LAC STE. ANNE, Alta.—The freshly poured sidewalk unspools through the grass, past the newly assembled camera rigs and pot lights, the power tools, idling golf carts and many, many porta potties, to the lake’s edge, where people have gathered since a time when the only draw to this place was the water.
As Gary Gagnon walks down the path, which marks the traditional pilgrimage route to Lac Ste. Anne, tucked away in the flat Prairie landscape of central Alberta, where heavy spring rains have given way to fields of hay and electric-yellow canola, he pauses to marvel at the changes to the site he’s visited almost every summer since he was born, and that his parents and grandparents visited before that.
“Look around,” he says gesturing beyond the construction. “I’ve never seen so many washroom facilities and tents. But the waters where we’re heading? People come back for those waters, and they take them home by the gallon.”
In March, Gagnon was one of the 32 delegates who flew more than 8,000 kilometres to Rome, representing the Métis Nation of Alberta; he’s vice-president of Region 4. He was in the room when Pope Francis apologized for the “deplorable” conduct of those members of the church that inflicted abuse at the residential schools that once dotted this country. Gagnon says the experience changed him.
But this week, that odyssey will be reversed, as Francis embarks on a Canadian tour to reiterate that remorse, and Gagnon will be among those welcoming the Pope to his traditional territory.
“Our relatives, the First Nations people, have been here forever,” Gagnon says. Later, his own people, products of the fur trade, with roots in both Indigenous and European communities, settled here, too. Nearby a cabin, built in the traditional Hudson Bay style, is almost complete, and will stand as a symbol of the Métis people.
“We want the Pope to come and stand in our home,” Gagnon says. “Our soil.”
Francis’s trip was fuelled by the global fury sparked when an estimated 200 potential unmarked graves were discovered on the lawn of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School — a finding since replicated across the country — and questions about what exactly, members of the church knew and when.
The six-day itinerary is a balance of what might seem, at first, an uncomfortable combination — the faith of the country’s roughly 12 million Catholics with the damage done to Indigenous peoples.
Stops include Quebec, the country’s Catholic heartland, as well as Nunavut, where the prospect of priests behind bars is very much alive and well, thanks to a French priest currently facing a Canadawide warrant, related to allegations he abused children at a residential school almost half a century ago.
But the Pope will come first to Alberta, once home to the country’s largest number of residential schools — of the 134 schools that operated in Canada for roughly a century, 25 were here. It is here that Francis is expected to deliver another apology, on the site of a former school in what is now Maskwacis, just south of Edmonton.
Aside from the physical and sexual abuse that occurred at some schools, the whole system inflicted a deeper, ideological wound, says Matthew Wildcat, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Alberta who grew up in Maskwacis.
“The schools were meant to eliminate Indigenous peoples as legal and political entities in this country, so that Indigenous peoples would no longer exist,” he says. “People forget about it, like, ‘It’s in the past, let’s get along, why can’t you be Canadian like everyone else?’ ” he adds.
“That is a harm which has a lasting legacy.”
There’s no single answer as to what this trip means to Catholics or the Indigenous peoples or to Canadians as a whole. The trip, which will be the fourth time a Pope has set foot on Canadian soil and the first in 20 years, is deeply meaningful for those of faith or who take solace in an apology, while others have said it won’t do much to atone for the church’s history. But there’s no question that when the Pope arrives on Indigenous land, people will be watching.
In part because of the Pope’s advancing age, observers have speculated, the six-day visit was put together in a relatively frantic four months. The planning of a typical papal visit takes more than a year.
If the visit has a signature scent, it might be the sharp note of freshly laid asphalt. Preparations for the visit have been simmering for months, and in recent weeks roads leading to the sites have been paved and at least one church’s renovations completed, while local police practise driving their patrol cars and motorcyles in formation, in anticipation of escorting the Pope’s motorcade.
While some of the updates have raised questions of what, exactly, it takes for a First Nation community to see an infrastructure upgrade, others hint at the challenges that lie ahead when an 85-year-old global leader feeling the encroaching effects of age comes to town.
Last month, the Pope cancelled plans to visit the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Sudan because of walking problems, and papal observers have noted his determination to make it to Canada. Preparations for his arrival have included things such as new doors, accessibility ramps and the paving of new paths, such as at Lac Ste. Anne, where he will now, it is hoped, be able to make it to the shoreline in a Popemobile — the pontiff’s iconic and specially designed motor vehicle — or golf cart.
The Pope’s apology in Rome faced criticism from some Indigenous peoples for not going far enough — for acknowledging the actions of a few bad apples, and not of the church itself. “He said he was sorry that a few people misbehaved or hurt people,” says Ken Young, a residential school survivor and a former Assembly of First Nations regional chief in Manitoba.
“I mean, that’s OK. But it wasn’t an apology by the Catholic Church.”
After boarding a plane in Rome, the Pope will disembark Sunday on treaty land, where the expectations will be higher.
“He’s on Turtle Island now, so he’s on the very ground where those children died in residential schools,” points out Gerry Shingoose, a nine-year residential school student in Winnipeg, who was planning to pile into a car with two other survivors and make the 14-hour drive from Winnipeg to Edmonton in time for the Pope’s visit.
Shingoose isn’t Catholic, but she’s determined to go, to bear witness for her brother, George, who never got to tell his story; for her parents, who were forced to say goodbye to their children as they were taken off to residential school; and for her fellow students who never made it home.
“I’m not seeking an apology,” she says. “I’m seeking the truth. The abuses that we endured while we were in residential school, I want them to acknowledge that.”
