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Colonization of the West

When the Oblates arrived in the Canadian North West, in 1845, to evangelize Aboriginal Peoples, they could not help but be aware of the process of colonization involving immigration and settlement that was happening throughout the world. Bishop Norbert Provencher, who welcomed the Oblates, had been in the North West for over 20 years, and had a very good grasp of the agricultural potential of the vast lands that comprised the prairies. At this time, as well, the fur trade was undergoing massive changes under the administration of the Hudson’s Bay Company, and through the competition of the American markets, which were encroaching into the land empire that was Rupert’s Land. All this was to have an enormous impact on the residents of the region.

So it was that when Bishop Provencher died in 1853 and was succeeded by Father Alexandre Taché, the latter, as well as becoming administrator to the burgeoning missions of the vast North West was obliged to pay close attention to political developments concerning the region. The HBC, a British concern, was under close scrutiny by the government of that country, and was soon to be forced to make concessions concerning the legal rights of the inhabitants of the North West Territories. This was not only with respect to their language but also governance, including giving them a place in the governing council of Assiniboia. Larger forces were at work and, massive changes were underway.

In the meantime, Bishop Taché was watching over his parishes in the Red River settlement, where, for several generations, the Métis had established themselves in traditional river lot settlements. The Métis were still hunting the buffalo herds; in fact, the buffalo hide trade, enabled by increased access to the American railroads, had become quite lucrative for them. Unfortunately, the herds were being eradicated by a combination of excessive hunting, and the merciless slaughter on American territory to prepare the Great Plains for ranching and agriculture.

As early as the 1830s, land pressures in Upper Canada (the predecessor of Ontario) left colonists without means to establish their sons, and, therefore, they began to look towards the West. Their campaign was incorporated into the planning of the Canadian Confederation in 1867. The new Government of Canada undertook talks to purchase Rupert’s Land from the HBC. It also began to build a road to the Red River from Ontario, and sent surveyors to survey the land that would soon be part of Canada. Unfortunately, the Anglophone surveyors had little regard for the traditional land use of the Métis, and proceeded to survey the land using the sectional method. This encroachment on land that had not yet been transferred to Canada led to the crisis of 1869-70, the creation of a provisional government by the Métis residents and, eventually, to the creation of the “postage stamp” province of Manitoba.

Following the transfer, not much goes well for the Métis. They find themselves overrun by Anglophone settlers from Ontario. The new settlers either help themselves to Métis lands without any regard to their traditional occupation rights, or else buy them for next to nothing from Métis who are leaving the colony in droves in an attempt to continue to lead their peaceful way of life in the face of the racism and violence they are subjected to following the Insurrection.

It is at this time that Bishop Taché, in the hope of finding good French-Canadian settlers for the Red River to come and take up lands that are being abandoned by the Métis (or in an attempt to incite the Métis to stay by consolidation of their numbers) sends Father Albert Lacombe to Québec to promote settlement in the West. The Oblates are also aware of the fact that the Métis are not farmers and they hope that by attracting French-Canadian settlers, the Métis could learn and adopt a more sedentary life style based on agrarian pursuits.

In the following years, the Oblates, particularly in the Dioceses of St Albert and St Boniface, would encourage their Francophone countrymen to come and take lands in Western Canada.

Discover the exciting history of the Métis Community and Francophone Community in dedicated articles.

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            For more on Missionary Oblates in Western Canada, visit Peel’s Prairie Provinces.

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