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Precursor: Focus 1899

Missionaries

   

priests home, grouard 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.

robert rundleAs 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.

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