A peo­ple’s priest

Af­ter a life­time of ser­vice to the poor, par­tic­u­larly in Al­berta, Camille Piche is off to Rome

Edmonton Journal - - SUNDAY READER - ED STRUZIK ED­MON­TON

“It al­ways hap­pens

like that. Just when

I line up a nice

cushy job in

Colom­bia,

I get sum­moned

to Rome.”

Ca mi l l e P i c h e

CamillePichewa­son­hisway­totheim­pov­er­ished city of Cochabamba in Bo­livia last Fe­bru­ary to meet Catholic mis­sion­ar­ies work­ing with the poor when he was blind­sided by a let­ter from his boss. Would he con­sider the pos­si­bil­ity of com­ing to Rome to as­sume the role of world­wide di­rec­tor of Peace and Jus­tice in an of­fice sit­u­ated up the hill from the Vat­i­can? The St. Al­bert-based priest’s ini­tial re­sponse was “No.” Af­ter hav­ing spent most of his life work­ing with the poor and in­dige­nous peo­ple in the Macken­zie Val­ley of the North­west Ter­ri­to­ries, on re­serves in north­ern Al­berta, in the slums of Haiti and with Mayan peas­ants in Gu­atemala, liv­ing in the rel­a­tive lap of lux­ury in one of the most beau­ti­ful cities in the world just didn’t seem to be the thing for him to do. More im­por­tant, he was 70 years old and had not been in the best of health.

So Piche po­litely sug­gested that some­one younger and more en­er­getic be given the op­por­tu­nity to work with front-line groups like Amnesty In­ter­na­tional, Bread for the World, the Rain­bow of Hope for Chil­dren and other non-gov­ern­ment or­ga­ni­za­tions that shared the same cause as this arm of the Catholic Church.

But Rev. Oswald Firth, the Gen­eral Coun­cil­lor of the world­wide Oblate Mis­sion­ar­ies, wouldn’t be de­nied. There is in Piche, he says, “the kind of fire and pas­sion that is needed in a man who is go­ing to work with the wounded and the op­pressed and who can show sol­i­dar­ity with them.” He in­sisted that Piche al­low his name to stand for the job. Sev­eral weeks later, Piche was in Paraguay learn­ing to speak Span­ish and think­ing about the pos­si­bil­ity of work­ing with or­phans and street chil­dren in Colom­bia when the call came from Fr. Guillermo Steck­ling, “the big boss in Rome.” The job was his to take.

“It al­ways hap­pens like that,” says Piche, back home and pack­ing his mod­est be­long­ings.

“Just when I line up a nice cushy job in Colom­bia, I get sum­moned to Rome.”

T he

Road to Rome for Piche be­gan long be­fore South Amer­ica and well be­fore he be­came a priest in 1963. In seek­ing or­di­na­tion, the son of de­vout farm­ers from Gravelbourg, Sask. was fol­low­ing in the foot­steps of an un­cle, brother, cousin and two sis­ters who went on to be­come a bishop, priests, nun and lay mis­sion­ary re­spec­tively. Be­ing Catholic, he says, was as nat­u­ral as be­ing a farmer. There was re­ally no other way of looking at the world.

But Piche’s con­ven­tional Catholic view of life changed dra­mat­i­cally a year later when he took his Obe­di­ence with the Oblate mis­sion­ar­ies. He was liv­ing in the Do­grib com­mu­nity of Rae in the North­west Ter­ri­to­ries at the time. Poor as his fam­ily was, he never imag­ined the kind of grind­ing poverty that the Dene peo­ple there en­dured.

“See­ing a fam­ily of nine chil­dren, the poor­est of the poor, liv­ing in a tent in -60ºC weather in Jan­uary, it was ob­vi­ous to me that chil­dren freez­ing in to­tally in­ad­e­quate hous­ing was def­i­nitely not God’s will.”

So Piche did what other Oblate mis­sion­ar­ies in the Cana­dian North had be­gun to do. He started a co-op to an­swer the press­ing needs of the peo­ple in the com­mu­nity. To­gether, they built new homes, a hand­i­craft cen­tre and a means of dis­tribut­ing fire­wood to every­one who needed it.

