On July 21st, 2018, one of the oldest annual events in Alberta commences for six days. This is the pilgrimage to Lac St. Anne, which began in 1889.
Lac St. Anne is a large and beautiful lake, situated 75 km. northwest of Edmonton.
For centuries, it has been considered a place for spirituality and healing. The Alexis Nakota (Sioux) First Nation called the lake Wakamne or God’s Lake. The Cree referred to it as Manito Sahkahigan or Spirit Lake.
In contrast, the early fur traders called the lake Devil’s Lake, probably because of old legends about a monster that lived in the lake and could suddenly create unpredictable and dangerous currents that would capsize a boat.
Roman Catholic missionaries began arriving in what is now Alberta in the early 1840s, with Father Jean-Baptiste Thibault being the first.
He visited Lac St. Anne in 1842 and 1843. In 1844, together with Abbe Joseph Bourassa, he decided to establish a permanent mission there. It was the first permanent Roman Catholic mission west of Winnipeg.
Father Thibault decided to name the mission St. Anne, after the grandmother of Jesus Christ. The honouring of grandmothers is a very strong element of First Nations and Metis culture. The lake was renamed Lac St. Anne.
A sizeable community of roughly 2,000 developed around the Lac St. Anne mission. However, after the creation of the St. Albert mission to the southeast by Father Lacombe, Lac St. Anne ebbed as a number of Metis families moved to the new mission and community.
Consequently, the Oblate missionaries began to consider closing the Lac St. Anne mission. However, Father Lestanc, the superior for the Oblate priests at St. Albert and Lac St. Anne, made a visit back to France. While there, he visited the Shrine of St. Anne d’Auray. This inspired him to create a shrine at Lac St. Anne.
Hence, in 1889, the first pilgrimage to the Lac St. Anne shrine and mission was organized.
It was a very challenging time for the First Nations and Metis. The buffalo (bison), which had been the mainstay of communities, had vanished. Destitution and starvation had set in.
Moreover, drought had become widespread across much of the western prairies. The winter of 1886-1887 had been a particularly brutal one. This greatly added to the hardships and destitution experienced in much of Alberta.
Several hundred people, primarily Metis and First Nations, took part in that first pilgrimage. Cree was the predominant language used. The organizers and attendees found the event to be such a success that it has been held every year since, always during the week of July 26th (the Feast Day of St. Anne).
Over the years, as the number of participants in the pilgrimage grew, the event was extended beyond the initial two days. Moreover, a number of additions and improvements were made to the mission and pilgrimage site.
By the mid-1930s, annual attendance had grown to around 4,500. By the early 1950s, more than 6,000 pilgrims took part each year. People came from all over western Canada, with many travelling by horse, wagon or foot, and later by train or automobile.
Hence, for many, taking part in the pilgrimage, including travel time, took up most of the summer.
In 2000, the Oblates decided to create a new partnership with the indigenous people to plan, direct and operate the Lac St. Anne pilgrimage.
Hence, in 2003, a non-profit Trust was established with representation from First Nations in Alberta, Saskatchewan and the North West Territories as well as the Metis Nation, the Oblates and the Archdiocese of Edmonton.
Ownership of the pilgrimage site was transferred to the Trust. Operations became the responsibility of the Trust as well. In 2004, the mission and pilgrimage grounds were designated a National Historic Site. Annual attendance has since grown to more than 30,000.
Meanwhile, in 2002, Father Garry Laboucane was named the spiritual director of the Lac St. Anne pilgrimage.
He was born in Red Deer and had taken part in the pilgrimage with his family since he was baby. He was ordained as an Oblate priest in 1984 at Lac St. Anne. He has also pastored to a number of parishes across Northern Alberta and in Edmonton.