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The Missionary

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Trial Whiskey TraderDuring the 18th and early 19th centuries, Christian worship at the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) posts was the responsibility of their officers. Increasingly, the HBC was criticized for its lack of Christian discipline. The Company had not moved to place religious leaders or to establish churches at its factories or in the surrounding areas. The Company focus was, after all, on commerce and not the socialization of Canada's West.

Rumours of debauchery in the fur trade and a growing concern for the physical and spiritual condition of Aboriginal Priest in Canoepeople spurred reform groups. They pressured the HBC to attend to these needs and, as a result, in 1837 the British government renewed the HBC's charter to exclusively control the northwest on the condition that it promoted religious advancement. On March 4, 1840, the HBC made an arrangement with the Wesleyan Missionary Society in England to establish missions in its territory. 

The Society was to be responsible for salaries and the Company was responsible for the transport, accommodation and supplies of the missionaries. The Society appointed James Evans as superintendent of western missions and dispatched three missionaries from England-George Barnley, William Mason and Robert Rundle. Evans and Mason went to Norway House, Barnley to Moose Factory and Rundle to Edmonton House.

Grouard Picture - Métis SymbolsThe factors of Hudson's Bay Company were largely Protestant-Presbyterian Scots and Orkney Islanders or Anglicans from Britain. Most of those employed by the Montreal-based North West Company were Catholic. Métis voyageurs, on which the companies relied for the transport of their furs, were predominantly Roman Catholic as well. They regarded Saint Anne as "the patroness of the Canadians, in all their travels by water." Whatever their religious inclination, Christianity was an accepted part of the life for all fur traders, if not devoutly observed. 

   View an excerpt from Cloven Hoof, a play by Geoff Wilfong-Pritchard.
In this segment missionary James Evans reflects on the tensions
   between the fur trader and the missionary.
   Watch the Video!

It was not long after the Methodists had established missions at fur houses throughout Rupert's Land that the Métis people petitioned for Roman Catholic priests to be sent to the Northwest. When Rundle left in 1848 and was not replaced immediately, the chaplaincy of Edmonton House was given to Fr. Thibeault, who had arrived in the area in 1843.

Portage 2Both Methodist and Catholic missionaries took their task seriously. They had been invited to concern themselves with the spiritual lives of the Company's men and so they did. They questioned the work schedules and demands made on Company employees. They objected to the use of liquor and work on Sundays and instituted regular worship hours to introduce a sense of Christian moral consciousness. The formal presentation of this concern had been absent from the fur trading establishments until this time. 

The missionaries' questioning presence was not altogether welcomed by those who set the Company's work agenda. Sunday labour and the use of alcohol in trade deals, as well as severe working conditions, had been the practice of those whose constant goal was efficiency, increasing profits and moving supplies and furs before winter and freeze-up. They were not used to being challenged by young men without any experience in the West, let alone these frail-looking men of God who seemed unlikely to withstand the rigours of life in the region without Company support. Nevertheless, at the personal level, most missionaries entertained friendly relations with the Company's personnel.

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