The ex­pe­ri­ence, he says, re­de­fined what it meant to be a Catholic priest. Litur­gi­cal cel­e­bra­tions, he re­al­ized, meant noth­ing if the peo­ple he served didn’t have the means of self-determination.

Since then, Piche has been on fire, pro­mot­ing abo­rig­i­nal in­ter­ests here in Canada and abroad. He was the one who got the idea of invit­ing the Pope to Fort Simp­son in the North­west Ter­ri­to­ries. He was the one who con­vinced the Oblates to turn the Lac St. Anne pil­grim­age grounds over to Métis and abo­rig­i­nal con­trol. The apol­ogy the Oblates made to res­i­den­tial schools vic­tims was spear­headed, in part, by him.

“I’ve known Camille for a long, long time,” says Charles Wood, the for­mer chief of Sad­dle Lake, a for­mer res­i­den­tial school stu­dent and one of the board mem­bers who took con­trol of the Lac Ste. Anne land trust.

“This I can say about him. Of all the priests I have known over the years, and I have known many, he’s the one who truly ex­em­pli­fies what a priest should be. He’s kind, un­der­stand­ing, and com­pas­sion­ate. He also be­lieves what my peo­ple be­lieve — that there is one God and one Cre­ator for all of mankind. There is not one God who is bet­ter than an­other. You don’t get that from him.

“What I re­ally like about Camille, though, is that there is joy in ev­ery meet­ing I have with him. I look for­ward to ev­ery one of his vis­its.”

At his most se­ri­ous, Piche has the no-non­sense, res­o­lute look of the strict Catholic priest who strikes fear in the heart of ev­ery al­tar boy who has sneaked a sip of sacra­men­tal wine.

That may be why his quick wit and mis­chievous sense of hu­mour can be so dis­arm­ing.

Pat Scott, a for­mer jour­nal­ist who is now a land­claims ne­go­tia­tor for the De­hcho in the North­west Ter­ri­to­ries, re­calls vis­it­ing Piche at his home in Fort Prov­i­dence in the North­west Ter­ri­to­ries more than 25 years ago.

“I had long hair and a beard back then,” he says. “Camille and I were out­side talk­ing when th­ese kids rode up on their bi­cy­cles, point­ing at me and ask­ing: ‘Fa­ther, is that Je­sus?’ Camille didn’t miss a beat. “Yup,” he said. “And off the kids went to tell every­one they had just seen Je­sus.”

Scott was there the night when Piche got a num­ber of peo­ple from Fort Simp­son to­gether to con­sider the idea of invit­ing the Pope to come to the small Dene town on the banks of the Liard and Macken­zie rivers.

“It was such an im­prob­a­ble prospect that most of us, in­clud­ing Jim An­toine, who was the chief at the time, re­ally didn’t know what to say,” Scott re­calls. “But the more we talked about it, the more we thought: ‘Why not? What was there to lose?’ ”

The rest, of course, is his­tory.

Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple from all across Canada made the pil­grim­age to Fort Simp­son in Septem­ber 2004 for the once-in-a-life­time op­por­tu­nity to meet the Pope in an in­ti­mate out­door set­ting.

In spite of con­cerns that it would turn out to be an or­ga­ni­za­tional dis­as­ter, the stage was set per­fectly for the his­toric visit. Even the weather, which can be nasty in the Macken­zie Val­ley in Septem­ber, was blaz­ing with bril­liant sun­shine all that week.

But just as the throngs were mak­ing their way to the out­door mass site early on the morn­ing of the Pope’s ar­rival, a thick wall of fog snaked in along the Liard River. By the time the pa­pal plane was on its fi­nal ap­proach to the air­port, vis­i­bil­ity was so poor that the pi­lot had no other op­tion but to di­vert the flight to Yel­lowknife. There, the de­ci­sion was made to carry on with the Cana­dian tour in­stead of at­tempt­ing a re­turn to Fort Simp­son.

As an­gry as some peo­ple were about the Church’s de­ci­sion, Piche re­mains philo­soph­i­cal about what hap­pened.

