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Hundreds wade in despite water health advisory
The trek to the “healing waters” of Lac Ste Anne was an especially significant one this year with special homage being paid to the coming canonization of North America’s first-ever Aboriginal, Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha.
“She is a role model for all,” said Fr. Gary Laboucane, a Métis, who has been returning for the event as long as he can remember.
The July 22-26 Lac Ste. Anne Pilgrimage, however, was overshadowed by lake water health warnings, a July 23 heavy rain, and rising gate and operational costs.
But despite a health advisory issued by Alberta Health Services about blue-green algae, hundreds of die-hard faithful waded in to pray, collect the blessed water to take home, and to reconcile with the Creator/God. For so many, the Lac Ste. Anne Pilgrimage is a magical time of peace, love, harmony, friendships, dedication, and the ongoing quest for spiritual and physical healing.
The pilgrimage has been a yearly event since it was organized by Fr. Jean-Marie Lestanc in 1889 and attracts mainly Cree, Blackfoot, Chipewyan, Dogrib and Métis. There are many testaments to the healing properties of the water from those suffering eye and ear ailments, arthritis, breathing, lameness and more.
But visitors go for more than healing. Take Eugene Bouchier, from Fort Chipewyan, who now lives in Edmonton. He has been attending for 60 years. Though costly, he claims, “religion is stronger than money . . . I like the prayers and singing.”
Another senior, Anne Wesley, left Alberta for Ontario to be with her ailing mother. Ten years later, she is still there, teaching language and culture but returns to the lake faithfully every year.
“It’s a moving, spiritual adventure,” said Wesley. “I can’t get over the faces of people . . . so rejuvenated. I never saw anything like it!”
But there is no shortage of complaints.
Walter Cardinal, 73, doesn’t believe it should cost $30 for gate fees to take in a religious event.
“So many people cannot afford it. Look at what it’s doing,” Cardinal said, referring to low attendance.
Lillian McCallum,77, originally from Conklin, agrees. “Not everybody’s got money so there should be exceptions.”
But McCallum still appreciates being there. “I used to fall asleep to (the Cree hymns) singing late at night.”
Lambert Fox, from Kainai First Nation, has attended since he was “a little kid.” He recalls when the large open grass area by the church shrine was once filled with tents.
“Then,” he said, “we used to attend as a large extended family, about 30 of us. We’d stop over at the Samson Reserve. I remember Albert Lightning putting coffee on for us.” As for the money end of it, Fox states, “Individual church parishes should step up and contribute.” The residential school survivor admits going sour on the church for some time, until his mom turned him around.
Pilgrimage director Clay Leblanc counters the money complaints and defends the booths which sell clothes, food, and crafts, saying that there are huge overhead costs - power, outhouses, grounds maintenance, security - that need to be covered.
“You can’t operate on a shoestring,” said Leblanc.
In the end, scores left feeling dismayed that, because of the health advisory, they had no blessed water to cart home. After all, it’s one of the prime reasons for going to Lac Ste. Anne.
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