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A family from Wabasca, Alberta emerge after praying in Lac Ste Anne, on Wednesday, July 22, 2015. They were looking for a submerged rock, believed to hold the footprints of Saint Anne.

A family from Wabasca, Alberta emerge after praying in Lac Ste Anne, on Wednesday, July 22, 2015. They were looking for a submerged rock, believed to hold the footprints of Saint Anne.

Amber Bracken/for The Globe and Mail

The healing waters of Lac Ste. Anne

At the centre of Alberta lies a small prairie lake, weedy and cloudy with dirt, but every year pilgrims travel from all over the country to pray and bathe in in the lake of many names

Peter Tambour, from Hay River, NWT, finished a 12 month religious based treatment program a month before coming to the pilgrimage at Lac Ste Anne, Alberta on Monday, July 20, 2015

Peter Tambour, from Hay River, NWT, finished a 12 month religious based treatment program a month before coming to the pilgrimage at Lac Ste Anne, Alberta on Monday, July 20, 2015

Amber Bracken/for The Globe and Mail

They come from all across Canada and the northwestern U.S. to the lake of many names, a place where believers bathe in healing waters or pray from its shore line. The Nakota Sioux called it Wakamne, God's Lake. The Cree First Nation called it Lake of the Spirit. Others dubbed it Matchayaw, Devil's Lake, because something evil was said to lurk beneath the water's surface.

Eventually, the late 1800-era Catholic missionaries gave it a more saintly name, Lac Ste. Anne, which has become the setting for one of the largest annual gatherings combining traditional beliefs and spirituality for indigenous people.

The allure of this National Historic Site in northern Alberta has as much to do with the lake's history as it does its mysticism. It has been told that Sioux ancestors heard singing coming from the lake and understood it to be a message from God telling them about the water's healing powers.
Every third week in July – when the weather is at its best – the lake is blessed to provide comfort to the thousands of visitors in need of it. Organizers said 26,000 people came to the site throughout the recent six-day event. Some will hobble to the lake's edge on crutches; some will roll their wheelchairs until their feet are immersed in water. Suitably, the left-behind crutches and canes have been made into a shrine.

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Hundreds of believers bless the lake in a ceremony at Lac Ste Anne, Alberta on Sunday, July 19, 2015. Before Catholic missionaries arrived in the 1800's, Nakota First Nations called the lake Wakamne, or God's Lake, and First Nations people from all over North America came to pray and bathe in the healing water.

Hundreds of believers bless the lake in a ceremony at Lac Ste Anne, Alberta on Sunday, July 19, 2015. Before Catholic missionaries arrived in the 1800’s, Nakota First Nations called the lake Wakamne, or God’s Lake, and First Nations people from all over North America came to pray and bathe in the healing water.

Amber Bracken/for The Globe and Mail

Even the journey to Lac Ste. Anne has become part of the ritual. There are people who have turned the trek into an act of penance by walking barefoot for three hours to reach the site. Members of the Driftpile First Nation took a different approach. They arrived in a horse-drawn wagon caravan that spent 11 days on the road to redemption.

"Every clip clop of the horses' hooves is a prayer going up to God," said traveller Beatrice Collins.Peter Tambour had stopped believing in the lake. He was an alcoholic who would party in town rather than receive anyone's blessing. But at this year's pilgrimage, the native of Hay River, NWT, returned a new man having completed a 12-month religious-based treatment program.
Mr. Tambour was feeling so good he absolved the Catholic Church for its role in the residential schools scandal. (More than 145,000 First Nation, Métis and Inuit children were taken from their communities during the 1930s to the 1950s and forced to lose their cultural ties and speak English. They were also abused.)

Nolan Jong waits in the back of a wagon for the Driftpile First Nation caravan to make the final journey to Lac Ste Anne, Alberta on Sunday, July 19, 2015. Members of Driftpile First Nation traditionally made the trip by horse and people have reestablished the practice for the last 15 years.

Nolan Jong waits in the back of a wagon for the Driftpile First Nation caravan to make the final journey to Lac Ste Anne, Alberta on Sunday, July 19, 2015. Members of Driftpile First Nation traditionally made the trip by horse and people have reestablished the practice for the last 15 years.

Amber Bracken/for The Globe and Mail

"Residential schools took my culture," Mr. Tambour said. "And I thank God because if they hadn't, I wouldn't believe what I do today." Mr. Tambour used his reappearance at Lac Ste. Anne to see old friends and tell people about his freshly rekindled faith.

On the final night of this year's pilgrimage, there was dancing and singing and rhythmic drumming. Alexis Nakota Sioux band member Gabriel Aginus said there were different ways to worship, be it Catholic or indigenous, but in end it comes down to this, "We all pray to the same God."

Like many members of his community, Gabriel Aginus, 63, makes the journey to Lac Ste. Anne from Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation, Alberta as a sacrifice for the sick and people who've passed on Wednesday, July 22, 2015.

Like many members of his community, Gabriel Aginus, 63, makes the journey to Lac Ste. Anne from Alexis Nakota Sioux Nation, Alberta as a sacrifice for the sick and people who’ve passed on Wednesday, July 22, 2015.

Amber Bracken/for The Globe and Mail

A woman holds a rosary during Mass at Lac Ste. Anne, Alberta on Wednesday, July 22, 2015. Mass is performed in many languages, including Dene and Cree, and incorporate many cultural traditions.

A woman holds a rosary during Mass at Lac Ste. Anne, Alberta on Wednesday, July 22, 2015. Mass is performed in many languages, including Dene and Cree, and incorporate many cultural traditions.

Amber Bracken/for The Globe and Mail

Father Bill Bernard rests on the last eve of an 11 day caravan journey to Lac Ste. Anne from Driftpile, Alberta on Saturday, July 18, 2015. Father Bernard, who was on the trip for the first time, says he will do what he can to promote reconciliation between the Church and indigenous people.

Father Bill Bernard rests on the last eve of an 11 day caravan journey to Lac Ste. Anne from Driftpile, Alberta on Saturday, July 18, 2015. Father Bernard, who was on the trip for the first time, says he will do what he can to promote reconciliation between the Church and indigenous people.

Amber Bracken/for The Globe and Mail

Elizabeth P. Rabesca, attends mass at Lac Ste Anne on Monday, July 20, 2015. Rabesca travels every year from Behchoko, NWT on a seniors bus with 30-40 other people.

Elizabeth P. Rabesca, attends mass at Lac Ste Anne on Monday, July 20, 2015. Rabesca travels every year from Behchoko, NWT on a seniors bus with 30-40 other people.

Amber Bracken/for The Globe and Mail

Father Sylvain Lavoie prays with believers in Lac Ste Anne, Alberta on Sunday, July 19, 2015.

Father Sylvain Lavoie prays with believers in Lac Ste Anne, Alberta on Sunday, July 19, 2015.

Amber Bracken/for The Globe and Mail

Father Bernie Black and other believers lay hands on people as they pray at Lac Ste Anne, Alberta on Wednesday, July 22, 2015.

Father Bernie Black and other believers lay hands on people as they pray at Lac Ste Anne, Alberta on Wednesday, July 22, 2015.

Amber Bracken/for The Globe and Mail

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