Oral traditions, archaeological evidence and early documents all provide
clear evidence that spirituality played a vital role in the cultures of
the First Nations of western Canada at the time of contact. 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," which can be found in Samuel
Hearne's published journals, are obviously mistaken. European observers,
however, rarely understood the real significance of the stories, rituals,
symbols and observances they witnessed.
As a result, fur traders tended to see spiritual beliefs as
superstitions and to dismiss Aboriginal spiritual leaders. Most fur traders, and the companies they
served, had little interest in what their trading partners believed, and
few made much effort to spread Christianity in any form to anyone else.
Some officers in charge of posts did hold religious services for their
employees from time to time, and the Hudson's Bay Company did send books
of sermons and prayer books to some of the larger posts. For the most part
though, fur traders showed little interest in missionary activity until
the early 19th century.
The La Verendryes did bring chaplains west to their posts from the
1730s on, but surviving records do not suggest that these Catholic priests
undertook much work with First Nations. The capture of Quebec by the
British in 1759-60 meant that the old French posts in the Northwest
closed, and for over 50 years no other Christian missionary came west of
the Great Lakes.
The founding of the Red River Settlement in 1812 led some to suggest
that both settlers and Aboriginal peoples needed religious instruction. In
1818 two Catholic priests, Father Provencher and Father Dumoulin, were
sent to Red River, and in 1820 an Anglican clergyman, John West, joined
them in Red River. Much of this early missionary effort was directed at
the settlers and Hudson's Bay Company employees and their families, and
this remained an important part of missionary activity in western Canada
throughout the 19th century. Both West and Provencher also took an
interest in evangelical work among Aboriginal groups, and this soon came
to dominate missionary activity.
As the fur trade had 50 years earlier, 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. Although based in Fort Edmonton, Rundle
ranged far and wide through much of what would become Alberta. Through his
travels he also helped to establish a new 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. He was encouraged by John Rowand, the officer
in charge of the fort and himself a Catholic, who was looking for a Roman
Catholic priest to minister to the Métis and other Catholic residents of
the fort. Father Thibeault established the first real mission in what
would become Alberta. He later started another 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 also established important
missions throughout the north, including Fort Chipewyan in 1847, Lac La
Biche in 1853 and Dunvegan in 1867. Catholic priests also undertook
missions among First nations and Métis in southern and central Alberta.
For example, priests traveled with Métis buffalo hunters and conducted
services at their wintering camps such as Buffalo Lake in the 1870s. More
formal missions were established among First Nations, especially after the
signing of Treaty 7 in 1877 and the creation of reserves.
The Anglicans were somewhat less active in Alberta than either the
Methodists or the Roman Catholics concentrating their efforts in
other areas until the 1870s. For example, the first Anglican missionary
in Edmonton, William Newton, did not arrive until 1875. Newton used
Edmonton as a base for a ministry that stretched from Red Deer to Saddle
Lake, and which included many of the early settlements in the Edmonton
area. Anglicans also established a number of missions in southern Alberta,
among the members of the Blackfoot Confederacy, and in northern Alberta, at
several sites on the Peace River, such as Dunvegan, Peace River (the
Shaftesbury Settlement) and Fort Vermilion. The Anglicans also had a
mission at Fort Chipewyan.
Many mission sites across Alberta have been designated 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 First Nations people, 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, particularly the
establishment of residential schools 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.