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Catholics in Western Canada.

Part 1

With this issue Dr. Murray Nicolson and Catholic Insight resume the historical series on the history of Catholicism in English-speaking Canada. We began with a general overview of the period before 1800 in our December 1995 edition. This was followed by a description of Irish Catholics in Newfoundland living under the penal laws (Jan - Feb '96); the settlement of the Irish and Scots in the Maritimes (March '96); the arrival of the Scots in Ontario and English Canada's first bishop (May '96); the effect of the Irish famine and Toronto's bishop Michael Power (June '96); the Irish Catholics in Quebec in the mid-1850s (July! Aug '96); and finally Toronto's "beggar Bishop", Armand de Charbonnel, in the 1850's (Sept. '96).

The story now moves westward to the prairies and British Columbia (two articles) before returning to Ontario in the last part of the nineteenth century.

In the pre-Confederation era, the vast western region was protected in its isolation from the outside influences of both Canada and the United States. It remained primarily in the hands of the nomadic Indians and the Metis, until the arrival of the railway in the late nineteenth century. That event allowed for the penetration of the Canadian west by various groups, with the consequence that diversity is a quality western provinces continue to share.

Perhaps the first Catholic presence in the North West was that of Father Charles Albanel, who travelled from Quebec to Hudson Bay in 1671. No missionaries followed him, but the Church expanded by having priests travel with the fur traders into the interior of the west. When the Hudson Bay basin was ceded to Britain in 1713, the explorer La Verendrye, accompanied by a Jesuit, Charles Mesaiger, established a post at Portage la Prairie, where two additional Jesuits were assigned to work with the Indians and Metis.

The intermarriage of white men with Indian women produced two distinct groups of mixed peoples that held influence in the west. One group, known as the English half-breeds, were mostly of Scottish and Indian mixture, English-speaking, and Protestant in religion. Looked upon as children of the Hudson's Bay Company, they moved down from the north and settled in the Red River area. The other group were the Metis proper, known also as the Bois-Brule (Burnt Wood). The earliest origins of the group were among the voyageurs in the east, with an extended mixing through the trappers of the North West Company. They were French-speaking and Catholic.

Red River settlement

Both groups farmed on strips along river frontage, hunted buffalo, and utilized the Red River cart; often there were trains of twelve hundred carts employed in the hunt or as drovers. However, they also used York boats, canoes and bateaus for transportation. As a staple and trade item they produced pemmican, a dried meat mixed with berries. They communicated in a language called Bungay, comprised of English, French and Indian; they intermarried and produced some strong leaders.

Paradoxically, the Protestant Lord Selkirk and his Scottish settlers on the Red River were instrumental in promoting Catholicism in the west. The wealthy Selkirk, who owned a large interest in the Hudson's Bay Company, wanted to improve the fortunes of landless Scottish crofters. He purchased a vast tract of land along the Assiniboine, Red and Winnipeg Rivers and brought out Scottish emigrants to occupy the agricultural settlement he planned in the Red River. This area, however, was occupied illegally by the North West Fur Company and its employees--Catholic French Canadians and Metis, and Presbyterian Scottish half-breeds.

The presence of the Selkirk settlers, who began to arrive in 1812, was resented by the "Nor'westers" as a threat to the fur trade. Pressure on them to return east to Upper Canada included the offer of free transportation; the pressure was succeeded by persistent harassment, culminating in 1816 in the Seven Oaks massacre of 21 settlers. As a counter-measure to protect the settlers, Selkirk hired Swiss and German mercenaries of the DeMeuron regiment, disbanded after the War of 1812-14.

