Healing waters of Lac Ste. Anne

By Michael Swan, The Catholic Register

[Toronto – Canadian Catholic News] – Steve Simon knows that one of the best tricks in photography is learning how to record the invisible — things like faith, hope, healing, memory, time and wonder. The award-winning photographer, now based in New York, learned this trick early in his career at Lac Ste. Anne, AB.

Simon was a young newspaper photographer at The Edmonton Journal in the 1980s when he was assigned to photograph the annual Lac Ste Anne pilgrimageannual Lac Ste Anne pilgrimage west of Edmonton. Despite attracting at least 30,000 people a day in late July every year, the pilgrimage largely existed outside the consciousness of most Canadians.

It is a peculiar event that is at one and the same time Catholic, Indigenous and Franco-Albertan. Despite growing up in Edmonton, Simon knew little about it and was surprised and fascinated by what he saw when he arrived at Lac Ste. Anne.

The faith that was on display there — it was just a powerful event. You could feel it,” said Simon. “The more I experienced it the more powerful it became… The level of commitment and faith that I saw amongst many of the people who were coming to Lac Ste. Anne was not something I had really seen before.”

If and when Pope Francis arrives at the lake during his planned visit to the Edmonton area, he will see some of what Simon saw 30 years ago. He will see a lake renowned for its healing powers and people in need of healing.

“The biggest story now is understanding just how deep the wounds go and how bad things are,” said Simon.

On a recent trip back to his hometown, Simon was struck by just how little things had changed.

“The fact was that with all this time, with all the talk and whatever, in the end the reality on the ground does not seem to be better than it was,” he said. “It may be even worse.”

Like most Canadians, 30 years ago Simon knew little or nothing about the legacy of trauma from residential schools. So without necessarily knowing what it is that needed healing, Simon kept toting bags full of Kodachrome back to Lac Ste. Anne each summer to document the pilgrimage.

The summers of shooting eventually yielded the 1995, University of Alberta Press book, Healing Waters, The Pilgrimage to Lac Ste. Anne. (The book is out of print now).

But the images, such as Marie Agnes Park from La Loche, Sask., wading into the water in 1990, still speak to the faith of Indigenous people, said Gary Gagnon, Metis Nation of Alberta region four vice president and Edmonton Catholic Schools cultural instructor.

“Healing, that’s what I see,” Gagnon said after viewing a selection of Simon’s Lac Ste. Anne photographs. “They have faith in the pilgrimage. They have faith in the blessing of the water.”

If Pope Francis walks into the water at Lac Ste. Anne this summer, it would not surprise Gagnon if the pontiff walked out a little stronger and a little freer of the pain that has limited his mobility. Gagnon has seen miracles at the lake.

“My nôhkom, my grandma in Cree, she was healed from deafness and sickness as a little child, around 1906, 1907,” Gagnon said. “She was a miracle we lived with.”

Gagnon’s grandmother lived to be 105.

“She was never gravely ill after that. She was a very devout Catholic. But she was also a very proud Metis woman,” Gagnon said.

As an historian of the Church in Canada, St. Joseph’s College professor Indré Cuplinskas sees in Simon’s book an important window into Canada’s history of faith.

“Because he’s doing photojournalism, he doesn’t have to come to a conclusion or make any judgments. As an outsider, there’s a certain openness to everything that’s there,” she said. “As an outsider, you’re not on one side or another.”

Simon is Jewish. His years of photographing at Lac Ste. Anne were an education in a uniquely Catholic and Indigenous way of understanding the world.

“People were very open to me being there and recording what was going on with my camera,” he recalled.

Healing Waters really shows the way for historians and others to start seeing Indigenous Catholicism with fresh eyes.

“Is this a story of colonization? Is it a story of syncretism? Is it a story of coming together?” Cuplinskas asked. “A book like this allows you to hold all those things without sorting them out.”

Seeing Indigenous faith — along with the suffering, endurance and hope that goes into it — might help non-Indigenous Catholics to really understand what Pope Francis is teaching when he goes to Lac Ste. Anne, Cuplinskas said.

