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Reverend Mr. John Nelson: Missionary with an Impossible Mission

by Uta H. Fox

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From 1893 to 1919, the Red Deer Industrial School, located a few kilometres west of Red Deer, was operated under the auspices of the Methodist Church of Canada. It was one of the many industrial schools in Canada funded by the federal government, but managed by religious denominations, thus epitomizing the symbiotic relationship between church and state established to realize the common goals of "Christianizing, Civilizing and Canadianizing" the Indians in the present-day prairie Provinces. Both the Methodist Church and the federal government sought to create a homogeneous society in the Canadian west based on Euro-Canadian values and culture. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries public policy-makers and the public believed that North American Indians were a "doomed race" on the road to extinction. With nomadism no longer a choice, sedentary lifestyles had to be instituted. Through education — regarded as a panacea — Indians were to acquire the skills to become self-sufficient members of the larger society.  A number of factors mitigated against the Red Deer attempt to implement the acculturadon process. These factors included the Methodist Church's declining interest in Indian mission work and their lack of resources, insufficient federal government funding, and parental resistance. Yet, despite these shortcomings, many students did obtain the fundamental skills necessary for survival.

Methodism evolved from the preaching of John Wesley. Aided by his brother Charles and their followers, John Wesley yearned to revive the fundamental aspects of religion in England, and to instill a "passion that came from an inward experience of Christ." In the mid-18th century they established enthusiastic spiritual and devotional societies (or class meetings) to study the Bible. These meetings supplemented the Anglican faith, which Wesley regarded as too formal and cold in practice. Wesley never envisioned Methodism or "Methodists" — so named because of their "orderly life of prayer, worship and service to the poor"— as a separate entity; instead, he intended the evangelicalism and revivalism to revitalize the Anglican Church.2 Only after his death in 1791 did the Methodists institute themselves as a separate denomination.

Methodism meant change. Sinners who had found salvation had to modify their lifestyles to strive for Christian perfection, and Methodists viewed education as one of the most important means of transformation. In fact, they had gained considerable experience operating an industrial school at the Mount Elgin Industrial School at Munceytown, Ontario, which opened in 1849. Since the federal government viewed education in the same light as the Methodist Church, Nicholas Flood Davin, a lawyer-journalist, was dispatched to visit Indian schools in United States. Davin recommended the adoption of industrial schools for the Canadian West. 3 Unlike day and boarding schools, industrial schools were located far from the reserves, thus separating students from family and ancestral ties. The curriculum consisted of a half day of academic study and a half-day of vocational study.

The first principal at Red Deer, Reverend Mr. John Nelson, remained in that position for approximately two years, from 1893 to 1895. Nelson was born in Florence, Ontario, on August 21 1848, and died at Woodbridge, Ontario on March  22, 1927. As a Methodist minister he worked in such areas as Pigeon Lake, Wolf Creek, and White Whale Lake in the Northwest Territories, from 1881 until his appointment to Red Deer in 1893. After Red Deer, Nelson was stationed in Manitoba and Ontario. While at Pigeon Lake and Wolf Creek, Nelson had worked among the Cree and Stoneys building a mission and school. In recommending Nelson to the Indian Department, Dr. Alexander Sutherland, General Secretary of the Missionary Society, stated that "... his lengthened [sic] service among the Cree of the North West has given him a knowledge of the Indian character and language that must be of very considerable service in the position in which he is now placed."4

Nelson's effort to fulfil the assimilation goals of both the Methodist Church and the federal government was hampered because Methodist resources were overextended by branching out in other directions. Following Treaties Six (1876) and Seven (1877) and the arrival of the first settlers, the emphasis of Methodist mission work shifted from First Peoples to the newcomers, both Canadian-born and new European immigrants. The opening of Asian missions later led to a new focus in Methodist work, so that by the turn of the century the Church spent more on its Chinese and Japanese work than on its prairie North American missions. As William Magney, a historian of Canadian Methodism has written, once the Methodist Church committed itself to overseas mission work, "interest in the Indian work ... somewhat subsided."5 These missions, in addition to the ones that the Methodist Church operated in Montreal and Toronto, were all under the direction of Alexander Sutherland.





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