Lord Selkirk failed in his bid to obtain a Presbyterian minister for the Scottish settlers but, while in Montreal, advocated with Bishop I. Plessis to supply mission priests to the area to serve the needs of the French Canadians and the Swiss Catholic mercenaries. He followed up in 1817 by promising to give the Church 10,000 acres at the Red River. Plessis saw the opportunity of spreading Catholicism across the West and the potential for a bisophric subject to Quebec, but was hesitant to act in the face of Hudson's Bay / North West fur trade rivalries. At the direct request for a permanent mission, however, Plessis sent Father Joseph Norbert Provencher, Father S. J. N. Dumoulin and a seminarian to the Red River in 1818. The priests worked hard to convince the voyageurs to settle their families and to adopt the strip-farming methods so common in Quebec. As a result the Red River mission grew rapidly; it was supplied with clergy by volunteers from Provencher's old parish in Quebec. In acknowledgement of the ci vilizing influence the missionaries exercised, Provencher was made auxiliary to Bishop Plessis of Quebec.

Two major problems faced the new mission fields. One was a lack of resources and the second related to the 1818 British-United States agreement to establish the 49th parallel as the boundary. This agreement placed Father Dumoulin's Pembina mission and school in the United States, along with a vast territory and its Metis inhabitants. Provencher had spent time in the east, collecting resources for his missionary work, but was anxious to return west, particularly since the two rival fur companies had merged. In 1822, he was consecrated Bishop and left that spring with the fur brigade.

St. Boniface

Provencher had conducted religious services out of his house in the Red and Assiniboine Rivers area. After 1822 he built a wooden church in the settlement called St. Boniface, in honour of the patron saint of the German-speaking Swiss mercenaries. This was to become a thriving mission, with schools and an Indian agricultural settlement, and, in 1848, the seat of the Bishop of St. Boniface, its wooden church replaced with a twin-towered stone cathedral. But in 1823, Plessis closed out Father Dumoulin's Pembina mission, which by then was beyond British control, and the disheartened Dumoulin left the same year.

Provencher succeeded in expanding the mission field among the natives, but keeping priests at the posts proved difficult. Loneliness, isolation, the nomadic lifestyle of the aboriginals, difficult circumstances and environmental extremes, and language barriers, were not conducive to success. Still by 1842 one priest had reached Fort Edmonton, where he remained for ten years. Another, however, Father Jean Darveau, was put to death in 1844 by the natives when he attempted to set up a permanent post at The Pas. And Father Georges Belcourt, who had established the first mission at St. Paul's in 1832, was dismissed in 1848 from Hudson's Bay Company territory for siding with the Metis against the company's tyrannical rule. He switched to the Pembina mission on American soil.

Oblates of Mary Immaculate

Assistance came, in 1845, through the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, a French order of priests founded by Eugene de Mazenod in 1816, and approved by Rome in 1826. Provencher, who encountered the Order in Montreal, believed the future of the western church lay in their hands. Arriving with the first Oblate was a Canadian novice, Alexandre-Antonin Tache, who seemed too young to meet the demands of the tasks ahead. Yet, by 1846, the two priests created a standing mission at Ile-a-la-Crosse in Northern Saskatchewan, and started another three years later on Lake Athabaska in Northern Alberta.

Even before he was thirty years old, Tache had been made Provencher's coadjutor. When the latter died in 1853, Tache took over as bishop of a diocese which covered two million square miles, with a staff of four diocesan priests and seven Oblates. Following Provencher's vision, Tache oversaw the opening of new missions at Lac la Biche, Lake Athabasca, and Nipigon, introducing ten Oblates and three Christian Brothers into the diocese. After personally evaluating the needs of the people in the northern missions, Tache planned to expand even further northward and sent a missionary to explore the Peace River district.

Tache could no longer cope on his own with the workload of the diocese from St. Boniface and, in 1859, was granted a coadjutor, Vital Grandin. The Oblates, in their vigour and eagerness, had taken charge of all diocesan work in the west and continued to open missions, so that by 1867 they had reached the Pacific and Arctic Oceans. Grandin had toured the north missions from 1861 to 1864. More and closer supervision was required and, consequently, a vicar apostolic was appointed for Athabaska-Mackenzie in 1862, which opened the path for further diocesan structures towards the Rockies.

