,000 that's almost entirely native
journeys to a lake in northern Alberta to seek salvation. Old age
and the residential-schools scandal have driven the Catholic order
behind the pilgrimage to the verge of extinction. Not that the
pilgrims are too worried. Their ancestors gathered here long before
any priest appeared on the scene. They'll keep the tradition alive

Saturday, November 10, 2001 – Print Edition, Page F5

There is nothing in the threatening Alberta sky that can stop the procession of a thousand Catholics to the shores of Lac Ste. Anne, to where the sacred waters speak of great buffalo hunts, greater missionary hopes, oppression and now a peculiar resurrection.
Under thunderclouds and northerly winds, the worshippers are led by Dene pilgrims singing praise to Jesus Christ to a chant their ancestors used well before He was born. A clutch of Cree worshippers follows, bearing an outstretched Bible and a towering crucifix that features a brown-skinned Christ wearing buckskin and braids.
Behind them, there are Blackfoot proudly displaying drums and peace pipes that once were declared to be the tools of Satan. Later, a group will sing Rock of Ages in Ojibway.

Only at the end, almost as an afterthought, does a handful of priests appear. The Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate have come to the lake, to the largest native gathering in Canada, just as their predecessors did in the 19th century.

But this year, the aging fathers are here not to preach to the pilgrims so much as to seek their forgiveness. More than a century after it began, the annual festival of Ste. Anne -- mother of the Virgin Mary, and to many natives the true grandmother spirit of their tradition -- has become the embodiment of the Catholic Church's deep racial troubles and a symbol of its new hope among aboriginal people.

With 40,000 pilgrims, almost all of them native, gathering at Lac Ste. Anne, west of Edmonton, the same missionary order that stands accused of horrible abuses and has fallen into a serious decline believes that it still has a special place in Indian, Métis and Inuit communities.

At the same time, the five-day festival is moving beyond being a sheer display of faith. Natives with years of experience in business have been given charge of the event, held in July, and turned around its finances. They are also assuming responsibility for the 14-hectare lakeside site, one of the few remaining Oblate properties in the West.

But the transition is about much more than management.

As the pilgrims take control from the white-haired Oblates -- many of them European missionaries who came to the Far North in the 1930s -- they hope that doing so will heal the wounds of their racial divide. They could even save from bankruptcy the very order that once tried to save them from something else.

"There has to be a reason this is happening," says Rev. Camille Piché, an Oblate leader who at 63 has given his entire adult life to Indian communities in the North. "Myself, I have a tremendous faith in people."

One of the people who inspire Piché's faith is Charles Wood, a Cree man who was born in the same year as Piché, in the same Prairie poverty, and endured -- at times thrived in -- an Oblate residential school. Wood refuses to sue the missionaries, saying they did nothing worse than yank his ear for not speaking English properly.

He believes that natives can do something else to ensure justice, by taking charge of the pilgrimage that he has followed since childhood in the early 1940s, when his grandparents brought him to the lake, located about 60 kilometres from Edmonton. A savvy administrator, Wood has become Piché's opposite number, a pragmatist with entrepreneurial ideas who can help the 112-year-old festival to survive.

He also has no shortage of younger native pilgrims who want to help out, whereas the declining Oblates have fallen from 165 members in 1980 to fewer than 100 today. Of that, no more than 30 are active in the ministry and only one is native.

The native directors have already explained to the priests the need to create a governing board, hire an administrator and seek ways to market the festival. Native bands also have volunteered to conduct services, collect trash and police the campgrounds.

Wanting to do more than extend the Oblates' legacy, however, Wood has suggested a renewal of purpose, a return of sorts to the spirit of the land and the lake that existed before the first black robes saw it. As is true of many aboriginal views of Christianity, he sees the pilgrimage in a different, mystical light -- one that manages to project Ste. Anne and the legendary grandmother spirit as one.

"For us aboriginals," Wood says, "we want to return to what has been here for hundreds of years and protect this site as a sacred site, a healing site."

Natives were
congregating by this five-kilometre-long lake well before 1889 when an Oblate missionary returning from a visit home to Brittany, where Ste. Anne is revered, declared it to be a place of Catholic importance. Hunters first came during the buffalo migrations, to trade, celebrate and give thanks for nature's bounty.

Now, having gone through uprisings, world wars, the Great Depression and decades of church decline, aboriginal people continue to come every year to worship their new Lord. They arrive by chartered bus, camper van and car from almost every native community in the Prairies and Far North. One group wheels in from northern Saskatchewan, having raised money through a parish bike-a-thon.

