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Missionary Activity

Missionaries were some of the first Europeans to permanently settle the prairies of central Alberta and Saskatchewan, bringing with them Christian beliefs, practices, and rituals. Unfortunately, the basis of much of their work relied on misconceptions about Aboriginal spirituality. Traditional Aboriginal rituals, symbols and beliefs were often viewed as superstitious or pagan and those who practiced them as irreligious and in need of education in Christian doctrine. The missionaries travelled across the prairies, spreading their teachings, urging Aboriginal communities to adopt Christian beliefs and practices, and, in the process, forever changing the Aboriginal way of life.

The history of missionary activity in the Treaty 6 area is, in many ways, tied to the history of the treaty itself. The first missionaries led the way for all those who followed, including permanent missions and settlements that emerged across the prairies. The rapidly growing population strained the available resources, most notably the bison. The need for a treaty establishing the conditions under which the government could access Aboriginal lands became apparent. In fact, it was Methodist missionary George McDougall who, on behalf of the government, alerted the Aboriginal peoples of the area (including Chief Big Bear) that an 1876 treaty was imminent. His son, missionary John McDougall, was a witness to the signing of Treaty 6.

Rev. Robert Terrill Rundle Methodist Robert Rundle was the first missionary on what became Treaty 6 land. He accepted a mission at the Hudson Bay Company’s Saskatchewan district in 1840. He made his way to Fort Edmonton, and from there, travelled extensively across Alberta and Saskatchewan and as far east as Fort Pitt and Fort Carlton, spreading his Christian message. Roman Catholic priest Father Jean-Baptiste Thibault, arrived at Fort Edmonton in 1842. With Gabriel Dumont as his guide, Thibault preached across the prairies in communities including Hobbema and Fort Pitt. In the 1850s and 60s, Father Rene Rémas also established missions across the Treaty 6 region, including Fort Carlton, Fort Pitt, Onion Lake, St. Albert, Stony Plain, Rivière-qui-Barre, and Edmonton. Anglican missionaries were the last to arrive, William Newton being the first in the area in 1875. Newton used Edmonton as a base for a ministry stretching from Red Deer to Saddle Lake.

Missionaries encountered a mixed reception from the many Aboriginal communities in which they taught. Some communities accepted and embraced the Christian message. Others were more resistant, and as Methodist missionary Henry Bird Steinhauer stated in an 1875 letter to the Missionary Society of the Wesleyan Methodist Church in Canada, “there is always a distrust on the part of the native to the foreigner, from the fact that the native has been so long down-trodden by the white man.” Some missionaries gained trust by becoming part of the community and learning the ways of its people. John McDougall, who had grown up among Aboriginal people, spoke a number of Aboriginal languages and understood the cultures better than most missionaries. Robert Rundle became proficient in Cree and in the late 1830s, Methodist missionary James Evans had developed Ojibwe and Cree syllabics, which were learned by other missionaries and used as another means of spreading Christian teachings.

Today, as in the past, the attitudes of Aboriginal peoples towards missionary work are mixed. Some have embraced Christianity and lived their lives by its teachings. Others, especially those who have gone through painful experiences at church-run residential schools, view missionary work as yet another agent of colonization and believe that the actions of the church have played a large role in the erosion of Aboriginal cultures. Others still have incorporated both Christian and Aboriginal spiritual traditions into their lives. It is virtually impossible to adequately summarize the impact of missionary activity on Aboriginal communities in the Treaty 6 area. As asserted by Susan Berry and Jack Brink, “Missionaries tried to prepare people for changes they believed were inevitable. But they were themselves agents of change.” 1

1 Susan Berry and Jack Brink, Aboriginal Cultures in Alberta: Five Hundred Generations (Edmonton, Provincial Museum of Alberta, 2004), 62.

Berry, Susan, and Jack Brink. Aboriginal Cultures in Alberta: Five Hundred Generations. Edmonton: Provincial Museum of Alberta, 2004.

Heritage Community Foundation. Methodist Missionaries in Alberta. http://www.albertasource.ca/methodist/index.htm (Accessed July 2006)

Société culturelle Mamowapik and the Lac La Biche Mission Historical Society. “Oblates.” Lac La Biche Mission. Canada’s Digital Collections, http://cnc.virtuelle.ca/laclabiche/ (Accessed July 2006).

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