Grey nuns

While recognizing the evangelising contribution of the missionary priests, one must also credit the work of the Grey Nuns. Bishop Provencher requested their assistance, with the promise that a building would be erected in St. Boniface to serve as a house and school, with a garden behind. The Superior General of the order in Montreal agreed and arranged for four sisters to take up the post. Heavy baggage and supplies had to be sent to England, then back by sea to a trading post on Hudson Bay, and then south by boatmen to the Red River.

The four nuns set out by canoe with eight voyageurs on April 24, 1844, from Lachine, Montreal, on an arduous journey, along the Ottawa River to Lake Nipissing, across Lake Huron to Sault Ste. Marie, across Lake Superior to Fort William, then west via narrow rivers and steep portages to Lake of the Woods, on to the Winnipeg River and south to the Red River, arriving at St. Boniface at 1:00 a.m. on June 21, 1844. Within three weeks, the sisters had opened a school in their house for fifty-four Metis girls, and one for younger boys in the basement of the bishop's house; later they opened an industrial school where older girls and women were taught household skills like spinning, weaving, knitting and sewing. One of the nuns drove from home to home, teaching those unable to attend school. By 1848 the sisters had a new, much bigger and more comfortable convent. In the new premises, the sisters provided care for about 50 orphans, "boys and girls who come from every part of the diocese ... Metis of every possible o rigin: Irish, Cree, Saulteaux, Montagnais and even Sioux." They were also able to take in boarding students. With pride one of them reported:

As to the pupils of the boarding school, I dare say that the examination results could honour our fine convents in Lower Canada. The program of studies is exactly the same: French, English, history, mathematics, drawing and music.

Nursing was another important aspect of the Grey Nuns' work. Having learned as much practical medicine as they could before leaving Montreal, they could not ignore the sick, whose needs became evident as the sisters travelled door-to-door.

Their abilities were put to the test in 1846 when the Red River settlement was struck with one disease after another. They closed the schools for a period to focus on the sick, visiting homes and arranging for the most ill to be brought to St. Boniface. In one three-week period, there were 96 deaths as a result of "bloody flux", and comforting the bereaved became an important part of their mission.

The following year, one of the rooms in the convent was opened as a hospital ward. But for the most part, nursing care was done in the homes of the sick; in their first decade the sisters made over 6000 visits in the settlement. Occasionally, medicines arrived from Montreal, but often the sisters made poultices, ointments and remedies of every description from the resources at hand: mint, pumpkin, rhubarb, black currants, milkweed, cherry bark, spruce sap, goldenrod, bloodroot, wild strawberry, and corn tassels.

By 1854 there were eleven sisters in the convent at St. Boniface and two at St. Francois-Xavier at White Horse Plain, a settlement established by the Metis leader, Cuthbert Grant. In their fawn-coloured habits, with moccasins on their feet, the nuns, who rebounded from every adversity, won the hearts of the Metis and Indians they served. Their numbers gradually increased, especially with novices from among the girls they educated, who bore names like Connolly, Goulet, McDougall, St. Laurent, Riel, reflecting their varied Metis backgrounds. Like the Oblates, the Grey Nuns advanced their missionary endeavours westward and northward because of hard work and a willingness to accept multiple cultures.

The Metis

While the Metis accepted the advantages the missionaries provided, by 1850 they were becoming alarmed at the social and environmental changes affecting their lifestyle. The buffalo were not as plentiful, and competition for this major food source intensified between the Metis and the Indian tribes. Moreover, the rules governing the buffalo hunt were the basis of the Metis social structure, and collapse of the hunt jeopardized the fabric of their community. Their carts and canoes were being replaced by modernized shipping and transportation methods, which invited increased settlement and threatened their land ownership. Their response to these issues had far-reaching consequences in the political sphere, sometimes placing the Church in a difficult position.