“Part of what the Pope might help to do is, not only come to apologize to Indigenous people and those who suffered in residential schools, but to point out to all of the other Catholics in Canada that this is an issue,” she said. “Because I think it’s still not really in a lot of Catholic people’s consciousness that this is an issue that they need to be engaged in… so that non-Indigenous Catholics see that they are part of the story.”

It’s a story that still interests Simon, long after his first book has gone out of print.

“Photography for me has always been following my curiosity,” he said.

Related: Pope Francis coming to Canada

Related: Saskatchewan Catholic bishops respond to news of papal visit

Related: Archbishop Bolen and Chief Delorme call for new ways of  “Walking With Your Neighbour”

Related: Manitoba Métis praise Pope Francis for listening

Related: Indigenous leaders see “fresh tracks” in hunt for healing

Related: Pope apologizes for treatment of Indigenous People, promises to visit

Related: Text of Papal Apology

Related: Indigenous People want truth about past, partnership for future

Related: Catholic TRC Healing Response (information and to donate)


Lying on a homemade stretcher, Russell Evans is lowered into Lac Ste. Anne in 2017. (photo by Andrew Ehrkamp, Grandin Media file photo, CCN)

Background: Annual pilgrimage dates back to 1889

By Catholic Register staff

[Canadian Catholic News] – The legacy of the Lac Ste. Anne pilgrimage stretches back a lot longer than the Church remembers. Lac Ste. Anne was a sacred pilgrimage site for centuries before French Oblate missionaries arrived at Fort des Prairies (later known as Edmonton) in 1843.

Cree, Dené, Blackfoot and Metis people still share stories of the singing drums and “little people” who guard the lake. From a rock island in the middle of Manito Sakahigan (“Lake of Spirits”) or Wakāmne (“Sacred Lake”) people could hear drums and singing, but mysterious forces kept anybody from ever reaching the island.

Summer pilgrimages to the lake were for a long time tied to the hunt for bison. The sun dance and other ceremonies associated with the hunt were performed there until they were outlawed by Canada, starting in 1885, for fear of Indigenous rebellions after Louis Riel’s failed bid for Métis independence.

St. Boniface Bishop Norbert Provencher sent missionaries out to the North Saskatchewan River territory after the Hudson’s Bay Company invited Wesleyan missionaries to Fort des Prairies in 1839. Fr. Jean-Baptiste Thibault was the first Catholic missionary to reach the shores of Lac Ste. Anne in 1843.

The temporary mission quickly became permanent and by the 1850s Metis leader Gabriel Dumont — uncle of Riel’s military chief of the same name — had established a village of more than 200 inhabitants.

By then the buffalo herds were already diminishing and summer gatherings shrank along with the buffalo hunt. Still three Sisters of Charity opened a clinic and a school there in 1859. In 1860 St. Boniface Bishop Alexandre Taché celebrated Christmas Mass.

Taché decided the mission was in the wrong place — it was poor farm land — and in 1862 moved it to St. Albert. But in 1887 Ste. Anne herself intervened. After 30 years in mission country, Oblate Fr. Jean-Marie Lestanc had a vision of St. Anne, who asked him not to abandon the mission in Western Canada. Lestanc convinced St. Boniface Bishop Vital Grandin to post him to Lac Ste. Anne and led the first Catholic pilgrimage there in June of 1889, with a second one a month later for the feast of St. Anne. Rather than referring to St. Anne as the mother of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Indigenous Catholics always referred to St. Anne as the grandmother (N’okkuminân in Cree) of Jesus.

The pilgrimage became more popular after Canada imposed a pass system on people living on reserves, intended to keep Indigenous from gathering and plotting rebellions. The pilgrimage became one of the few legitimate occasions for families to reunite.

In 1991, Lac Ste. Anne was the place chosen by Oblate Provincial Superior Fr. Doug Crosby (now bishop of Hamilton) to begin a process of healing. Crosby issued an apology on behalf of the Oblates for the dozens of residential schools his order ran on behalf of the Government of Canada. This was the first apology issued.

In 2007 Parks Canada and the Historical Sites and Monuments Board of Canada placed a plaque at the lake.

Pilgrims come forward to be blessed at the 2017 Lac Ste. Pilgrimage. (Photo by Alan Schietzsch, Grandin Media file photo – CCN)