The lead-up to the visit hasn’t been easy for some survivors. Shingoose’s daughter told her she had been crying in her sleep. In an acknowledgment of how difficult the coming week is expected to be, counsellors are being made available to survivors at most sites.
The mental anguish has been compounded by the physical challenges of getting there. While she was able to get free tickets to an event, Shingoose hasn’t been able to access any of the funds set aside to travel to Edmonton. In the lead-up to the visit, the federal government earmarked $30.2 million for First Nation, Métis and Inuit organizations for related local events and also to help out with travel for survivors. With a week to go before the visit, her voice broke as she spoke about her effort to fundraise money on social media to make the trip west.
But while much has been made of the Pope’s age, less has been said about the advancing years of residential school survivors, many of whom are now elders.
Shingoose says she’s been getting email from survivors with questions about how to access tickets, and those are the tech-savvy ones. “Some of them don’t have access to a computer or email. They have no place to go.”
More than half of Canada’s roughly 130 residential schools — which saw about 150,000 First Nation, Métis and Inuit children pass through their doors — were run by Catholics. Many pupils of those schools suffered physical, sexual abuse and neglect, in addition to the trauma of being separated from family. Some argue the church’s involvement in Canadian colonialism runs deeper than that. As early as the 15th century, the then-pope was issuing bulls — essentially a public decree — declaring, in effect, that any land not inhabited by Christians was up for grabs.
This threw fuel on the fire of a larger idea known as the Doctrine of Discovery, which held that conquering countries could take over new lands. Many survivors have called on the Pope to address this specifically during his visit to Canada.
Tamara Pearl, a Nēhiyaw iskwew, or Plains Cree woman, from One Arrow First Nation on Treaty 6, which covers a swath of land across the Prairies, points out that in early Canada settlers and Indigenous peoples signed the first treaties based on a foundation of mutual respect, which was gradually eroded over time as the colonizers grew in both numbers and power. An apology from the Pope will also strike back at the historical belief that the church and the government knew best.
“This papal visit is very much at the crossroads of genuine reconciliation between the federal government and Indigenous nations here,” says Pearl, who is also an assistant professor of law at the University of Alberta.
It seems notable then, that he is making one of his first stops at a place where Cree and Nakoda and Métis and Catholics and many others have found common ground for generations.
Long ago, a Nakota chief led his people to the lake, called Wakamne, or God’s Lake, which was filled with fish, according to the history of the Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation, a community that still lives on the edge of the lake. They hunted and fished for generations before the first fur traders arrived, and, over time, it became an important hub for the Métis, too. The area’s first Catholic priest called it Lac Ste. Anne in the mid-19th century, according to a website devoted to the historic pilgrimage.
“Maybe unknowingly, this was a place of reconciliation, the coming together of two worlds: Indigenous and non-Indigenous, when the first pilgrimage to these shores was in 1889,” Chief Tony Alexis, of the Alexis Nakota Sioux, told media this past week.
“For some of our people Pope Francis’s visit evokes complex feelings. My hope is that much like a Wakamne, and its healing abilities, the apology brings healing to survivors and their families.
“Healing will happen not just for us, for the church also. They need to unlearn their old ways and learn to work together in partnership.”
These days, it’s tucked in between farmers’ fields and vacation cottages occupied by beach seekers from nearby Edmonton, but the Lac. Ste. Anne pilgrimage site remains a gathering space. Aside from the politics and the pain, this place has a story of strength and community, Gagnon says.
“People come here to heal from addictions. From grief and loss, from mental illnesses,” he says. “Some finally get clean and sober.”
To Gagnon, Lac Ste. Anne is a place of miracles. His family recounts the story of his grandmother coming here as a young child a century ago, her father pouring a thimbleful of water, scooped from the lake, into her ear, her deafness to disappear for the rest of her long life.
It’s where Gagnon, who can’t help but chat with everyone he passes, experienced what he calls a miracle of his own, sparked the morning, several years ago, when he walked over to a rehearsing performer, to tell her to please turn down her music. It was interrupting a pipe ceremony happening nearby.
Not long after, he sat at mass with that pretty country gospel singer from Whitefish Lake First Nation, she complained about the cool breeze coming off the water, he offered to sit closer, and that was that.
As Gagnon speaks, his now-wife Rhonda Jackson, who is also a registered member of the Saddle Lake Cree Nation, picks mint nearby and their young grandson, Albert, darts over, grinning, to show him the feather he’s just found.
Like many, Jackson started coming as a child as part of a family tradition. They’d sleep on duck-feather mattresses in canvas tents pitched near the lake. Her grandfather sang in a men’s choir that performed entirely in Cree, which would inspire his granddaughter’s love of music. Her mother and her siblings were all residential school survivors, but they came here to heal. Now Jackson sings on the stage here in the hopes of helping others: “I always feel I may not be the greatest singer,” she says with a smile. “But if I can touch somebody’s heart, I know I’ve done my job.”
Now she brings her own grandson, and they take a family picture every year in the same spot — a sitting area topped with a cross overlooking the water named for Saint Anne. Fittingly, she is the patron saint of grandparents. Jackson remembers coming here with her relatives who have passed away, and she hopes Albert will have that, too. “I want him to remember this lake.”
When the Pope comes, they hope more people will find that same peace. “It’s not going to help everyone. I’ll be realistic about that,” Gagnon says. “But for those that are wanting to try and maybe get that feeling of healing, I think it’s worth it. I think that’s important.”
The Indian Residential Schools Crisis Line is available 24 hours a day for anyone experiencing pain or distress as a result of a residential school experience. Support is available at 1-866-925-4419.
With files from Omar Mosleh
Alex Boyd is a Calgary-based reporter for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @alex_n_boyd