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Impact of the Oblates on Aboriginal Peoples & the Métis

When Oblates first arrived in the North-West in 1845, they were coming to help and replace of the short-handed diocesan priests who had been travelling far and wide, baptising and ministering to the mixed-blood population and to the Aboriginal Peoples. The first Catholic missionaries had been invited to the North-West in 1818 at the request of Lord Selkirk, who was having a great deal of trouble dealing with the French-speaking voyageurs and their offspring at his colony at Red River. After the colony was dissolved, there continued to be a settlement at Red River that predated Lord Selkirk’s. Red River became a homeland of sorts for the European inhabitants of the North-West, following the union of the rival fur trade companies into the Hudson’s Bay Company, as aged employees were encouraged to retire there. Nevertheless, the French-speaking population of the North-West lived all over the territory, and many a voyageur father taught his children the prayers of the faith of his fathers. After 1818, children born in the far reaches of the North-West and Rupert’s Land accompanied their parents to Saint-Boniface and were baptised there. It was not unusual for their parents’ union to receive the sacrament of marriage at the same time.

Around 1840, at the urging of missionary societies in Great Britain, ministers were sent to evangelize the employees of the HBC, their families and the Aboriginal Peoples. Seeing this, the descendants of the voyageurs, and probably some aged voyageurs as patriarchs of large families, requested Catholic missionaries be sent to them, as they felt it was the true faith. At this time, the lines that distinguished Métis (French-speaking), Mixed-bloods or Half-breeds (Anglophone) and Aboriginal peoples were not hard and fast. In reality, the kinship relations between them were very close (and there was certainly no legal distinction at this time). Suffice it to say, the call for Catholic missionaries came from all of these people, be they from the Fort Edmonton region, as far south as present-day Calgary, or to the north-west of Portage-la-Loche where the many linguistic families of Dené were to be found, and where the voyageurs had taken wives and had established families.

In 1841, John Rowand, Chief Factor of the Saskatchewan District of the HBC, and headquartered at Fort Edmonton, reported that the Cree were not interested in listening to the Methodist missionary James Rundle, but wanted the vrais priants (“the real priests”) - the Catholic priests, of which, evidently, they had heard of from their relations and had understood that were the ones they should listen to and to whose faith they should adhere. A similar instance occurred around 1851 when a deputation of Aboriginal Peoples from Great Slave Lake came to Nativity Mission near Fort Chipewyan asking that “the God speaker, the Speaker to the Almighty” make a mission visit to them. It was Father Henri Faraud who went to them in April of 1852, travelling to Fort Resolution on Great Slave Lake, a long and arduous trip.

R.P. Albert Lacombe, OMI, Nov. 1911. (OB3146 - Oblate Collection at the PAA)So it was that when Oblates arrived to take over the missionary work of the diocesan priests, they were welcomed by the peoples of the North-West. However, they found there was a great deal to do. First of all there were the basic tenets of the Catholic faith to teach to young and old, and there were the Native languages to learn in order to communicate. They did teach some Latin prayers by rote, commenting on the impressive mnemonic capacities of the Aboriginal Peoples, but they knew it was essential that they get their message across.

R.P. Constantine Scollen, OMI, [before 1902]. (OB16016 - Oblate Collection at the PAA)At first, they depended a great deal on French-speaking Métis to help them as translators and as teachers so they could learn the Native languages.Eventually, many dictionaries and grammars of Indigenous languages were written; a few of them were published, such as the Cree-French dictionary by Father Albert Lacombein 1874. He was assisted in this work by Fr. Constantine Scollen and the Grey Nuns at Lac Sainte-Anne who wrote the grammar section. A dictionary of Montagnais (Chipewyan or Dené) and French was published by Father Laurent Legoff, using part of his inheritance to do so.

Oblates also quickly understood the advantages of the syllabic method of writing as developed by Reverend James Evans. It was something that the Aboriginal Peoples took to rapidly, learning to read and write in a matter of hours. Later, when Oblates acquired a printing press with a syllabic type, they printed prayers, little hymnals and books of spiritual readings from the gospels, as well as newsletters, in various Native languages.

Initially, the situation Oblates met when they visited the fur forts was not always one of benign patriarchs proudly standing by their children. They found children without obvious parents, and started taking them in. This led to the establishment of orphanages, for which they requested the help of the Grey Nuns (Sisters of Charity of Montréal). They first arrived at Lac Ste Anne, where a mission had been established, and quickly began giving basic first aid and medical care, as well as teaching school and the domestic arts.

It is certain that Oblates had a strong impact on the religious practices of Aboriginal Peoples, particularly on their traditional rites and rituals. With conversion, the missionaries expected that what they considered to be superstitions and paganism would be eliminated from the lives of their neophytes. This did not always happen. For example, the Aboriginal Peoples kept to their hand games, a form of gambling that sometimes left the gambler with nothing. Although Oblates condemned these games, they were not always successful in eliminating these traditional pastimes.

