Easter with a First Nations community

April 26, 2019 — Wednesday of Holy Week began with an early morning shuttle to an out-of-the-way airport terminal in central Winnipeg. The bleary-eyed woman at the check-in counter confirmed my ticket to Lac Brochet, Manitoba while carefully weighing my one hundred pounds of luggage.

After having travelled many times to Indigenous communities in the far north, experience has taught me how to pack. Along with the bare minimum of clothing, my duffle bags contained dried pasta; granola bars; various fruits; chocolate; as well as an assortment of miscellaneous items—such as toilet paper, a candle for Saturday’s vigil, and dozens of plastic rosaries for the kids.

While waiting for my flight—in the midst an assortment of passengers chatting casually in Dene, Ojibway, and Cree—I was aware of how the departure lounge of Perimeter Airlines was the vesting sacristy for my Triduum experience.

The two connecting flights were altogether without incident—which seemed unusual given the wild and unpredictable nature of northern travel. The small propeller plane was crammed with community locals, a new teacher coming to fill a vacancy, two nurses, and me—referred to simply by those on the flight as the priest.

My arrival to the community of about 950 people was heartening, as everyone was expecting me. The regular priest—away celebrating Easter in another location—sent out a Facebook message announcing my arrival on the regular scheduled Wednesday flight. Everyone knew I was coming, and there were big smiles as I walked across the tarmac.

Lac Brochet is predominantly a Dene community, and—from my knowledge of the local population from previous experience—it is fiercely Catholic. The church building is meticulously cared for and highly respected; the grotto outside draws the faithful throughout the day; and most self-identify as practising Catholics. Devotions such as Confession or the Rosary are embraced with great zeal by almost everyone, and there’s an authentic spirituality that permeates the lives of residents. Many will speak frankly about their vulnerabilities, yet such words reveal a deep trust in Jesus’ passion and resurrection that really inspires me. Their faith is spoken about unabashedly and without hesitation—there is a real love for God and for the Catholic traditions that have sustained them.

My first few hours in the church rectory provided little time for rest after the long journey. Within a few minutes of my arrival, the phone rang and I was invited to an Easter feast at the school. I quickly unpacked, sorted my clothing, and hurried over for the gathering. I arrived just as one of the elders started to offer the prayer of thanksgiving in a gymnasium filled with parents and students. In a quiet voice, she made the Sign of the Cross… and the entire room went silent. Then, without a microphone, she proceeded to pray earnestly in the Dene language—with every man, woman, and child paying full attention. At the end, there was a slight pause, and the whole room concluded with a hearty amen… The feast had begun.

Tables were filled with potatoes, ham, turkey, vegetables, bannock and all the fixings. Admittedly—if there was one change in lifestyle that I wish non-Indigenous people would adopt—it would be that sharing must always be a priority. Indigenous communities demonstrate without fail that people should always offer out of their abundance to those who have less. If you are in a vehicle and someone is walking, you offer a ride; if you have food and someone is hungry, you offer a bite; if you have friends and someone seems alone, you include them. I have never had an experience of being excluded, or isolated, or hungry among the Indigenous—and this is perhaps why I keep returning north.

It is only Wednesday of Holy Week and I haven’t yet been in the community for even eight hours. All the same, I know what is to come... and how moments such as the washing of the feet; the adoration of the Blessed Sacrament; the veneration of the cross; and lighting of the Easter fire will inspire me—how they will transform me. To be honest, the Triduum has occasionally felt like something I must endure once a year. Nevertheless, my experiences of the Triduum in the far north reveal with clarity that the liturgies of Easter reflect a truth about God’s people. In the Eucharistic celebration of Holy Thursday, our Lord enters into us so we can become more like him; on the cross of Good Friday, we suffer with Jesus in acknowledgment that we are his body; and with the glorious shouts of joy at the Easter Vigil, we proclaim that suffering and death are never the end. Despite the heavy darkness that may grip us now—light and life will always be the final word.

God bless you from Lac Brochet, Manitoba.

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