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Church, Justice And The Works Of Mercy

David Ridley

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Missionaries Among the Dene:  Rene Fumoleau and Camille Piche

When he arrived in Denedeh and Fort Good Hope in 1953, Fr. Rene Fumoleau discovered that trunks of soiled church linen were shipped to Fort Providence, 1000 miles to the south, to be laundered by the sisters there and to be returned the following summer on the mission boat.  If the arrangement seemed appropriate then, Fr. Fumoleau would later write that "a liturgy which cannot find in a community everything which it needs may as well be scrapped..."10 Young Fr. Rene gave instruction to a gathering of Dene on the nature of sin and the Ten Commandments,  asking the group to consider which is the worst sin.  They announced, "We all agree that the worst sin a person can make is to lock his door," and giving Fr. Rene an introduction to hospitality and moral theology in a harsh climate.  Parabolic stories such as these are signs of Fumoleau's movement and conversion towards a different understanding of his ministry as an Oblate and mark the end of his traditional role as priest and missionary.  I provide no comprehensive perspective on this, but point to it as one of the particular experiences which is defining Oblate work as surely as larger institutional developments.

Political machinations were crucial in Fumoleau's understanding of what his work would be among the Dene. In 1967, the Government of the North West Territories and its administration moved to Yellowknife from Ottawa with "thirty tons of paper", to provide services in the congregating settlements of the Northwest Territories, a development which would continue to sharpen the analysis and issues facing the Missionary Oblates.11 The expressed intention of attending to the needs of the Dene with schools, social services, housing and those things coming under the banner of "development"  coincided with the rapid movement to extract natural resources from the lands in which the Dene lived. As had been the case with treaties, promises made were not kept and the Dene faced another round of marginalization, this time on the very lands that they knew and that had sustained them through generations.  In October 1969 the Dene established the Indian Brotherhood of the N.W.T.  A renewed self-understanding was growing in the Dene, propelled by political circumstance and the rise of a prophetic movement of the ancestral traditions.  Fumoleau would later write,

I didn't have the proper mental categories to analyze this movement.  I had also been ill-advised about it, and I didn't know how to react to this cultural and religious movement.  However, I could feel that my "traditional ministry" among the Dene had come to an end.  The renewed self-awareness among the Dene was incompatible with a priestly ministry based on western culture and more or less equated with the "sacred" things.12

Beginning in 1971, Fumoleau began researching the political history of the Dene, resulting in the 1975 publication of As Long As this Land Shall Last.  Project North13 and similar ecumenical movements to support native people through the Mackenzie Valley pipeline debate brought Fumoleau to an understanding that "the original sin of Canada has been its treatment of its aboriginal people."14 Fumoleau's witness through this time helps to raise public consciousness of the issues, but it also leads to an understanding of the mutual evangelization required in the work of the missionary amongst others:

I think that I was able to work honestly with the Dene only after I became convinced that they didn't need me, and I didn't need them, that they could manage very well without me and that I could live without them as well.  Having broken all relations of unhealthy dependency on both sides, we could establish an honest relationship.  I could accept to be evangelized as much as to evangelize.15

The evolution of a new understanding of evangelization is key in this emerging ministry. In deciding to do his particular ministry, Rene Fumoleau states that the question is not what kind of ministry, but "ministry for what?":

Any activity can lead to liberation, whether it is praying the rosary, baptizing, or taking part in political or cultural activities... what matters is to ask:  Is this action leading to oppression and death or to liberation and life?  I can love, give, help, and be a hero, and all this is worth nothing if I don't liberate myself and assist others to liberate themselves.16

Fumoleau's writings take us with him along the Emmaus Road and the path of his deeper conversion and insight.  While recognizing that the Church presence in school and hospital did much for the survival, maintenance and enrichment of individuals and entire communities, often acting as a barrier between government policy and economic system,  he is unequivocal in his judgement on the malevolence of government intentions and the failure of the Church in siding with these political and economic forces.

Fr. Camille Piche arrived at Rae, N.W.T. in July 1964.  At the time, the Second Vatican Council was in the midst of reflecting on the nature of the Church and re-examining its authority in relationship to secular society.  On the ground, in newly formed settlements such as Rae, people arrived to find little of the community provision and infrastructure necessary for a new type of social organization, justified as providing "services" for the Dogrib.  Besides this basic infrastructure, new approaches to economic activity were wanting.  Women crafting ornate beaded moccasins were receiving less than $10 for an item that could be sold for six or seven times as much by the time it found its way to retail.

When I arrived in Rae, one of the first decisions I made as a priest was what style of ministry I would be involved with... it wasn't an intellectual exercise for me, it was presented by the facts of life.  I remember seeing a family living in a tent at -60 C, with little children... trying to be present to that and understand the causes of why they are living like that, why so poor and how they might live with dignity... [this] brought me to involvement in social justice issues.17

Fr. Camille's bookkeeping and organizational skills helped incorporate the women's craft into the previously established Ay-tuh-say-tee ("We help one another") movement which also fished and cut cordwood for the winter.  Transferred to Fort Smith two years later, Fr. Camille recognized a similar need as native people had been divided and marginalized in the rift between those with treaty status and those without.  He worked with several others towards forming the Thebacha Association.18 Similar community associations sprouted throughout the region and provided stepping stones towards forming the Indian Brotherhood and eventually the Dene Nation and the Métis Association.19

