WARNING: This story has disturbing details about residential and boarding schools. If you are feeling triggered, here is a resource list for trauma responses from the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition in the US. The National Indian Residential School Crisis Hotline in Canada can be reached at 1-866-925-4419.
LAC STE. ANNE, Alberta, Canada — They gathered at the water as they have for as long as anyone can remember. Laughing voices with strong Cree accents. Filipinos switching casually between English and Tagalog. Murmurs in French and Spanish among the crowd.
They are the faithful, and they came from around the world to the place the Dakota call Waka Mne, or Holy Water, and the Cree call Manitou Sakahigan, or Spirit Lake, to witness Pope Francis pray at the sacred waters of the lake.
A day after he offered an apology at Maskwacis First Nation and on the second day of his visit to offer penitence to Indigenous peoples across Canada for the Catholic Church’s role in the ugly residential school history, the Pontiff visited Lac Ste. Anne where the celebration of Indigenous Catholicism is at its peak.
Inuit, First Nations and Métis Catholics shared their version of the Gospel with drums, fiddle and throat-singing. It was not performative – it was not put together for the Pope’s visit like the quickly paved roads in Maskwacis. This is the way it is and will be again.
Traditional drums accompanied the Pope as aides helped him in his wheelchair to the edge of the lake, where he sat in silent prayer. He dipped a brush into the waters of the lake to sprinkle onto the crowd.
"In this blessed place, where harmony and peace reign, we present to you the disharmony of our experiences, the terrible effects of colonization, the indelible pain of so many families, grandparents and children,” the Pope told the crowd.
“Help us to be healed of our wounds."
He arrived on the day of the Feast of Saint Anne, the grandmother of Jesus – an event that draws thousands of Cree, Mėtis, Blackfoot, Dogrib and First Nations Indigenous people to the lake.
The celebration had a pow wow atmosphere, with Cree, Dene, Inuit and other Indigenous languages prominent throughout the day in song, introductions and prayer, broadcast over loudspeakers and from giant video screens.
The crowd that gathered Tuesday would largely have been there anyway for the feast.
Loretta Daignault, Mėtis Nation, has been coming to the Feast of Ste. Anne since she was a kid. She traveled this year from Meadow Lake, Saskatchewan, but is originally from Ille La Crosse.
She used to bring her parents every year, but her father died four years ago and then the pandemic shut down the event for the past two years. This year, it was important to come with her mother, she said, as the church has always been a part of the family life.
“My Mom and Dad were Catholic, and so it grew on me as well,” she said. “This was a wonderful moment.”
A gathering of relatives
As the men in black robes gathered before the Pope’s arrival, discussions on identity and positions bubbled up among the crowd.
“Red is a Cardinal and purple is a Bishop,” said one.
“What is that pink?” asked another.
“That’s purple,” came the response.
A young devotee with a small wooden cross around her neck and a Spanish accent seemed authoritative.
“They are not wearing the cross so they may be just Monsignor,” she said. The group seemed to accept her point of view.
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When Canadian Cardinal Marc Oulette, the former Archbishop of Quebec, approached the throng to shake hands a loud cheer erupted as though a pop star had arrived. Another young scholar began to share details that Oulette had been a high-ranking candidate when Pope Francis was selected.
The sound of helicopter blades cutting into the air announced the Pope’s arrival under a blue sky.
Chief Rosanne Casimir of Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc, previously known as Kamloops Indian Band, was waiting at the waters for the Pope to arrive. She said that as soon as she found out the Pope would not travel to Kamloops she made plans to travel to Lac Ste. Anne.
“I am very honored to be here, to be supporting all our brothers and sisters right on Turtle Island here to visit with the Pope and to witness him here at Ste. Anne’s,” she told ICT as she stood among hundreds pressed against the waist-high, steel fence awaiting the Pope.
“Coming to Lake Ste. Anne is very meaningful,” she said. “And this is something that's very historical, you know, looking around here, all the thousands of First Nations Indigenous and Métis people that have come together as a family, to come and witness the Holy See come and bless these waters and to also acknowledge who we are.”
Kamloops brought the attention of the world to Canada’s residential school history when the tribe announced in May 2021 the discovery of unmarked graves of 215 children at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School in British Columbia.
The chief also went to the Vatican in April with a delegation of leaders, survivors, knowledge keepers and youths to meet with the Pope. He apologized privately to them and set in motion the current trip to Canada, which he has called a “penitential pilgrimage.”
She said the public apology he delivered Monday at Maskwacis is more important than the first.
“Thinking about the trip that I had to visit with the Holy See was actually historical in Italy,” she said. “But coming back here, and having a more lengthy, meaningful apology, was definitely something that really resonated, because he elaborated on colonialism. He talked about absolute regret and remorse and some meaningful steps moving forward.”
A special experience
At the end of the day, as people headed back toward the parked buses and the sun began to move behind the trees to finally offer relief from the long, hot day, Daignualt found the whole experience difficult to put into words.
“To have my mom here to just be a part of this was special, very special,” she told ICT. “We kind of got close, because he just walked by where we were sitting and it was something. It really was.”
The Pope then traveled to Quebec City, where he will spend Thursday before moving on to Inuit lands in Iqaluit in the far North on Friday. He will depart from Iqaluit late Friday to return to Rome.
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