A 37-year-old Dene mother of 10 approaches onfoot, having walked and cycled all the way from Yellowknife. Violet Frank says the two-month journey is a tribute to her father, a devout pilgrim claimed by cancer after last year's gathering.

As she approaches the shrine, Frank is joined by five generations of family members, with her grandmother in moccasins and baby grandson clad in Gap. As she reaches out to them, with the festival cross high above, she weeps.

Such emotion may seem more suited to a Southern Baptist revival meeting, but it also speaks to a deep Catholic faith among native people that has survived decades of trial in Northern Canada, as well as to a native spirituality that enjoys growing respect among the non-native priests.

In its early days, the pilgrimage was segregated. Indian and Métis came by horse cart and on foot one day, with many more "European" worshippers arriving the next day on a special train from Edmonton. But slowly, as the missionaries expanded their work northward, the racial makeup changed and, by the end of the Second World War, native pilgrims outnumbered others two to one.

The pilgrimage is now almost all native. Of the estimated 40,000 people who came this year, the only exceptions were a Filipino congregation from Edmonton, a few aging Eastern European immigrants and two dozen Eritrean-Canadian Catholics who somehow stumbled on the event.

But Wood would like to extend the lakeside festival to all communities that feel a need to heal themselves, with a grandmother's blessing, and to share in common worship. It is not only his hope for expanding the pilgrimage; he feels it is his born duty.

"This place is for all people," he says. "According to our prophecies, aboriginal people have a responsibility to lead all mankind to harmony, between humanity and nature."

The waters of Lac Ste. Anne are said to perform miracles, which may explain why so many natives like Pat Batoche come, bearing the scars of drugs, illness or violence.

Batoche is preparing to carry a cross into one service, hoping it will help her 29-year-old son, who was bludgeoned in the head by a hammer-wielding gang in Edmonton. Another native woman, Gladys Malcolm, comes every year from Manitoba to beg Jesus to save the soul of her daughter, who committed suicide in 1989. A priest told her that, because the girl took her own life, her spirit will never rest.

But in the crowded campground that stretches from the shrine across a farm field, there is also much to sing about, at nightly reunions and community feasts where the music and food seem unending.

Cynthia Desjarlais, a 24-year-old Ojibwa woman from Sandy Bay, Man., compares the pilgrimage to her preferred summertime ritual, the "Classic Rock Weekend" in Minnedosa. The self-styled "party baby" who grew up on alcohol, drugs, men and violence has come to Lac Ste. Anne for the first time with her parents, both graduates of residential schools, because she has seen how it touched their souls and hopes it can reach hers.

Active in native politics, Desjarlais grew up to distrust the church and says she can't explain the power her parents discovered here. She can't deny it either. "It's one thing I'm very, very confused about, is why I am here," she says. "But I feel the power here. I feel the spirituality. You can't deny something that has helped people find goodness."

The struggle
for goodness has defined the Oblates' work ever since they came to North America in 1841.

The early missionaries believed they had been called to help aboriginal people prepare for the coming onslaught of Western culture. They had seen colonial powers sweep through other lands, and knew that neither the Crees nor Ojibwa, Dene nor Dogrib, could stop it. But the missionaries felt they could soften the blow, particularly through education, and by bearing witness to the deluge.

Today, many pilgrims like Gladys Whitford prefer to see themselves as the bridge between alien cultures, between Christianity, for instance, and their own traditional spirituality.

Whitford is from Ebb and Flow, Man., and believes in miracles -- in fact, she says she has seen them here. She claims to know a man who regained his eyesight by splashing Ste. Anne's water on his eyes, and she says she regained her own fingernails, which had been withering from a calcium deficiency, after dipping them in the lake.

Last year, she brought her husband in a wheelchair, hoping the lake would ease his vascular troubles. It didn't. He died not long after they returned to central Manitoba, but his mind was at peace, she says. "Before we get physical healing, we need spiritual healing," she tells the congregation during one of the thrice-daily eucharists.

Later, sitting alone on an air mattress in her tent, Whitford lunches on a hot dog and cheese, and explains her message. She says the pilgrimage must return to its spiritual roots, to a mysticism that predates the Oblates. Nothing else, she fears, can stop the West and its notions of progress from inflicting upon itself the sorts of abuse it has brought to others.

"It's not only the native people who have lost their culture," she says. "It's the white people too."

