The 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.
Courtesy of Legacy, Alberta's Cultural Heritage