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Métis Communities

The Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate arrived in Saint-Boniface in the Canadian North West in 1845 to help the diocesan clergy in their work of evangelization of the Métis and Aboriginal populations. The first priest to establish himself, Monsignor Norbert Provencher, arrived in the Selkirk Colony in1818. He had been invited by the Fifth Earl of Selkirk, Thomas Douglas, the Colony’s founder (and principal manager of the Hudson’s Bay Company), in the hope that he would be able to build a lasting peace between the new Scottish settlers and the Métis, who had inhabited the region for many years.

From the outset, Provencher strove to get the Aboriginal Peoples and the Métis to lead a more sedentary life. He encouraged them to become involved in agriculture but the success of such efforts was often mitigated by the lack of access to viable markets and natural disasters that struck the colony from time to time. This included the flooding of the Red River and invasions of grasshoppers that stripped crops from the land.

In order to survive, the Métis led a nomadic life associated with the fur trade, a type of life style that, after the mid-century, had transformed itself to the buffalo robe trade, which reached its peak in 1865. The arrival of the railways in the southern part of the prairies at the Canadian-American border made it possible to sell the heavy hides at a fair price in the American market.  This kind of transaction had been impossible with the fur trade since it was exclusive to the Hudson’s Bay Company and the London market.

The trade situation had been clarified in 1849 with the Sayer case, which had resulted in the declaration of free trade for the Métis inhabitants of Red River and forced the HBC to accept this decision. The HBC monopoly was about to disappear.

During this period, a majority of the population of the North West lived in Red River at least a part of the year. Inhabitants had river lots following the established tradition of the old Canadian voyageurs as in the Valley of the St. Lawrence.

However, the Métis had to leave their lands to follow the herds of buffalo across the Plains.  Along the Red River, they cultivated their gardens and grew barley which was more resistant to the autumn frosts than wheat. The missionaries encouraged all agricultural pursuits, which they saw as the beginning of a more sedentary life style, but they also accompanied the Métis in their hunting expeditions. A number of missionaries wrote articles about the buffalo hunt before the arrival of the Oblates; later others were written and appeared in Missions, the Oblate newsletter, and other religious publications in France and Québec. Their stories contributed to the almost-mythic perception of the missions in North America, and of the adventures of confronting the « polar ice » for Christ, which inspired many in France and other European Catholic countries to donate funds for the missions or join the Oblates or feminine religious congregations for the Canadian North-West.

After the Union of 1821, most of those who worked for the HBC had been born in the country. Many among the men were voyageurs, who had operated as parts of brigades, ensuring the movement of merchandise in the back country. While some were tied to Red River, where they lived with their families seasonally, the working force of the HBC also came from other locations. They were found throughout the territories of the North West, and also on the other side of the Rocky Mountains, including the Pacific Coast and the Far North, where they also lived with their families.  At the fur trade posts, they had a range of employees including woodsmen, grooms (“horsekeeps” as they were known) that dealt with the horses, carpenters, etc. Wives also did a range of work. The majority of posts had gardens, which provided a valuable source of vegetables in the back country. When the men retired, they were encouraged to settle at Red River and not in the back country. But this HBC advice was not always heeded.

After the Union of 1821, many men who were judged superfluous, were let go. This resulted in the growth of a number of small, permanent communities such as at Devil’s Lake (which became Lac Sainte-Anne after 1845) or Lac la Biche. They planted small gardens in the springtime, and left them over the summer, which was the time of the hunt, and harvested in the autumn. Despite the disapproval of the HBC, other small communities were created, for example, along the shores of Lake Manitoba. Of course, a great number of former fur trade workers came to settled at Red River, increasing considerably the population of the Selkirk Colony along the Assiniboine and Red Rivers.

From these locations, the Métis to assist in their subsistence seasonally organized themselves for the buffalo hunt, at the same time, provisioning trading posts, such as Fort Edmonton. Their reason for travelling in large groups was based on the very real dangers of travelling alone on the prairies because of hostile Aboriginal tribes. With the strength of numbers and the growing HBC need for the products of their hunt, they established small homesteads across the plains, especially in ravines and canyons where there was shelter and they could create various buffalo products.  This included the curing of hides, and butchering and preparing various edible products from the flesh such as pemmican. These were transient communities based on the presence of the buffalo. They were located in the Cypress Hills and countless coulees of the South Saskatchewan and Red Deer Rivers as well as at Buffalo Lake and numerous other places where their presence has been erased by time.

By 1840, it became evident that the era of the fur trade was over. Colonization of the American West had not gone unnoticed by the HBC administrators, who had attempted to establish colonies in the Oregon territory with volunteer settlers from the Red River to stop the influx of American settlers. The HBC, in 1838, even invited missionaries to serve the religious needs of these colonists, but had to concede failure in these efforts because, in 1846, it was forced to accept American sovereignty South of the 49th parallel, the Canadian/American border.

The HBC, under pressure from British concerns, invited Protestant missionaries to the North-West, but the Métis populations, which were French-speaking and Catholic, ignored this and, around 1840, asked for Catholic missionaries. This request came from the territories comprising Saskatchewan, Athabasca and the Mackenzie. The call was heard in St. Boniface, as well as in the East by bishops in Montréal and Québec, and in France, in particular, by the Oblates of Marseille. Before they came to the Canadian North West, they focused on the needs of the French-Canadians in the older Catholic settlements along the St. Lawrence River. Soon after, when they came to the North-West, they focused on the Métis and accompanied them to the prairies, on their buffalo hunts as well as meeting their religious needs. 

With the disappearance of the buffalo, a sedentary life style became a necessary. Wherever missions and chapels had been established, gardens were planted to supplement the meagre resources available from the land. This served as an example to the Métis. In some instances, the missionaries also taught Aboriginal Peoples land cultivation practices.

