An important element in the history of Alberta is the role of missionaries. They were motivated
by religious duty, and in many ways their efforts can be looked upon as the first formally
organized volunteer work on record in the province. Missionaries undertook their task in
the belief that they were responsible for improving the spiritual and social lives of the
Native population as well as those of the European settlers. Their primary goal was to address
spiritual needs but at the same time they attempted raise the standard of living among the
population they served.
If the initial focus of the missionaries was to spread Christianity, they also
undertook to provide other essential services to the population. They were involved in
the establishment of hospitals, orphanages and schools, as well as the introduction of
European farming techniques. Many of the missionaries traveled and worked with the First
Nations people, learning their languages in order to better serve them. The commitment to
improving the lives of those considered most in need was all-encompassing, and today there
are many landmarks bearing the names of the early missionaries as a reminder of their work.
While undertaken with philanthropic intentions, missionary work at times proved to be
something of a double-edged sword. Although born of a desire to improve lives, missionary
work could also often function as an agent of European cultural and economic imperialism
among the Native population. The missionaries usually saw their role from a Eurocentric
viewpoint, which held that they were duty-bound to spread European ideas of modernity,
culture and religion. It is undeniable that this led at times to negative consequences
for the very people it was meant to serve. The development of residential schools for
First Nation’s children is one example of this dynamic, coming as a direct result of
the missionary ideal. It proved to be one of the most troubling periods of Canadian history.
Methodist ministers John McDougall and Robert Rundle, and Roman Catholic priest Father
Albert Lacombe were three of Alberta’s most prominent missionaries. Their work was not
limited to the established trading forts, but included traveling among (and sometimes with)
the Native population. Each of the three men learned at least one First Nation’s language
in order to carry out their tasks and earned the respect of those they ministered to for
their sincerity and hard work.
For more information on the work of missionaries in Western Canada, please see
the Methodist Missionaries in Alberta,
and the For the Life of the World: The Missionary