In the 19th century in the Canadian Northwest, the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate set up a network of schools, becoming the dominant Catholic educators in the West. Provision of formal education was not originally part of the Oblate mandate, but there were very few schools in the Northwest Territories and there were needs to be met. Thus, establishing schools at missions became part of the Oblate mandate. The purpose of these schools was two-fold; first, providing a practical education to Aboriginal Peoples was meant to prepare them to live a sedentary life (in contrast to their traditional more nomadic life style), commensurate with the traditions and values of western European civilization. Second, schools were also a vehicle for education in the Catholic faith.
When the Oblates first arrived in the Northwest, at some missions, Oblate fathers would provide basic instruction at day schools, mostly to the Métis. In 1861, Father René Rémas opened a school at Fort Edmonton. Father Laurent Simonet taught school at his home in St. Laurent, Manitoba, beginning in 1863. Father Lacombe taught 40 students at Fort Macleod at a school started in 1883. Instruction at these schools included religious teachings, basic reading, writing and arithmetic. Some Oblates printed books in Aboriginal languages to aid these educational endeavors.
Many of the Oblate fathers, however, traveled from mission to mission, so their educational endeavors were sporadic. It was the Oblates’ partnership with female religious congregations such as the Sisters of Charity of Montreal/Nicolet (more commonly-known as the Grey Nuns), the Sisters of Providence, the Daughters of Jesus, the Sisters of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin, and the Faithful Companions of Jesus, that allowed the Oblates to fulfill their educational mandate. These congregations were specifically devoted to practical works such as operating schools, hospitals, orphanages, and long-term care facilities.
The sisters took a vow of poverty, so they worked only for room and board, making it possible for the Oblates to afford to provide education at their missions. Some of the convent schools run by the sisters were very prestigious; they ran large and impressive schools at Lac La Biche, St. Albert and Île-à-la-Crosse. Many of these schools also had orphanages. Part of their mandate was to teach young girls how to be future mothers and housekeepers, according to European domestic traditions. Boys were also provided with vocational training, supervised by lay brothers and Oblate fathers.
Educating Aboriginal and Métis children at these schools was not without problems. Many of the parents could not understand the benefits of education. Also, the populations at missions were constantly fluctuating, given the nomadic lifestyles of the Aboriginal families. The Mission assumed all costs of educating, boarding and lodging the students, as an incentive for parents to enroll their children. However, finances were constantly a problem. L’Oeuvre de la Sainte-Enfance in France was the Oblates’ primary means of obtaining funding for schools, though it was not always reliable. Students often had to assist with chores such as farming, which impacted on time in the classroom.
In the 1920s, the government began building new schools, which were now called Indian Residential Schools, and the few existing industrial schools ceased operations. Some, like Dunbow closed, while others became Indian Residential Schools. In most cases, individual Oblates continued their role, in a more formalized fashion, as principals of these schools. Since the schools were usually part of a mission, often lay brothers served as engineers, maintenance, and farmers as well. The women religious continued in their roles as teachers, child care workers, cooks and housekeepers, although lay workers began filling some of these roles.
In the 1950s, the government began to develop Indian Day schools, and this tended to reduce the numbers in residential care. In 1969, the government took over the administration and operation of the remaining Indian Residential Schools, and by the mid-1990s all had closed or been taken over by the Aboriginal communities.
The Oblates were far less involved in teaching White settlers. By the 1890s, Oblates in the Diocese of St. Albert were attempting to establish schools for growing numbers of French-Canadian settlers but new legislative measures by the government of the Northwest Territories took away access to funding for the Oblate’s Catholic schools. Ordinance number 22 of the North-West Territories of 1891-1892 was passed making English the only language of instruction in schools. The Oblates were also involved in the founding of seminaries. St. Albert had an Oblate-run seminary in 1900, Ste. Famille, which later became a junioriate.
In Edmonton, the Oblates operated a Grand Seminary from 1918 to 1927. Junioriate Saint-Jean, founded in Pincher Creek, Alberta in 1908, was moved to Edmonton in 1911. The Junioriate became a college in 1943, then, in 1976, it was sold to the University of Alberta and, in 1977, was renamed the Faculté St. Jean. It became the Campus Saint Jean in 2006 and the University’s Francophone campus.
Dunnigan, Jan and Greg Bounds. An Act of Faith: The Women and Men Religious of Edmonton Catholic Schools. Edmonton: Edmonton Catholic Schools, 2007.
Grant, John Webster. Moon of Wintertime: Missionaries and the Indians of Canada in Encounter since 1534. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1984.
Huel, Raymond. Proclaiming the Gospel to the Indians and the Métis. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press and Western Canadian Publishers, 1996.
Levasseur, Donat, OMI. Les Oblats de Marie Immaculée dans l’Ouest et le Nord du Canada, 1845-1967. University of Alberta Press and Western Canadian Publishers, 1995.
McCarthy, Martha. From the Great River to the Ends of the Earth: Oblate Missions to the Dene, 1847-1921. University of Alberta Press and Western Canadian Publishers, 1995.Trottier, Soeur Alice. “Les Oblats et La Colonisation en Alberta” in Raymond Huel (Ed.). Western Oblates Studies 1/ Etudes Oblates De L'Ouest 1: Proceedings of the First Symposium on the History of the Oblates in Western and Northern Canada. Faculté Saint-Jean, Edmonton, 18-19 mai/May 1989. Edmonton: Western Canadian Publishers and Faculté Saint-Jean, University of Alberta, 1990, pp 107-16.
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