Pope acknowledges need for 'concrete action' in mending relationship with Indigenous people

The Alberta leg of Pope Francis' "penitential pilgrimage” in Canada to express "sorrow… healing and reconciliation" between the Catholic Church and Indigenous peoples ended in Lac Ste. Anne Tuesday evening.

Francis completes pilgrimage in Lac Ste. Anne, Alta., on Tuesday

Pope Francis blesses the crowd with water drawn from the lake in Lac Ste. Anne, Alta., during the community's annual pilgrimage, which regularly welcomes tens of thousands of Indigenous participants, on Tuesday. (Evan Mitsui/CBC)

The sounds of First Nations drumming and Métis fiddlers echoed across the shores of Lac Ste. Anne in Alberta, as Pope Francis arrived at the national historical site Tuesday for an annual pilgrimage significant to many Indigenous people.

The Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation call the lake Wakamne, or God's Lake. The lake has long been sacred to several First Nations in the region, as well as nearby Métis settlements. 

It became a Catholic pilgrimage site over 100 years ago, and a national historic site in 2004.

"I have been struck by the sound of drums that accompanied me wherever I went," the Pope said in Spanish, with English translation displayed on screens across the Lac Ste. Anne shrine.

"This beating of drums seems to echo the beating of so many hearts: hearts that, over the centuries, have beat near these very waters; hearts of the many pilgrims who walked together to reach this 'Lake of God.'"

This is the second time Josephine and John Echodh travelled to see a Pope. They are Denesuline, from Black Lake, Sask., and were in Fort Simpson, N.W.T. when Pope John Paul II visited Canada in 1987.

Brenda Harwood, a member of the Metis Nation of Alberta Region 3, came to Lac Ste. Anne for the first time. (Francine Compton/CBC)

"I feel great," said Josephine, adding that she's celebrating 38 years sober thanks to her faith.

They have embarked on the Lac Ste. Anne pilgrimage many times in the 58 years they've been together.

"I walked in 1996 from La Loche to here … 41 days," she said.

Brenda Harwood and her sister came to Lac St. Anne for the first time. The pair drove up from Calgary with their mom and great-grandmother in mind.

"What brings me here today is reconciliation and moving forward," said Harwood, a member of the Metis Nation of Alberta Region 3.

"My mom went to church school in Saskatchewan and we felt that it was important that we came today."

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Ashley Callingbull, an Enoch Cree First Nation member, says she wants to see more actions and reparation during Pope Francis's Canadian tour.

"Her grandmother walked to Lac St. Anne when [my mother] had cancer, and so we felt it was important to come back here today," she said, adding that her mother recovered. 

Harwood says they leave feeling deep emotions — hopeful that there will be healing after the Pope's visit and that maybe, one day, she will walk the pilgrimage.

Six-day 'penitential pilgrimage'

The visit was part of the Pope's six-day "penitential pilgrimage" in Canada to express "sorrow … healing and reconciliation" between the Catholic Church and Indigenous people.

Pope Francis met briefly with the local parish priest Father Les Kwiatkowski, along with Treaty 6 Grand Chief George Arcand, Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation Chief Tony Alexis and Métis Nation of Alberta President Audrey Poitras.

The Pope stopped briefly in front of a statue of St. Anne and a traditional Métis cabin before making his way down to the lake.

During his address, Pope Francis made parallels between St. Anne, who is widely revered as the grandmother of Jesus, and the vital role of Indigenous women and elders in their communities.

"They occupy a prominent place as blessed sources not only of physical but also of spiritual life," he said.

"In thinking of your kokum, I also remember my own grandmother.

"In this blessed place, where harmony and peace reign, we present to you the disharmony of our experiences, the terrible effects of colonization, the indelible pain of so many families, grandparents and children. Help us to be healed of our wounds."

The shrine at Lac Ste. Anne, on Tuesday. (Ka’nhehsí:io Deer/CBC)

The pontiff acknowledged that in order to achieve that, "effort, care and concrete actions" are required on the church's part.

While he did not expand on what those concrete actions may be, the Pope did say that they will rely on the intercession of Indigenous women and elders.

"Part of the painful legacy we are now confronting stems from the fact that Indigenous grandmothers were prevented from passing on the faith in their own language and culture," he said.

"That loss was certainly tragic, but your presence here is a testimony of resilience ... All of us, as church, now need healing: healing from the temptation of closing in on ourselves, of defending the institution rather than seeking the truth."

The pontiff will visit Quebec City on Wednesday and Iqaluit on Friday before returning to the Vatican.

A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for residential school survivors and others affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.

Support is also available for anyone affected by their experience at Indian or federal day schools. Individuals can access immediate mental health counselling and crisis intervention services at the Hope for Wellness helpline by calling 1-855-242-3310 or online at


Ka’nhehsí:io Deer is a Kanien’kehá:ka journalist from Kahnawake, Que. She is currently a reporter with CBC Indigenous covering communities across Quebec.