Among the Metis were a number of strong leaders: Cuthbert Grant, Warden of the Plains; Gabriel Dumont; Pierre Falcon; John Bruce; Ambrose Lepine; Louis Riel, senior; and, most memorable, his son Louis Riel. As a boy, the young Louis Riel was educated at the College of Montreal, but did not enter the priesthood as Tache had expected. He returned to the Red River at the time the north west was being transferred from the Hudson's Bay Company to Canada. These arrangements were concluded without consulting the majority Metis, who were concerned that the survey methods used in Ontario would reduce their holdings. The Metis, under the leadership of Riel, seized Upper Fort Garry (Winnipeg) and formed a provisional government. They formulated a Bill of Rights, which protected their language, religion and farms, upon which Ottawa negotiated the Manitoba Act in 1870, creating the province.

Thomas Scott, an Orangeman from Ontario, was jailed along with a group of English-speaking trouble-makers who refused to recognize the authority of the provisional government. Scott continued to be abusive to the guards and was shot by the Metis, under their code of acceptable behaviour. Ottawa held Riel accountable for Scott's death and dispatched an army under Colonel Garnett Wolseley to assume control of the new province. Riel went south to the United States, where he taught school until he was called north, in 1885, to assume the leadership of the Metis and Indians, whose conditions had worsened.

If Manitoba's growth was slow, it seems that Saskatchewan's was even slower. However, a mission was established in Ile-a-laCrosse, by Tache and Rev. Louis LaFleche, a diocesan priest, in 1846; in 1996 it celebrated its 150th anniversary. Oblates have served the community all during those years, with faith in God, devotion to Mary, and dedication to prayer and family life paramount. Nine Oblates are buried in its graveyard, as are eight Grey Nuns, among them Louis Riel's sister. The Grey Nuns came to the village in 1860, after a rough journey from St. Boniface that took 63 days, and became engrossed in teaching and nursing. Cree, Dene, French and English were the languages spoken at the mission. Interestingly, the week of the 150th anniversary also marked the 90th of the signing of Treaty Ten with the Indians. However, it was not until the later decades of the nineteenth century that a substantial population growth occurred in Saskatchewan.

Among the traders of the North West Company attracted to the fur-rich west was John Rowand, the son of a Scottish surgeon in Montreal and a French-Canadian mother. From early in the nineteenth century, Rowand worked between Lake Winnipeg and the Rocky Mountains. He became head of the Hudson's Bay Company's Saskatchewan District and ruled the plains from his headquarters at Fort Edmonton. A Catholic, educated at the Sulpician College in Montreal, Rowand had an overwhelming experience in working with Indians and Metis, and his friendship was to be a boon to Father Albert Lacombe, whose name is bound firmly to the history of Alberta.

Fr. Albert Lacombe

Father Lacombe, a Quebec farm boy, carried the blood of the voyageurs and of a Metis grandmother. Educated in Montreal and ordained to the priesthood in 1849, the young Lacombe was stirred by the exploits of Father Georges Belcourt from the Pembina mission, who came seeking financial help for the Indians and Metis. Lacombe was given permission to return with Belcourt to Pembina, where he spent two summers before being recalled to Montreal. This gave him the opportunity of learning to speak Salteux and experiencing, first-hand, the strict rules governing the Metis buffalo hunt.

Inspired by the Oblates, their self-denial and accommodation, Lacombe believed he needed the discipline and support of such an Order to pursue his dream. But he had little time to ponder the move, for Tache was in Montreal in 1852, begging for priests. He accepted Lacombe as a volunteer to return with him--promising that the young man could make his novitiate as an Oblate at St. Boniface. Within 24 hours of his arrival at St. Boniface, however, he was told to take over the unattended mission post at Fort Edmonton. It was on this journey that John Rowand became mentor to the young Lacombe, teaching him about the pemmican posts, the trade routes, the habits and makeup of the various native tribes, and the difficult conditions under which they lived. Lacombe became friend to the Crees and Blackfoot, helping to establish reserves and schools, and to quell tribal tensions and calm Metis tempers. With Father Constantine Scollen, an Irishman who set up the first English school at Fort Edmonton in 1862, Lacombe comp osed a dictionary and prayer book for the Blackfoot, and a dictionary and grammar for the Cree.