“For many peo­ple, it was a sign that sug­gested they just weren't ready for the visit,” he says. “For oth­ers, it was a re­minder that they didn’t need the Pope to cel­e­brate their spir­i­tu­al­ity. What­ever the in­ter­pre­ta­tion, his not com­ing that year forced peo­ple to con­sider who they were and what it was that ful­filled their spir­i­tual needs. In that sense, I look at it in a pos­i­tive light.”

While Piche’s in­volve­ment in this pa­pal visit, and the one that fol­lowed three years later in Fort Simp­son, could be seen as signs that he was part of the Church es­tab­lish­ment, noth­ing could have been fur­ther from the truth.

The real truth was that Piche, Rene Fu­moleau, Lou Menez and other like-minded Oblates in the North were rebels, sym­pa­thetic to the tenets of lib­er­a­tion the­ol­ogy and to the as­pi­ra­tions of a young and in­creas­ingly dis­grun­tled Dene lead­er­ship that re­sented the fact that most gov­ern­ment de­ci­sions af­fect­ing the ter­ri­tory were be­ing made from Ottawa.

Of all the priests

I have known over

the years … he’s

the one who truly

ex­em­pli­fies what

a priest should be.

He’s kind,

un­der­stand­ing, and

com­pas­sion­ate. Ch a r l e s Wo o d , the f o r me r chief of

Sad­dle Lake

This proved to be a dif­fi­cult time for Piche, not just be­cause he had be­come a thorn in the side of the bishop, but be­cause the bishop at the time hap­pened to be his fa­ther’s brother.

“Bishop (Paul) Piche was a good, com­pas­sion­ate man who did a great deal of good for peo­ple in the North,” says his nephew. “But like many peo­ple liv­ing in the North­west Ter­ri­to­ries at the time, his phi­los­o­phy was rooted in the past. Some of us thought that it was time to move for­ward and rec­og­nize that the Dene and Métis were more than ca­pa­ble of gov­ern­ing them­selves.”

Piche looks back at the rad­i­cal years of the 1970s as some of the most sat­is­fy­ing of his long ca­reer.

But the mo­ments that were most spe­cial to him, he says, were the more sim­ple ones, like the time he wel­comedthein­cor­po­ra­tionof­shaman­is­man­dDene drum­ming­in­toac­er­e­mony­commem­o­rat­ingth­e­lives of­fivey­oung­peo­ple­who­haddrowned­neartheGreat Bear Lake vil­lage of Deline.

The syn­ergy that came from the mix­ing of those two spir­i­tual worlds, he says, was in­cred­i­bly pow­er­ful.

Al­ways striv­ing to look on the pos­i­tive side of life, Piche ad­mits to suf­fer­ing through mo­ments of deep de­spair. There was the time, for ex­am­ple, when no one stopped the drunk who dis­rupted mid­night mass at Christ­mas in As­sump­tion. There were the dys­func­tional fam­i­lies who ne­glected their chil­dren. There were the wife beat­ings that he had no power to stop, and the sui­cides that made no sense.

Each time he fell into de­spair though, he rose up, in­spired by one of the most pro­found mo­ments of his child­hood.

“It was around har­vest time,” he says. “I don’t re­mem­ber ex­actly how old I was. What I re­mem­ber is the tremendous feel­ing of op­ti­mism my par­ents had when it ap­peared that we would fi­nally have a good crop. For the first time that I could re­mem­ber, they started talk­ing about ac­quir­ing the very ba­sic things we needed, but didn’t have. And then one late af­ter­noon, this vi­o­lent hail­storm tore across the prairie, dev­as­tat­ing ev­ery­thing in its path. When the storm passed, I drove out to the land with my fa­ther to see how bad the dam­age was. It was ob­vi­ous that just about ev­ery­thing was lost. But as we walked along the rows, my fa­ther only looked at what had sur­vived. ‘We’ll be OK,’ he as­sured me. ‘There’s enough here to get us by.’

“I was re­ally struck by that. And you know, he was right. We got by.”

In pre­par­ing to go to Rome this month (Septem­ber) Piche finds him­self still some­what bat­tered and bruised by the res­i­den­tial school scan­dal in which the Oblates faced more than 3,000 law­suits from for­mer abo­rig­i­nal stu­dents who claimed they were sex­u­ally or phys­i­cally abused while at­tend­ing the in­sti­tu­tions.