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, made 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 Camille Piché's estimation, "90 to 95 per cent" are too vague to deserve attention. Those are the ones that have been mass produced by lawyers, name no perpetrators and list such accusations 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. "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 non-native and 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 Far North; 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.

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.

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.

Born in a log cabin
filled with kids, love and Christ, Wood grew up seeing the same challenges as the Oblate missionary, only from the other side of the divide.

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 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, inhumane and cruel treatment."

Wood is hesitant to discuss the school's past. He will not say the allegations are exaggerated, as Piché believes most of them are. 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 mighty Assembly of First Nations. 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 some 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 themselves and their Creator." He would like it to become a federal historic site too, not least of all to protect it from legal action.

With tens of
thousands of pilgrims in need of food, shelter and souvenirs, making the pilgrimage profitable may be easy. Making it pious again is another matter.

As Wood takes a break from worship and retreats to a picnic table, a procession of friends and acquaintances delight in complaining about all the noise at night.

By dusk, the dirt road that winds from the campground to the nearby town of Alberta Beach is lined with pickup trucks in search of nightlife. A few hours later, there is a steady parade of carousers coming back from town, and then, well past midnight, the din of youths hooting and setting off cherry bombs.

The RCMP can't do much, Wood explains to a few older men -- not when parents are allowing their children to stay out until all hours. He is not sure what he could do either. Within the shrine area and campgrounds, there is a ban on alcohol, drugs and gambling, but nothing to stop anyone of any age from slipping through a gully or across the road to a field of enterprising peddlers who have treated native spirituality to a different sort of onslaught.

Even if they tried, the Oblates would not have been able to shelter a community from the likes of Arnie Strynadka. A mixed-race fiddler (he calls himself "Uke-Cree"), Strynadka is known as the Indian who sings Hank Williams and, along with his cassettes of hurtin' music, sells as many "Bless me, Jesus" buttons as he can.

Down the dirt path, others like him hawk dream catchers, plastic toys, fireworks and amusement rides to throngs of young people who have skipped the eucharist.

At 61, Strynadka says he has missed the pilgrimage only four times since his Cree father and Ukrainian mother first brought him here as an ailing infant in a cattle truck and then watched him make a remarkable recovery after he was dipped in the lake.

Six decades on, he notices how hard it is to find the faith of his grandparents. "A lot of the spirituality and spiritual relevance is gone. People use it [the festival] as a big social gathering," he says. He adjusts his cowboy hat and big buckle belt while surveying the crowd of native kids, many of them sporting a hip-hop look. "I'll bet you half the people here are not Catholic," Strynadka says. "I see people from my reserve who are not Catholic."

Back at the picnic tables, where Crees and Blackfoot, Dene, Dogrib and Métis can be found drinking coffee and eating ice cream, Wood says he does not mind if natives have added some festivity, even a little noise, to their celebration.

He does worry, though, about keeping the pilgrimage alive. Last year, he managed to persuade the leaders of every major aboriginal group in the Prairies and Northwest Territories to pledge their commitment to the event and its purpose, something the Oblates never managed to do. But now, he knows, a single lawsuit from any member of his own community could throw the order into bankruptcy, and place the Lac Ste. Anne site in receivership.

It would be an abrupt, and Wood thinks tragic, end to a relationship that has seen more good than bad, but is only now finding its peace. For the first time since the missionaries and natives encountered each other, they have a sense of equality, and a proportion of need for each other.

The Oblates, even in their dying years, now seem to understand the damage done by some of their members and much of their practice. They also have come to respect both the devotion and organizational skill of the aboriginal pilgrims.

While many natives still seem to struggle in their attempts to balance traditional beliefs with Catholicism, they at least see in both a deep spirituality, as well as an intimate connection with the lake. No legal challenge can change that.

Sitting serenely under a tree, Piché knows the buildings and site around him could be seized.

Sitting at a crowded picnic table across the way, Wood understands that his diocese -- the one of his parents and grandparents -- may be lost too.

But like most of the priests and pilgrims around them, both men know that whatever is lost -- the shrine, the grounds, the event itself -- would be temporal.

They say the essence of Lac Ste. Anne, be it Christ's grandmother or an immortal grandmother spirit, would continue. And the shared journey of every pilgrim would go on.
The battle of James Bay
After today, Canada's Apartheid will appear every Monday and conclude with installments on Friday, Dec. 14, and Saturday, Dec. 15.
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