Fr. Felician Labat

Respected N.W.T. missionary, promoter of Dene language and culture is remembered.

Katie Toth · CBC News · 

Felicien Labat was 25 when he moved to Deline in 1954; he died at 89 years old last Thursday

Fr. Labat

Felicien Labat at his retirement home in St. Albert, Alta., in 2017. (Submitted by Harold Cook)

A respected missionary of the Northwest Territories, who spent his life promoting Dene languages and cultures, has died.

Felicien Labat was 25 years old when he moved to Deline, N.W.T., in 1954.

Labat was “the last of the priests” that spoke her language, understood the region’s elders, and learned about her nation’s traditional way of life, said Lucy Jackson, speaking in North Slavey on CBC Le Got’She Deh radio show.

“These priests came with dog teams to visit us in bush camps and helped us where they can,” said Jackson, adding that Labat always delivered mass and said prayers in her language.

He wanted to come home with us … He said, ‘my people are here.’–  Laura Tobac

Labat was also stationed at Fort Smith, Norman Wells, Fort Good Hope and Hay River.

Denis Croteau, the former bishop of the Mackenzie-Fort Smith Diocese, calls him “a good and faithful servant” who chose to forgo working in institutions for most of his life, instead dogsledding into small communities.

“He identified with them, their culture,” said Croteau. “People felt that when they were talking, he was all ears.”

‘Very different’ from other priests

Laura Tobac lived in Fort Good Hope in the 1970s when Labat was a priest there.

She remembers being a teenager and working with Labat on a community newspaper called the Hare Express.

Labat was “very different” from other priests, said Tobac.

“[He was] so understanding and easy to talk to,” she said. “He liked traditional food. He’ll eat with you… Whenever people were sick he was always there.”

Father Labat, centre, with Norman and Raymond Yakeleya, at Labat’s retirement home in Alberta. (Submitted by Harold Cook)

Labat stood in solidarity with Dene leaders Frank and John T’seleie when Justice Thomas Berger arrived in Fort Good hope for his historic visit.

The judge was conducting an inquiry into the possibility of a natural gas pipeline through the Mackenzie Valley. Berger ultimately recommended a 10-year moratorium on all construction, so Indigenous land claims could be settled and conservation efforts could be put in place.

Toward the end of his life, Labat became hospital chaplain at Stanton Territorial Hospital in Yellowknife. But as his health continued to decline, he moved to a home for aging priests and missionaries in St. Albert, Alta.

“He didn’t really want to go,” said Croteau. But when he lost his driver’s licence and couldn’t see patients at Stanton, he didn’t see another option.

Tobac says she visited Labat in St. Albert last year.

“He wanted to come home with us,” said Tobac. “He said, ‘my people are here.'”

Labat died on April 12 at 89 years old. His body will rest at the Oblate Plot at St. Albert Catholic Cemetery in Alberta.