Oblates in the West after 1867
The Oblate role in the Northwest Territories began to change after Confederation. The passing of the British North America Act in 1867 gave the Federal government authority over and responsibility for Aboriginal Peoples and their land. Furthermore, the Rupert’s Land Act of 1868 resulted in the transfer of Rupert’s Land from the Hudson’s Bay Company to the Federal Government in 1870, giving them dominion over the Northwest Territories. After 1867, two rebellions, the signing of 11 Aboriginal treaties, and the growth of agricultural settlement changed the face of the West, forcing the Oblates to adapt their ministry.
The transfer of Rupert’s Land and the Red River Colony to the Federalgovernment was handled poorly. The residents of the colony, largely Métis, were not consulted about the transfer of their land. The Oblates spoke on behalf of the colonists; the Bishop of St. Boniface, Mgr Taché, visited Ottawa in July of 1869 to voice the concerns of the people, and was rebuffed.His recommendations to the Government on how to ease the situation were consistently ignored.After the armed insurrection broke out that year and the provisional government formed, the Federal government looked to Mgr Taché to pacify the insurgents. The bishop was promised, in return, that Métis desires would be considered. The bishop succeeded in his task, and a delegation of Red River Métis was sent to Ottawa. The ensuing negotiations brought about the formation of the province of Manitoba through the Act of Manitoba.
The role of the Oblates as interpreters and mediators also increased among Aboriginal Peoples. Shortly after the Confederation, the Government began signing treaties with Aboriginal tribes and placing them in reserves. Between 1871 and 1877, seven treaties were signed with Aboriginal tribes from north-western Ontario to Alberta. Oblates were often witnesses and interpreters during the signing of these treaties. The Oblates, and in particular Father Albert Lacombe, played an important role in the signing of Treaty 8 in 1899, which covered a huge portion of land throughout northern Alberta, British Columbia and Saskatchewan, as well as the southern part of the Northwest Territories. The Oblates were asked by the Government to help convince Aboriginal Peoples to concede to the treaty.
The new reservation system that came out of the treaties, along with the disappearance of the buffalo after 1878, changed the Aboriginal way of life, and served as the final death knell for the plains tribes. To the Oblates, this was seen as a positive event, because they had encouraged a sedentary lifestyle has a means to “civilizing” the Aboriginal peoples. It also allowed the missionaries to gain a better foothold over tribes such as the Blackfoot, who had been dependant on the buffalo hunt. The Oblates set up missions near reserves, and offered spiritual comfort, and what material aid they could. They also intensified their efforts to provide education in practical skills for Aboriginal People – farming and industrial arts for boys, and housekeeping and domestic arts for girls. The Oblates believed that the young Aboriginal generation needed to learn these skills in order to assimilate to the European agrarian lifestyle, both to survive and to become better Roman Catholics.
The Métis were also suffering under the new regime imposed by the Federal government in the North-West. The new government began surveying Métis lands in a way that ignored the traditional settlements. This, and other racist government policies, led to the uprising of Métis and Aboriginal Peoples in 1885. Throughout the conflict, the Oblates attempted to remain neutral and called for peace. Albert Lacombe, for example, kept the Blackfoot from rising up. Bishop Vital Grandin and Father Joseph Lestanc kept peace among the Métis and Aboriginal Peoples in the St. Albert area, while Father Constantine Scollen appeased the Cree at Hobbema.Two Oblates, Frs. Léon Fafard and Félix Marchand, were killed at Frog Lake during the uprising and several other Oblates were taken prisoner.Seven Oblate parish missions were destroyed or severely damaged, some pillaged by Canadian soldiers. After the uprising, the Oblates ministered to the condemned and the political prisoners, calling for amnesty, and Mgr Grandin, Bishop of St. Albert, toured the West, visiting those most affected by the uprising.
In addition to the Oblates’ growing role as mediators between Aboriginal tribes, the Métis, and the Federal Government, and their increasing commitment to Aboriginal education in the 1870s and 1880s, the Oblates also began play a bigger role among the increasing numbers of White settlers heading West. After Rupert’s Land was transferred from the Hudson’s Bay Company to the Federal Government, and before the Government began to encourage colonial settlement in the Northwest Territories. For a time, the Oblates kept mainly to evangelizing the Aboriginal and Métis peoples, but by 1890, due to immigration, Aboriginals became a minority in the province. With the growing flow of settlers to the west, the Oblates answered the need for their ministry.
Many Oblates were French speaking so they formed missions in French communities. Some Oblates, like Albert Lacombe, even encouraged immigration from Franco-American cities and Quebec. However, increasing numbers of German, Polish, Ukrainian and many other non-English and non-French speaking immigrant communities prompted the Oblates to seek priests for their Order who were proficient in these languages to provide religious leadership for Roman Catholic communities.
It was clear by the end of the 19th century that the Oblate role in the West had changed. The Oblates were increasingly more involved among growing numbers of White colonists, while their missions among the Aboriginals were beginning to seem less fruitful for, although many Aboriginal Peoples had been converted to Roman Catholicism, they were not all fully committed to the Christian way of life upheld by the Oblates. Moreover, while strife and poverty drew some Aboriginal Peoples to the Oblates out of material need, others became increasingly hostile to the Oblates, reverting to their traditional beliefs.
Champagne, Joseph-tienne, OMI. Les Missions Catholiques dans l’Ouest Canadien (1818-1875). Vol. 1. Ottawa: Editions des Etudes Oblates, Scolasticat Saint-Joseph, 1949.
Grant, John Webster. Moon of Wintertime: Missionaries and the Indians of Canada in Encounter since 1534. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1984.
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.
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