Pilgrimage respects customs, traditions

People making the pilgrimage to Lac St. Anne gathered for a group photo just before departure on July 12. This year marks the 17th time the group has made the trip. The pilgrimage site is an important place of social, cultural and spiritual rejuvenation.

Chris Clegg

Blaine Cunningham is no stranger to making the pilgrimage to Lac Ste. Anne from Driftpile.

In fact, when he harnessed his team of horses for the trip, which began July 12, it marked the 14th time.

“We do it for the kids, to keep the traditions going,” he says.

The children, he says, look forward to the pilgrimage so much they begin asking in the winter when they are making the trip.

Honouring their ancestors and respecting First Nations cultures are other reasons a few brave all kinds of weather each year to make the 250-km pilgrimage to Lac Ste. Anne. It is very important for Driftpile and area residents to keep the traditions alive.

“It’s honouring our ancestors and fathers and mothers who went before us,” said Elder Gabe Isadore Sr. two years ago. It was a theme and reminder repeated by many during opening prayers and speeches.

Isadore’s parents made their first trip to Lac Ste. Anne in 1944 when he was eight years old. They were the first to cut the trail through the bush as they went along to Lac Ste. Anne, thus blazing the way for others to go.

Peter Freeman and Clifford Freeman started the pilgrimage in 2001 to get people together as a community, and keep the old traditions alive.

Elder Roger Okimaw said a prayer before this year’s departure and wished all participants and horses the best of luck, guidance and protection.

Cunningham spoke as president of the Driftpile Cree Nation Pilgrimage Society during the opening ceremonies and thanked the community, chief and council for its support.

Councillor Hank Giroux responded by saying chief and council was pleased to be able to support the trip.

“We fully supported it this year. I hope you enjoy yourself on this ride.”

“Seventeen years ago I was part of the first wagon train,” added Nora Chapdelaine. “It was so joyful. A lot of the people aren’t on this trip. They are no longer with us but they will be with you.”

Brad Cunningham is the lead rider for the second year. It is his seventh trip riding although he had been on others as a passenger. It’s his job to check the ditches and trails to ensure they are good enough for the horses and wagons to follow. Pilot vehicles warn oncoming traffic of the wagon train.

This year, five wagons and about 30 people made the trip.

Celebrations at Lac Ste. Anne occur from July 22-27.

The Lac Ste. Anne Pilgrimage is a site of national historic significance. As early as 1889, Aboriginal people, including Cree, Dene, Blackfoot and Métis, have been coming to Lac Ste. Anne to celebrate the Feast of Saint Anne.

Saint Anne embodies, for many Aboriginal peoples, the traditional importance of the grandmother figure. For the Aboriginal people of Western and Northwestern Canada, the pilgrimage site is an important place of social, cultural and spiritual rejuvenation.

Robert Cardinal, left, and his son, Ty Cardinal, sang and drummed an honour song after prayers were offered. They are from Lubicon Lake.
A few of the younger children making the trip enjoy a quiet moment before the start. In the front, left-right, are Leroy Sawan and Nolan Jong. In the back, left-right, are Azaria Bergen, Deigen Willier, Brittania Ferguson, Mikah Cunningham and Damiana Willier.
Steve Thunder has cycled to Lac Ste. Anne all 17 years the trip has been made from Driftpile.
David Cunningham leads his team at the beginning of the pilgrimage. He has made the trip several times.

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