Oblate Life in the West
In the North-West Territory, the Oblates encountered difficult conditions that caused de Mazenod to question the viability of the Western missions. The Oblates traveled long, isolating distances through heavy forests and frozen wastelands to tackle the seemingly impossible task of evangelizing among nomadic tribes that had had little exposure to European culture and Roman Catholicism.A successful missionary working in the Northwest, particularly in the Far North, needed to be fit and self-sufficient, to be able to construct a chapel and residence, travel over great distances, and provide his own nourishment by cultivating a garden, hunting and fishing, although in many cases a guide would by hired for such tasks, particularly hunting and fishing. Sometimes, the Oblate priests were sent with brothers, who did the bulk of manual labour to allow the priests to focus on evangelization.Oblate success also depended on being able to learn Aboriginal languages and cope with isolation. The official policy was that there should be at least two Oblates for every mission, but this policy was often ignored because of limited numbers of Oblates needed to minister over a vast area.
The unique conditions faced by the Oblates in the West gave their missions a special character. At first as they followed the fur trade routes, the missionaries stayed at the forts. The HBC employees and their families, particularly those of French-Canadian origin were generally eager to have the priests among them having heard of the “true faith” from their fathers. When the Aboriginals came in to trade their furs, they too were eager to hear the message of the missionaries. When Aboriginal and Métis hunters were not in residence, the Oblates took care of the people residing in the vicinity of their mission. or they would travel with the hunting camps. At the forts, the priests would celebrate mass several times a day, teach the Roman Catholic faith through catechism, and administer sacraments. They also learned Aboriginal languages, wrote and translated religious documents to those languages to provide learning aids for their Aboriginal parishioners. Aside from their religious duties, Oblates were also called on to perform secular duties, such as providing healthcare, teaching useful skills, adjudicating disputes between tribes, and representing Aboriginal desires to the government, while interpreting government policies to the Aboriginal People.
The Oblates in the West did not operate alone, however; they often depended on the Hudson’s Bay Company to provide transportation, supplies, labour, and lodging. The Oblates often traveled along the fur trade route, stopping at forts and trading posts. Up until 1870, the Hudson’s Bay Company was the civil authority in the North, and the Company was not always hospitable to the missionaries. Company authorities were worried the missionaries would try to coax Aboriginal Peoples away from their traditional hunting and gathering lifestyles, on which the company depended for the continuance of the fur trade. But, generally, Hudson’s Bay Company officials were neutral about the presence of missionaries along the fur trade route, and neutral to the interdenominational disputes that arose.
Indeed, the Oblates of Mary Immaculate were not the only missionaries to evangelize the West. They had to compete with Protestant missionaries, especially the Anglicans and the Methodists. Protestant missionaries were often better aligned with the Hudson’s Bay Company authorities, who were mostly English Protestants, but the Roman Catholic Oblates had better relationships with the workers, many of whom were French-speaking and Métis Catholics. The Oblates also had an edge among the Aboriginal People because they were generally more fluent in the languages and they lived closer to them, traveling to more of the outlying areas. However, interdenominational rivalry also spurred the Oblates to spread to new territories and settlements, to compete with Protestants for the souls of Aboriginal Peoples. Each denomination sought to set itself up first in an area, to obtain an advantage in converting the tribes. If the Protestants set up a mission in an area untouched by Roman Catholics, the Oblates would be pressured to send a missionary there to counteract the “heretical” influence of their rivals.
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.
McCarthy, Martha. From the great river to the ends of the earth : Oblate missions to the Dene, 1847-1921. Edmonton : University of Alberta Press, c1995.
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