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The Roman Catholic Church, predominantly French, had been in the North West since the early 1800s. Arriving at Fort Edmonton in 1842, missionaries laid roots amongst the Métis and Aboriginal People of Alberta, particularly in the more northerly reaches of the Northwest Territories, spreading not only the Christian faith, but also reinforcing French culture and values which were already present. The Oblates of Mary Immaculate travelled throughout the province to minister to the Métis and Catholic residents of the various fur trade forts in the region. Many travelled with nomadic Métis buffalo-hunters, but the establishment of formal, agricultural missions was favoured by the Church and became the norm after the signing of treaties, which took place between 1871 and 1921, and the creation of reserves.Treaty 8, the final land settlement agreement between the Canadian government and its Aboriginal People during the 19th century was signed in 1899. It encompasses 840,000 square kilometres of land that is home to 39 Aboriginal communities in Saskatchewan, Alberta, British Columbia and the Northwest Territories.
As much a part of Church activities as the conversion of souls to Christianity was the preservation of French culture and identity. Not only didthe missionaries specifically seek out French-speaking settlers to populate the area, they also established French parishes, hospitals and schools. During 19th century, the French Roman Catholic Church dominated the spiritual and cultural development of the West. As communities grew and expanded, the Oblates took on a leadership role in establishing hospitals, schools and other social services and in defending the linguistic and religious rights of French-speaking Catholic people in Alberta.
Early in the 20th century, it became obvious that the power of the French arm of Catholic Church in Western Canada, was on the wane. Although they still preferred French-speaking settlers, the sheer number of Protestants emigrating to Alberta meant the Church now had to encourage Catholic people of any background to emigrate if it was to maintain its influence.
Likewise, the influx of settlers and the creation of parishes to serve the Anglophone population required English-speaking Catholic priests. The Anglophone clergy promoted assimilation and opposed the use of French as the primary language of instruction in schools. With waning numbers, the Francophone Catholics could do little to shift the balance of power in the Church. After the death of Bishop Legal in 1920, the dioceses of Edmonton and Calgary came under the control of English-speaking bishops, and the future of the French clergy in the West grew dim. In 1946, the first English speaking cardinal was appointed in Canada, and the French dominance in the Roman Catholic Church in this country came to an end.
Some historians claim that this decline of the Roman Catholic Church, in part, led to decline of Francophone communities, since much of the social life in these communities revolved around the Church activities. In order to survive, communities had to turn to other organizations and events to maintain Franco-Albertan bonds.
Hart, Edward John. Ambition and Reality: The French-Speaking Community of Edmonton 1795-1935. Edmonton: Salon d'Histoire de la Francophonie Albertaine, 1980.
Julien, Richard A.C. The French School in Alberta: An analysis of an Historical and Constitutional Question. Edmonton, University of Alberta, 1991.
Smith, Donald B. "A History of French-speaking Albertans." In Peoples of Alberta, Portraits of Cultural Diversity, eds. Howard and Tamara Palmer, 83-108. Saskatoon: Saskatchewan.
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