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Alberta's Francophone Heritage
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John RowandToward the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th century in Northwestern Canada, an intense competition for furs was waged, sometimes settled with weapons by the employees of the two main fur-trade companies of the time, the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) and the North West Company (NWC) whose employees were known as Nor’westers. The personnel for the HBC was mostly drawn from the British Isles, particularly Scotland and the Orkney Islands, and arrived by sea via Hudson Bay, landing at one of their four posts on the bay or James Bay. The Nor’westers drew their work force from the St. Lawrence valley, and increasingly from the growing Métis population of the Northwest, who were French-speaking and often Catholic.

The Canadians went up river in their canoes to collect the furs, which they call "pelu." It took two years to make the return trip from the Athabasca basin to Montreal, since Peter Pond’s discovery of the Portage-la-Loche in 1778—the portage was a particular hotbed for the meeting of the brigades. The employees of the HBC were also active, and with their solid whale boats built according to the Orkney tradition, they provided the Nor’westers with some powerful competition. In spite of this, both companies were relatively prosperous.

Though the HBC officially controlled Rupert’s Land, which included the Red River Valley, the Forks of the Red River were on the main shipping route of the Nor’westers on their way to the Athabasca River. When a new shareholder with the HBC, wealthy and idealistic Thomas Douglas, Earl of Selkirk, decided to establish a colony at the Forks for dispossessed Scots and retiring employees of the HBC, he aroused fierce opposition on the part of the Nor’westers. Their post on the Red River, Fort Gibraltar, was essential to the safety of their suppliers of pemmican and other goods. Fearing the Douglas’ colony would bring them nothing but harm, the employees of the NWC set fire to it. In retaliation, the HBC men demolished Fort Gibraltar. Next, the Métis of the NWC ambushed the HBC men, and 20 of them were killed at Seven Oaks. Only one Métis man was killed. Known as the Seven Oaks Incident (or "La Grenouillère"), this virtually spontaneous affair lead to the demise of the NWC and its eventual amalgamation with the HBC in 1821.

Simon McTavishThe Red River colony continued to receive Selkirk’s support. He recruited new settlers, demobilised mercenaries of the Swiss De Meuron regiment who had been fighting for the British at Plattsburg in 1812. The soldiers were Catholic, as were the Scottish settlers, and Selkirk promised them schools and priests. Hoping that the presence of the clergy would help to calm the Canadians and Métis, Selkirk addressed himself to the diocese of Quebec and asked for missionaries for the colony. In 1818, Bishop Plessis sent three young priests from his dioceses, including Joseph-Norbert Provencher, who established the mission of St. Boniface. Provencher is ordained bishop and vicar apostolic of the district of the northwest in 1822, which became the diocese of Hudson Bay and James Bay in 1844, and included the territory to the west of the Great Lakes to the Pacific and Arctic Oceans.

At first, Provencher ministered only to the settlers and Métis of the Red River area, but he soon interested himself in engaging the indigenous people as well. The old Canadian voyageurs and the Métis from outside the colony often took advantage of trips to Red River in an effort to have their children baptized and make their marriages official. The news got around, and the demand for priests increased. Canadian settlers, such as those who were in Oregon, requested clergy in their areas. Two priests from Quebec, Modeste Demers and François-Norbert Blanchet, agreed to leave their posts to go to the West Coast. As they travelled west in 1838, they stopped at the fur forts along the way, baptizing and ministering to the faithful as they went.1 After receiving several requests from chief factor John Rowand of Fort Edmonton, and another from the chief of a Cree band, named Piché, Provencher sent Jean-Baptiste Thibault on a mission journey into what is now Alberta.

Archbishop Alexandre Antonin TacheThere were not enough priests in the diocese to suffice, and Provencher began to seek religious communities to come and help, convinced that the combined effort of these communities would help overcome the great obstacles of the Canadian Northwest: isolation, huge distances, and primitive conditions. The Sisters of Charity of Montreal agreed to come in 1844. At the request of Bishop Bourget of the diocese of Montreal, the community of the missionary Oblates of Mary, established in Marseilles, had just sent a few members to Canada in 1841, and when Provencher asked for help for his missions, two missionaries were sent. Alexandre Taché was a Canadian and Pierre Aubert was French, but together, theirs were the first steps of the Oblate odyssey in the Canadian Northwest.

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