This is exactly what Father Albert Lacombe did, in 1865, when he planted potatoes and what wheat with the local Aboriginal and Metis populations along the North Saskatchewan River. Known as Saint-Paul-des-Cris [St. Paul of the Cree], this mission was closed in 1873, following the decimation of the indigenous populations of the North-West through the large smallpox epidemic of 1870.

The efforts of Oblates to encourage settlement were more successful in other areas. At Lac St Anne, a Métis colony that was intended to be a safe harbour from the dangers of “white civilization”, was too isolated and too susceptible to early frosts for the successful cultivation of crops. Thus, Mgr Alexandre Taché and Father Lacombe chose to move the mission closer to Fort Edmonton in 1861, and established the mission at St Albert. The site was better for agriculture and the Oblates encouraged the Métis to settle there and plant crops.

The situation was similar at Lac la Biche, but there, the local inhabitants had invited the Oblates to establish a presence there. However, the people in the area were very occupied in the fur trade and cared for their horses which were used in transporting goods, and had first rights on the wild hay marshes. For them, the Oblate mission became a meeting place, and the most prosperous among them settled close to the mission.

Another important settlement was that of Batoche, in Saskatchewan. There, too, the Métis had established themselves and several small Métis communities had also sprung up in the region. These included Duck Lake, St Laurent, St Louis, among others, and the Oblates came to establish missions there.  

Towards 1881, several Métis families – the Salois and the Laboucanes, settled at Battle River, in Alberta, establishing a trade route for transporting merchandise in the famous Red River carts, as well as raising livestock and horses. Known as the Laboucane Settlement, many years later, it was renamed in honour of Bishop Thomas Duhamel from the Archdiocese of Ottawa. With the arrival of homesteaders in the region, in 1896, a number of the families from the Laboucane Settlement moved to new colony of Saint-Paul-des-Métis north of the Saskatchewan River with their large herds of livestock to join the other Métis settlers and because there were still large expenses of Crown lands available for pasture for their herds of horses and cattle.

In the plains, towards 1870, the Métis buffalo hunters were going from the Red River to near  Fort Qu’Appelle, and also to Wood Mountain, Cypress Mountain and Milk River, in what is now Saskatchewan and the extreme Southeastern corner of Alberta. Some missionaries, among whom were Fathers Jules Decorby and Jean-Marie Lestanc, came to them to offer them the comforts of their faith. The region was a great gathering place, and the Métis came from various parts of the North West, as the fur trade and buffalo trade ended. Father Lestanc wintered with them for four years.

But, for many reasons, including the whiskey trade and troubles along the American border, Mgr Taché recalled the missionaries in an effort to encourage the population to move back to Red River.  He did this to further his dream of Métis settlement in a location that would be the cradle of the Métis along the Red River, which would become the province of Manitoba. The Métis in what would become Alberta and Saskatchwan were not happy with the loss of their resident Oblates and wrote to Mgr Taché pleading with him to return their beloved Father Lestanc to them. This was not be.

It was the disappearance of the buffalo that put an end to the seasonal camps, and the concentration of Métis settled at « Talle-de-Saules », in Southern Saskatchewan, (anglicized as Willow Bunch), under the leadership of a young French-Canadian entrepreneur, Jean-Louis Légaré who had married a Métis girl. He developed an enterprise that employed a great number of Métis, who were out of work and starving. He arranged for them to gather buffalo bones which littered the plains and transport them to depots near railway yards, from where they were shipped to be used as fertiliser and other industrial uses.The town of Regina was, for a time, known as “Pile of Bones”because of that enterprise. Other Métis went to Batoche, Saint-Albert or the range of towns that were springing up across the plains with the arrival of the railway, searching for work wherever they went.

The Insurrection of 1885, resulting from the government’s disregard for the river lots where the Métis had chosen to establish themselves long before the arrival of the government-appointed surveyors, over-turned the established order in the North West. In addition, there were issues around the land entitlements of the Métis set out in scrips, which had always sold for a loaf of bread, leaving the Métis without lands and without the means to earn a living.

The poverty and misery of the Métis spread throughout the Great Plains, and Father Lacombe resolved to find a means of teaching them how to cultivate the land as did the settlers who arrived in ceaseless waves from the East. He did this to offer them hope for the future. Having an established relationship with the power elites, he succeeded, in 1896, in having reserved four townships in Northeastern Alberta for this purpose.

In remembrance of his first colony along the Saskatchewan River, he named the new colony Saint-Paul-des-Métis. He would have preferred a more traditional site, such as Buffalo Lake with long established ties to the Métis, but these lands had already been reserved for homesteading. He, therefore, accepted settling them 30 kilometres to the north of the North Saskatchewan. The region was remote, isolated and without roads. The railway was two days away. The lots were small, just barely 30 hectares. In addition, agricultural equipment was scarce, as was financing and to add to their troubles, the large boarding school burned down shortly after it was completed. Twelve years later, the colony was abandoned and the land was opened to homesteaders in 1909, and the Oblates succeeded, with some governmental intervention, in settling the land with French-Canadian settlers.

Despite their difficulties in becoming homesteaders, the Métis remained very attached to the Church, and the clergy continued to serve them in matters of faith and in keeping with their vows to assist the poor. The Oblates continued to assist them, counsel them and support their struggle and aided them when the Métis, defeated and disinherited of their lands, organized themselves and created the Métis Association of Alberta, in 1930. This resulted in a commission of enquiry which brought about the creation of a number of “Metis colonies” in Alberta. Throughout the 20th century, the Oblates continued to organize the pilgrimage to Lac St Anne where the Métis faithful gathered. There, the Oblates did their missionary work on comforting, consoling and encouraging. For the Oblates, this was a part of their work of evangelization.
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