Some missionaries admitted that the Aboriginal Peoples were deeply spiritual, and felt that this is what attracted them to the Catholic faith in the first place. The Aboriginal Peoples were very interested in the missionaries, but they may have thought that these missionaries were strong shamans, more powerful than their own at this time of growing insecurity with continued encroachment by Europeans. It seems also that the Aboriginal Peoples were very interested in learning to read and write, so as to be able to understand and compete with the Europeans, and they hoped that the missionaries could help them in this.

Education was something the missionaries were very keen on transmitting to the Aboriginal Peoples and the Métis. There were several schools of thought concerning education. Fr. Lacombe, for example, was convinced that it was essential to teach the children at a very young age, otherwise the children maintained their culture and it was practically impossible to “drum it out” of them. Bishop Vital Grandin was convinced that educating - and by this he meant civilising - the Aboriginal Peoples, was best done through the Métis. By having schools that combined the two groups, he was convinced that the Aboriginal children would be influenced by their Métis cousins, and be more inclined to learn more westernized ways of living. This plan was not accepted by Indian Affairs. Other teachers, especially the Grey Nuns, understood that the children who attended residential or boarding schools needed to spend a great deal of time outdoors to be happy, so long excursions, nature walks and such were part of their curriculum.

Several pilgrimages were established for the Aboriginal and Métis populations by Oblate missionaries, which involved the faithful going to a sacred or spiritual site for prayers and cleansing. The Lac Ste-Anne pilgrimage, which was established in the 1880s, came at a time when many Aboriginal Peoples were forced to remain on reserves and needed a special pass to leave. The pilgrimages provided a kind of escape valve for them, and permitted a continued socialization between extended family and kin groups, a cultural practice most vital to the Aboriginal Peoples and the Métis.

The missionaries also encouraged a sedentary life style and the teaching at the residential or boarding schools focused on this. Having the children participate in the every-day chores such as milking cows, bringing in firewood, tending gardens and helping in the kitchens and laundries was a practical way of teaching, as most of the children had no experience in animal husbandry and other farming and domestic activities. When older girls left to get married, some of the residential schools gave them a sewing machine as a dowry.

As for language use at the residential schools, the Government of Canada insisted that children learn English; their native languages were not to be taught. The religious orders managed to avoid keeping to the letter of this mandate by using the time devoted to religious studies to use Aboriginal languages, be it through singing or reading.

Resources

Bulletin de la Société historique de Saint-Boniface, Lettres de Monseigneur Joseph-Norbert Provencher, premier évêque de Saint-Boniface, Vol. III, 1913, Imprimerie du « Manitoba », Saint-Boniface, Man.

Castonguay, Thérèse, s.g.m.,  A Leap in Faith, the Grey Nuns Ministries in Western and Northern Canada, vol 1, The Grey Nuns of Alberta, 1999; Vol II, The Grey Nuns of Alberta, 2001.

Champagne, Claude, Les débuts de la mission dans le Nord-Ouest canadien, Mission et Église chez Mgr Vital Grandin, o.m.i., (1829-1902), Éditions de l’Université d’Ottawa, 1983.

Champagne, Joseph-Étienne, o.m.i., Les Missions Catholiques dans l’Ouest Canadien (1818-1875), Vol. 1., Ottawa, Éditions des Études Oblates, Scolasticat Saint-Joseph, 1949.

Champagne, Juliette, La Mission Notre-Dame-des-Victoires, Lac-la-Biche, 1853-1963, entrepôt et couvent-pensionnat, Narrative history and interpretative matrix for the historic site:, final report, in-house occasional paper, Alberta Culture and Historic Sites Services and Lac La Biche Mission Historical Society, 1992.

______________. La communauté métisse du Lac La Biche au XIXe siècle, Master of Arts in History, University of Alberta, Edmonton, 1990.

Huel, Raymond, Proclaiming the Gospel to the Indians and the Métis,. Edmonton, University of Alberta Press and Western Canadian Publishers, 1996.

Le Treste, Joseph, o.m.i., Mémoires d'un missionnaire breton dans le Nord-Ouest canadien, texte préparé et annoté par Juliette Champagne, Septentrion (Sillery), 1997.

Levasseur, Donat, o.m.i., Les Oblats de Marie Immaculée dans l’Ouest et le Nord du Canada, 1845-196, University of Alberta Press and Western Canadian Publishers, 1995.

Morice, Adrien-Gabriel, o.m.i., Histoire de l’Église catholique dans l’Ouest canadien, du lac Supérieur au Pacifique (1659-1905), Vol I-III, Montréal, Granger Frères, 1915.


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