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The Missionary

Bishops Court on the banks of the Red RiverThe 19th century in Canada's northwest was a period of turbulence and rapid transformation. The fur trade had swept across the Prairies as the HBC increased in size and power. The lives of Aboriginal peoples were subject to famine, increased conflict over diminishing food stocks, and territorial conflict with traders and other tribes. The fur trade, the influx of settlers and the decline of the buffalo, to name just a few, were making it more difficult for Aboriginal people to maintain their traditional way of life and were causing mounting tension. It was into this environment of change and conflict that the missionary entered.


The first missions in Canada were established to introduce Christianity to the Aboriginal peoples. As early as 1634, the Jesuits established missions among the peoples of the Lake Huron region. In 1818, Father Joseph-Norbert Provencher built a small log chapel on the east bank of the Red River, and dedicated it to Saint Boniface. St. Boniface became the first permanent mission west of the Great Lakes and served the growing population of the Red River Settlement.

The Mission era in Canada's West can be divided into three periods. Beginning with the years before 1870 (marking the sale of Rupert's Land and the early treaties); into turbulent years; and concludes with a review of the role of the missions and missionaries in the 20th century. The Wesleyans (or those missionaries with roots in British Methodism) dominated the Methodist missionary field prior to 1870. After Confederation in 1867, the landscape of Western Canada changed significantly. The presence of the Canadian government, the decline of the HBC, the formalization of the Methodist Church of Canada and the signing of First Nations treaties in the early 1870s, all affected the role of the Methodist missions.

Missionaries in Alberta

Oral traditions, archaeological evidence and early documents all provide clear evidence that spirituality played a vital role in the cultures of the Aboriginal peoples of western Canada. It is not possible to summarize in any short fashion the complexity and variety of these beliefs, but observations such as, "religion has not yet begun to dawn among the Northern Indians," (Samuel Hearne), are obviously mistaken. European observers, however, rarely understood the real significance of the stories, rituals, symbols and observances they witnessed.

As with the trade, missionary activity spread north and westwards, and other Christian churches, particularly the Methodists (or Wesleyans), also joined the field. In 1840, Robert Rundle of the Methodist Church, established a mission at Fort Edmonton to serve as a base for his itinerant ministry, he also set-up a mission at Pigeon Lake in 1848. Later Methodist missions would be established at Whitefish Lake, Victoria Settlement, and other locations in 1850s and 60s. In 1873 the prominent missionary family, the McDougalls, expanded Methodist missionary efforts to the south, when they began the Morley mission among the Stoneys.

In 1842, shortly after Rundle’s arrival, Father Thibeault also began a mission at Fort Edmonton.  Father Thibeault established the first real mission in what would become Alberta. He also established a mission at Lac Ste. Anne, which in turn led to the founding of the St. Albert mission in 1861 by Father Lacombe. The Roman Catholic Church established important missions throughout the north, including: Fort Chipewyan (1847), Lac La Biche (1853), and Dunvegan (1867). Catholic priests also undertook missions among First nations and Métis in southern and central Alberta.  More formal missions were established among Aboriginal peoples, especially after the signing of Treaty 7 in 1877 and the creation of reserves.

Many mission sites across Alberta have been designated as national and provincial historic sites, reflecting a strong and continuing interest in this aspect of our history. Not everyone, however, sees missionary activity, particularly missionary work among Aboriginal peoples, as a completely benevolent process. Many Aboriginal people are now trying to reclaim and revitalize their cultures, including their traditional beliefs. For some, the actions of Christian churches in the 19th and early 20th centuries were an important part of the erosion of traditional cultures. What most can agree on is that the history of missionary activity in Western Canada is a complex – and often very personal – subject.

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Courtesy of Legacy, Alberta's Cultural Heritage Magazine: 


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