He was in­ti­mately in­volved in the ne­go­ti­a­tions that re­sulted in a huge out-of-court set­tle­ment and a pub­lic apol­ogy from the Gov­ern­ment of Canada.

On the one hand, he is re­lieved that those who suf­fered at the hands of lay teach­ers, priests and nuns, have fi­nally got the jus­tice they de­manded and de­served.

But he is also sad­dened by the fact that some close friends and ac­quain­tances who have passed away never got a chance to de­clare or de­fend their in­no­cence.

What he de­sires most now is that the Oblates forge a new re­la­tion­ship with abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple.

“Abo­rig­i­nal peo­ple through­out the world have had to bear the brunt of in­jus­tice, in many cases with their lives,” he says. “It is true that we im­posed our Latin lan­guage and rit­u­als, our re­li­gious cus­toms and ways and too read­ily in­ter­preted their spir­i­tu­al­ity as su­per­sti­tion.

“Per­haps now, if th­ese events can be un­der­stood as a cer­tain pu­rifi­ca­tion of our mis­sion we can con­tinue our min­istry with a re­newed di­a­logue. We can work along with First Na­tions and not for them.”

Looking back on the five months he re­cently spent in South Amer­ica, Piche is itch­ing to prac­tise what he preaches.

“I couldn’t think of a bet­ter way to pre­pare my­self for this job and to see first-hand the work of the Oblates and the sit­u­a­tion of the poor, of the in­dige­nous peo­ples as well as the campesinos in those coun­tries, how they are af­fected di­rectly ei­ther by free trade or by min­eral ex­plo­ration,” he said.

“I wit­nessed this first hand when I vis­ited the Doe Run­z­inc and sil­ver mine in La Oroya re­gion of Peru.

“There, Fa­ther Miguel Cor­dovas showed me the farm­lands that are been dev­as­tated by the pol­lu­tion. The hill­sides are bar­ren and ster­ile be­cause of acid rain. The river is con­tam­i­nated and its wa­ter un­drink­able. It’s a ter­ri­ble sight to see chil­dren ex­posed to this.”

Piche pre­dicts that the free-trade agree­ment that Canada and Peru re­cently signed will only worsen the sit­u­a­tion.

“The agree­ment, which was com­pleted in just five months and without any con­sul­ta­tion, gives the min­ing in­dus­try an op­por­tu­nity to make a lot of money, to ex­ploit the re­sources of the land with very lit­tle en­vi­ron­men­tal stan­dards and also with very good con­di­tions such as cheap labour,” said Piche.

“As a Cana­dian, I was sad­dened to see that no one ob­jected to this. I al­ways thought that Canada was a just so­ci­ety but I think right now we are just off the path.”

Piche says that in his new role, he will do what­ever he can to work with oth­ers to hold gov­ern­ments and cor­po­ra­tions ac­count­able for what they do in the Third World.

“Our work will re­ally take place at the grass­roots, as it has in my­case, with count­less num­bers of peo­ple work­ing some­times at the per­sonal level or with oth­ers to give hope and com­bat poverty,” says Piche.

“It’s im­por­tant that we net­work with oth­ers, ei­ther Oblates, NGOs, or other so­cially con­scious groups, to bring about struc­tural change and im­prove the lives of many so that the poor will re­al­ize their dig­nity as beloved sons and daugh­ters of God.”

SUP­PLIED PHO­TOS

Camille Piche is one of a num­ber of Oblate mis­sion­ar­ies who have shown sol­i­dar­ity with young Dene leaders who are im­pa­tient with the de­ci­sion-mak­ing con­trolled by politi­cians in Ottawa.

SUP­PLIED SUP­PLIED SUP­PLIED SUP­PLIED

Piche was the son of poor farm­ers, but that didn’t pre­pare him for the grind­ing poverty he saw on re­serves. Piche was among a hand­ful of Oblate mis­sion­ar­ies who rec­og­nized that the Dene view of a Cre­ator was not much dif­fer­ent from the Chris­tian view...

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