A people’s priest
After a lifetime of service to the poor, particularly in Alberta, Camille Piche is off to Rome
“It always happens
like that. Just when
I line up a nice
cushy job in
I get summoned
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.”
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
a priest should be.
compassionate. Ch a r l e s Wo o d , the f o r me r chief of
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.”