Where Have All the Oblates Gone in Fond Du Lac?

Where Have All the Oblates Gone in Fond Du Lac?

Story and Photos by Father David Reilander

The Laurentian Plateau, better known as the Canadian Shield, is composed of igneous and metamorphic rock around Hudson Bay that rose from great depths in the Precambrian and formed the core of North America after splitting off from ancient Arctica. The current surface is the root of eroded ancient mountains. Once at great depth, heat and pressure formed the minerals that define this area today. Some of the rocks are the oldest on Earth. Billions of years later, this glacially scarred landscape of impermeable granites and gneisses serves as the basin of a continent-wide hydrological system of lakes, bays, rivers and marshes. It is also home to some of the best fresh-water fishing in Canada.

To unleash the wealth of what formed long ago in this basement foundation, Eldorado Mining employed local Dene and Metis to produce uranium for the American nuclear program. When the mines closed, it was an economic disaster for local residents. Laurent Noey is one of the Dene who was affected. He lives in Fond du Lac (‘far end of the lake’) where I stayed for a week. Laurent also operated as a fishing guide to American sportsmen. This is the land of rock, forest and water. You won’t find prairie here. It’s a fly-in community, though there’s a gravel road to Prince Albert and a 13-hour drive among ore trucks.

Laurent is 78 years-old, but does not look it, nor act like it. On the way to the rectory, after flying from Black Lake, I stop to get the keys from him. He’s outside building a birch-bark canoe he hopes to sell for income. “Maybe I could get $2,000 for it,” he says. Looking behind him, I see the frame of the canoe and step towards it. “Don’t go any further, Father,” he warns and says, “My dog is mean and will bite you. He doesn’t listen to me.”

I first spoke to Laurent the day before when I was in Black Lake and his nephew, Billy Jack, suggested I contact him about fishing. When I asked him when he would take me fishing, he said, “Father are you here for fishing or priestly ministry?” I answer, “Fishing, of course!” We both laugh. “You remind me of Father Joe,” he responds. “I took him fishing on a Sunday afternoon. It got late and I told him we had to head back for the evening Mass. Father Joe said they could wait. He was kidding, of course.” We laugh again. “Father Joe was a good priest, too. I still phone him.” Readers will recall Fr. Joe Daley who built the new church in Fort Simpson, which we wrote about. I met Fr. Joe at the opening Mass just before Bishop Hagemoen left for the Saskatoon Diocese. Fr. Joe is now retired, which is a big loss to the new Bishop Hansen.

Fr. Charles Gamache, OMI, former pastor of Our Lady of Sorrows, Fond du Lac, SK

Laurent was also a good friend of Fr. Charles Gamache, OMI, former pastor of Our Lady of Sorrows, Fond du Lac. It is a mission of the Mackenzie- Fort Smith Diocese, but pastorally administered by the Keewatin-Le Pas Archdiocese. Fr. Gamache was spiritual father to the Dene of the Athabasca region at the north-western corner of Saskatchewan near the Alberta and Northwest Territories borders. Founded over 150 years ago by the Denesuline First Nation in pursuit of furs, fish and hunting and signature to Treaty 8. In 1949, the Black Lake Band split off.

When I flew in from the Black Lake mission, I passed by Fr. Gamache Memorial school. The morning I left for Toronto, I celebrated an opening Mass for 300 kids there for grades K-12. Gamache was an Oblate who was here from 1940-1984, as far as I could tell from the baptismal register. His is a story of a priest becoming one with his people; living among them and living as they lived.

Later in the day, Laurent comes by the rectory for a cup of tea in the tiny kitchen. We continue our conversation. He worked in Uranium City as a refining operator for the mine, which is now closed. Now there is high unemployment in the region. When I ask about how young people are managing, he says they sit at home and watch tv. That was not the way he was raised. His parents took the family to live in the bush for three years. That was where he learned to live off the land. So many things have changed for him. Born in 1940, there were only a few families in Fond du Lac and were poor. “The priests helped us a lot,” he said with glistening eyes. They would hunt, fish and garden. A bunch of us kids would hang around the church causing trouble. The priest came outside and gave us heck, then invited us in to pray the rosary. After, they gave us cookies they had baked. They were good bakers. We liked being with them and saying the rosary, but we liked the cookies even more. The priest said Mass every morning and the rosary in the evening. Everyone went. Things are so different now.” I hear his lament. It’s a repeating story across the country and not only in indigenous communities.

He takes me fishing on Lake Athabasca the next day. For his age, he is quite spry. We motor for 20 minutes east to Grease River. In the space of an hour, we caught twelve 4-6 lb lake trout. “How about a shore lunch, Father,” Laurent asks? I’m game. We beach the boat and unload. “What will you do with all the fish,” I ask? “Smoke’um,” he answers. “What do you use?” “Birch.” While he’s cleaning the fish, I make a fire, get tea brewing and put the potatoes on. Later, I add the fish. Laurent comes to the fire saying, “This really isn’t my cabin, father. Father Gamache built it and I added on after he died. He was a great man and everyone respected him. He brought materials out by skidoo. It was his place to get away to fish, hunt and pray. We had many good times here.” I can tell Gamache is a dear memory for him. “Father Joe Daley used to come here too. We used to fish together. And, he liked hunting, too.”

President Fr. Reilander enjoys fresh caught lake trout at Noey’s cottage, Lake Athabaska, SK

The fish is ready. Laurent cuts some poplar branches and puts the fish on them. Unfortunately, the potatoes are overdone. “We’re eating outside because I can’t find my key.” It’s ok by me. The fish is great and we relax with tea. He continues his story about the mine then says he never learned to read and write. He never went to the residential school because his parents took the family to the bush. “I could live in the bush, father. That’s where I’m happiest. I don’t bring my wife anymore because she’s not well. I like spending all day outside. We were so poor when we were growing up. Everybody was. It was a tough life. Then the mine opened. My wife and I have been married for 55 years. Our kids are all professionals. I can’t just sit around. I need to be active.” He had a heart-attack a few years back. I sure couldn’t tell.

Laurent returns two days later to give me some of the fish he smoked. “Here, Father, try this. I think I used too much salt. If you like it, I’ll give you some more.” I return the favour with the trout soup I made and bread I made. I make him tea and we settle in to chatting again. “Father Gamache and Brother Gean La Bonté built the garden you see behind this house. Kids continue their garden. Those two did so many things for the people. They would go out into the bush and cut wood for heating. They would hunt and bring back caribou. You could buy a side of meat for a dollar. They were hard working priests. Us boys would hang around them and do whatever they said. We were happy to do it and we liked doing it. As I grew, Fr. Gamache became my friend. One time, I took him 60 miles north by dog sled to Scott Lake. He sat in the sled covered in wolf fur and smoked his pipe. I don’t remember what tobacco he used, but I liked the smell.” (I found lots of Alouette Tobacco cans in the basement.)

Laurent is symbolic of many indigenous who were inspired by their missionary priests and were deeply committed to their faith. His stories of Gamache and Daley are indicative of that. His appreciation of his Catholic faith characterizes his generation and it was the work and personalities of the missionaries that resulted in it. We owe a great debt to untold numbers of priests and religious, who gave up a life of comfort for sacrifice in the missions of our vast country.

As a note, the Government of Canada recently signed Treaty 8 with the Dene of Black Lake and Fond du Lac.

Fr. Gamache’s garden still in operation by the band. From left are workers Renee Adam, Stevie Ray Mercredi, Manager Julienne Martin and Marren Beavereye