Warning: The story below contains details about abuse in residential schools that may be upsetting. Canada’s National Indian Residential School Crisis Line is available 24 hours a day on 1-866-925-4419.
Alberta, Canada – There is an expansive lake 75km (46 miles) west of Edmonton, Alberta that attracts thousands of Catholic believers every July to cleanse in its muddy shorelines. The believers consider the lake to harbour healing powers. It was named Lac Ste Anne by 19th-century Catholic missionaries, however to the local Metis (mixed Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples) and First Nations, the eutrophic lake has been a sacred area long before the settlers came.
The Alexis Nakota Sioux refer to it as “Wakamne”, meaning “God’s lake”, and the Cree call it “Manitou Sakhahigan”, which translates as “spirit lake”. It is alongside where their ancestors once hunted buffalo and fished for sustenance. The local Indigenous people tell legends of old of a gigantic serpent that lived there where it created treacherous and unpredictable currents that could capsize a canoe. But it has always been revered as a holy site.
On July 26, Pope Francis will visit the lake to bless its waters, and join thousands of pilgrims who gather at the site each year. His attendance forms part of his “pilgrimage of penance” trip to mend relationships with Indigenous peoples in Canada over the Catholic Church’s role in residential schools where thousands of children were abused and died.
The chief of the Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation will welcome the pontiff on Tuesday. In 2016, Chief Tony Alexis travelled to the Vatican and invited Pope Francis to visit his nation’s territories. Alexis hopes the pope will make good on his apology and that his presence at the sacred lake will aid in the healing process.
“With the healing abilities of Wakamne, we hope it will bring in some healing for survivors and their families with the apology [the pope gave in Rome],” he told Al Jazeera. “[The Catholic Church] once told us our spiritual practices were wrong,” he added. “And that’ll never happen again.”
Wakamne is a universal gathering place of healing that Alexis says anyone is welcome to visit. “Many cultures, many nations, have all gathered here [over the years]. And the pope is coming here to stand with [our people] and I think it’s good for the people,” he said.
Indigenous people were instrumental in bringing the Catholic Church to Lac Ste Anne, according to Tracy Friedel, the Region 4 president of the Metis Nation of Alberta and descendant of the Lac Ste Anne Metis.
“Oftentimes, folks think that missionaries came out and found native people, you know, for the purpose of civilising them,” she told Al Jazeera.
“But to be honest our community sought the Catholic Church and actually were instrumental in the Catholic representatives coming in the first place and the establishment of the mission. It [Lac Ste Anne] is considered spiritual by Indigenous peoples from far and wide.
The Mission of Lac Ste Anne was established in 1844, to honour Saint Anne. It was named after the Metis Lac Ste Anne community that settled on the west banks of the lake.
The weeklong “pilgrimage” began in 1889, with the Saint Anne feast day held on July 26. In the early days, pilgrims travelled by horse and wagon, train and on foot, often thousands of miles, to attend. Nowadays, pilgrims come to the lake from all over North America. Some walk hours, days or even weeks barefooted as penance to participate in the miracles of healing at the lake. They set up camp in canvas tents and motorhomes beside the Catholic mission at the Lac Ste Anne pilgrimage site.
“Over the years, we [Metis] have been quite involved with the pilgrims. We’ve participated a lot in terms of preparing meals for the fathers [priests] and that type of thing. I can recall when I was young doing a lot of work and support of hosting the pilgrims. Our community has those long ties with the pilgrimage,” said Friedel.
Pilgrim Adam McDonald left his home on the Fort McKay First Nation in northern Alberta on June 26 to walk nearly 545km (338 miles) to Lac Ste Anne. He arrived on July 23.
“I needed that healing and I walked night and day and stopped to sleep when I needed to,” said McDonald, who is from the Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation that sits across the lake from the pilgrimage site. “I have nothing, only a backpack.”
This is not the first time he has made the strenuous trek. Several years ago, he said, he heard a voice from the spirit world speak to him one night urging him to get up and walk, for the souls of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. He has walked as far as Ottawa, 3,833km (2,381 miles) from his home in Fort McKay. When he felt his strength wavering, he “remembered why I was walking”.
Then, in spring 2021, when he learned of the 215 unmarked graves of Indigenous children discovered at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School, he got up and started walking for them.
“This is for them,” he explained. “When I get to the waters, I feel blessed. I feel all the weight leaving me.”
Up to 40,000 people now flock to the annual pilgrimage where they declare oaths of sobriety, along with other life-altering promises, and prayers and forgiveness are given.
The pope’s mission follows invitations from the church, the civil authorities in Canada, and Indigenous people. He is seeking forgiveness for the church’s role in 139 federally mandated residential schools that forcibly assimilated Indigenous children into mainstream Canadian culture. The Catholic Church oversaw 60 percent of these schools.
More than 150,000 Indigenous children attended the institutions from the late 1800s until 1997 when the last school closed. Abuses were widespread and Indigenous languages and cultural practices were forbidden.
The National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR) has documented that 6,000 children died at residential schools. Not all the deaths listed on the registry include burial records. But since spring 2017, the unmarked graves of thousands of Indigenous children were discovered on the former grounds of residential schools across the country. And those searches continue.
The Lac Ste Anne Pilgrimage site was declared a national historic site of Canada in 2004 for its social and cultural significance.
The pilgrimage’s spiritual director, Fr Garry LaBoucane said, “The most important thing to remember about the pope’s journey is that he comes as a pilgrim pope leading a pilgrim church.”
LaBoucane is Metis and grew up near Lac Ste Anne. “The holy father leads us in healing and reconciliation,” he added. “That’s really an image and a model for all of us to undertake and follow.”