Last Updated: Wednesday - 01/05/2011
December 24, 2001
TV looks at northern Oblates
Documentary will open eyes to Oblates' efforts in northern Canada
WESTERN CATHOLIC REPORTER
By now, Catholics have become fairly accustomed to seeing the Catholic Church vilified or, at least, misrepresented in TV "documentaries" about the Church.
But in God's Explorers, to be televised on History Television Jan. 2 at 7 p.m. and 10 p.m., viewers will see a sympathetic portrayal of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, their early missions in the North and their involvement with residential schools.
This 95-minute documentary, by Susan Cardinal, combines much archival footage, never before televised, with interviews with Oblates, Dene people of the Mackenzie Valley and academic historians.
God's Explorers certainly does not whitewash the residential schools issue. What it does is provide the historical context in which one can understand how the Western Canadian Oblates changed from being a religious order of itinerant missionaries to one which set up orphanages and schools to protect native people from the ravages of disease and the loss of the buffalo.
It shows the displeasure of the Oblates' superior general, Father Theodore Laboure, who toured the residential schools in 1935 and told the local Oblates they were losing their way. Laboure urged them to abandon the schools and go back to living among the native people.
Cardinal, in her narration, wryly observes, "The system proves harder to tear down than it was to build up."
Eventually, the Oblates, who were "the unofficial government of the North" for decades, were pushed out of their control of schools and hospitals in the 1960s when the federal government awakened to the economic potential of the region.
Cardinal interviews Dene who were devastated by their experiences in the residential schools, but also one who found her school to be a fine place. She tells of the trauma of Oblates who worked tirelessly in the residential schools for their entire adult lives, only to find now that aboriginal people view their work as destructive of their culture.
Cardinal also shows in several ways how the Catholic faith has become integral to the aboriginal way of life.
In one remarkable scene, she interviews 90-year-old Joa Boots who has lovingly created a shrine to Jesus in his remote home near the Mackenzie River. Most of what Boots knows about the faith is self-taught because the missionaries were always on the move and he was usually out in the bush.
After taking on the project in 1997, Cardinal went to great lengths to build trust with both the Dene and the Oblates so she could tell their stories. Indeed, trust has been in short supply in recent relations between the two groups.
But God's Explorers is much more than a collection of talking heads. Cardinal has managed to unearth large amounts of film footage from the past to illustrate the attitudes of the Oblates, the way native children were treated and how the residential schools were presented to the wider public.
The documentary tells of Bishop Breynat who fought to provide education and health care to the Dene and then championed the signing of treaties with the government as a way to ensure their rights would be protected. When Ottawa began to violate the treaties it had just signed, Breynat wrote an article in a national magazine telling what he called "the ugly story of greed, ruthlessness and broken promises" brought by the white man's invasion.
Yet, decades later, many Dene were denouncing those treaties as a betrayal of their culture.
That led Father Rene Fumoleau - who plays a large role in God's Explorers — to do landmark research into the history of those treaties.
Some of Cardinal's narration will grate on Catholic ears, including her comment that "The Oblates (came to the North) armed with an intolerant theology." But she backs up such commentary with quotes from Oblates themselves, such as Father Guy Lavallee who states, "You couldn't be a Christian without adopting the European standards."
Still, she has provided a marvellous piece of documentary TV that will open the eyes of many Canadians to the heroic contributions of the Oblates in making the North what it is today. It is a must-see for anyone interested in expanding his or her knowledge of the Catholic Church in the great Northwest.
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