Known as the "Black Robe Voyageur", Lacombe had a parish covering 250,000 square miles. Small-pox devastated the mixed population of Alberta in 1870 and the relentless care provided to the sick and dying, the burial of the gruesome corpses carried out by Bishop Grandin, himself ill, Lacombe and other Oblates left a lasting impression. Much of the positive work, however, was undone with the availability of whiskey from American traders. When Father Lacombe died in 1916, in his beloved Alberta, the whole of the west mourned.

The French and Metis prompted Catholic evangelization along the British Columbia coast. As employees of the North West / Hudson's Bay Company, they settled along two tributaries of the Columbia River at Fort Vancouver, in the current Oregon. They asked Bishop Provencher for priests in 1834 and again in 1835, but permission was denied by the Hudson's Bay Company, most likely because of the presence in the area of five American Methodist ministers. In 1838, however, Provencher was allowed to send from Red River Fathers E. Blanchet and Modeste Demers, provided their mission was located north of the territory claimed by the expanding United States. No Catholic priests had been in that area since the Spanish friars had left more than 50 years before.

Father Demers was responsible for the northern territory of the mission and, in 1841, travelled to Fort Langley on the Fraser River. What Demers and Blanchet discovered was the proximity of a Jesuit mission, under the jurisdiction of the bishop of St. Louis. They decided upon a division of labour, and Demers began an extended journey of a year up the Columbia River to Stuart Lake. The purpose was to penetrate the mainland in advance of the Protestant clergy, and he baptized about 280 Indians. Other than the contributions of the Jesuits, who were recalled to the southern regions in 1848, there was little sustained effort at Catholic evangelization in the interior of British Columbia until the arrival of the Oblates in 1859. Sporadic episodes included those of Father Jean-Baptiste Bolduc in 1843, when he accompanied the future governor, James Douglas, on his second voyage to Vancouver Island. In that year he baptized a great number of Songhees, but there was no significant follow-up.


For 57 years of its existence, Victoria was a suffragan see under the influence of Oregon. When he was consecrated Bishop of Vancouver Island in 1847, his jurisdiction was a wilderness that encompassed all of British Columbia and north to the Arctic Ocean. He spent the first four years of his tenure abroad in an ineffective attempt to secure clergy before setting up residence in Victoria in 1852. In the political sphere, Victoria was the capital of Vancouver Island under the governorship of James Douglas. When the 1858 gold rush to the Fraser River attracted hordes of American prospectors and camp-followers, the British Government created a colony, British Columbia, on the mainland, making James Douglas governor. Troops and lawmakers were sent in to establish order.

Two other significant events occurred in 1858. The Sisters of St. Anne from Quebec arrived in Victoria to establish schools, orphanages and hospitals. Also, the Oblates moved their Pacific headquarters to Esquimalt, establishing St. Joseph's Mission. From this post, the superior, Louis-Joseph D'Herbomez, oversaw the development of a succession of Oblate missionary posts on the British Columbia mainland, hoping to forestall the advance of Anglican measures.

In 1864 D'Herbomez was made Bishop of New Westminster, taking in the entire mainland of British Columbia, separated from the Diocese of Vancouver Island and leaving the area under total Oblate control. At that time, Americans formed the majority population in Victoria and it was not until 1903 that the connection between the Province of Oregon and the Vancouver diocese was broken.


The initial phases of Catholic evangelization in the west were carried out by French personnel, either from France or Quebec, with very little evidence of English speakers until the late nineteenth century. In an era of great bigotry, the majority English in central Canada feared the dominance and potential power-base of the west's Catholic francophones. It is questionable whether the religious and cultural identities could be separated. Most appropriate, therefore, are Bishop Grandin's reflections:

"The Indians call Catholicism the French religion and Protestantism the English religion. It is the truth for many of the public figures with whom I have had dealings; religion is for them more a matter of nationality than of conviction....To be a true English subject, one must be Protestant...."
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Publication:Catholic Insight
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Jan 1, 1999
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