When Fr. Camille went to Assumption nearly 25 years later in 1987, the Dene Tha of northwestern Alberta had hardly been touched by this movement, a result of their geographical isolation from other communities.  Fr. Camille realized the need for reliable and shared sources of communication when a rumour that Fr. Camillo Proscodimo had died continued to circulate for two months (Fr. Camillo is still very much among the living), this in a relatively small community.  At the same time, plans were in progress for a pulp mill which would draw on forests around Footra Lake, coincidental with the traditional Dene hunting grounds.  Previous oil, gas and forestry development had circumvented Dene involvement and a means of making informed decisions as a community did not exist.  This exclusion was but a symptom of a larger malaise and disintegration in the community: 

When I first arrived in Chateh, I saw the graffiti the youth had written, "Dene tha Stink" or "Dene tha Suck"... it is horrible for a child or youth to grow up with that sense of self.20

Through casual conversations and small gatherings, Fr. Camille spoke with people about the benefits of community radio as a means of communications and helping the community discuss the issues facing it. After a few false starts, a small group was organized to initiate a radio cooperative, which aired a few hours of local programming each day:

My greatest joy... it was a deep, deep joy... when the radio started was when they put some drum music on for half an hour. This said, "Our songs are beautiful, we can celebrate our songs, our music, our life, and our language that is worthy"... it was a way of counteracting that terrible graffiti and the way people devalue themselves.  If you go back, they still [play drum music] and now the drummers are local, they are "our elders, our young people, our songs, our voice and face."21

These associations and cooperative organizations met a number of challenges and the Oblate role, in many instances, in the organization and development of these needs to be further and documented in more detail.  These growing settlements required a new form of social organization which made room for the bonds of smaller family and clan groups but brings these into institutional relationships with others, a form of civitas.22  Development pressure from resource companies and the arrival of government service had the result of marginalizing native people in their homeland, the place they knew well and had lived from through generations.  While settlement made a response to the illness and famine possible, initially the infrastructure was sufficient to attend to the concentration of these difficulties.  The formation of cooperative-type organizations provided a forum in which analysis begins.  This helps create a new recognition and awareness of peoplehood as well as a means of naming the realities they face as a result of these enormous changes.  From here, there is some capacity for taking up the challenges for these communities, much of it the incongruence between specialized, professionalized services characteristic of modern institutions which have diffused accountability.

While Frs. Rene and Camille come to similar understandings of what is required in their work, they come to this by different paths, from different places and separated by a decade in their arrival in the North.  Fr. Rene writes of his priestly preparation as characterized by his ordination and serving of the Mass, without attention to the history, culture and anthropology of the Dene:

I knew that the Dene had much to learn from me and I was willing to give my life in order to educate them into my western values, to civilize them into the only economic and political system I knew, and most of all, I was going to save them from eternal damnation... I could even recreate in Denedeh the Christendom which had disappeared in Europe.23

This is a striking self-characterization given the path of Fr. Rene's work in the 45 years since.   As a novice and scholastic, Fr. Camille's formation comes in the midst of Second Vatican Council.  He attended the Coady Institute for a summer institute after his first year in the North and was influenced by the philosophy of community development articulated through the Antigonish Movement.24 There he met those from Africa and Latin America who lived in the dynamics of colonialism and the struggle for a post-colonial world.  Consequently, the tools of social and economic analysis developed in the social sciences, which were neither sufficiently developed or available to earlier generations of missionaries become part of the "kit".   Through the 1960s and 1970s, the analysis and changes confronting Aboriginal peoples emerged, manifest in the process of settlement and specialized administration across the North.

Although the weight and difficulty faced by generations of Oblates through their years in the North would command and welcome new analysis of the situation, any clear analysis in local community depends on knowledge of the experience and lived relationship with those subject to oppressive conditions.  For the Missionary Oblates, this is premised on the previous relationships of Oblates who have served a community in the past.  Fr. Camille noted that
The people still speak of [Fr. Arbette's] presence... he was the first resident priest at Chateh in 1934 and was there for 15 or 20 years.  A person like him marked those communities because he knew the language and was able to relate to them... he travelled out on the land with the people, by dog team to their camps, where they were and was not trying to change people.  At the same time he knew the changes that were coming about and started laying the ground work for residential schools and education.25

Most Oblates enter a community to spend the first year in a community acquiring the rudiments of the language, supported by the methods, grammars and orthographies developed by other missionaries.  As well, the local knowledge that exists among the Oblates about the people and their lives is transmitted within the order.  For Fr. Camille, evenings around the table with Oblate brothers who worked with the people was an orientation to the lives and stories of both the community and the people who lived there.  The repository of relationship and good will built by a continual presence over 40 or 50 years by Oblate priests is an asset to those who would follow; the Oblates have practiced and refined the arts of living in community with First Nations people, often in difficult and isolated circumstances.  Besides passing on the skills that are required to live in isolated mission and community, there must also be an education for the heart which transmits the heritage of preceding Oblates and their concern for First Nations people.  This develops the virtues and knowledge that comes as human beings of successive and overlapping generations live together.  It would be difficult for each Oblate to do their work if it meant re-establishing the relationships, knowledge and regard cultivated by those going before.

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