Source: Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
BELLECOURT (Bellecours, Belcourt), GEORGE-ANTOINE, priest and missionary, b. 22 April 1803 in Saint-Antoine-de-la-Baie-du-Febvre (Baieville), L.C., son of Antoine Bellecourt and Josephte Lemire; d. 31 May 1874 at Shediac, N.B.
George-Antoine Bellecourt studied at the seminary of Nicolet, and was ordained into the Roman Catholic Church on 10 March 1827. After serving as assistant in various parishes, he was installed in Sainte-Martine, Châteauguay County, in 1830, where he became attached to the parish and its people. He begged to be excused when in 1831 Mgr Bernard-Claude Panet* asked him to go to remote Red River. He went, however, and at Saint-Boniface began his work by mastering Chippewa (Sauteux), a form of the Algonkian tongue, which he had previously studied at the mission of Lac-des-Deux-Montagnes. Knowledge of the language gave him an advantage over the other missionaries who had to rely on interpreters. In 1839 his little grammar, Principes de la langue des sauvages appelés Sauteux was published in Quebec; he prepared a Dictionnaire sauteux, later printed by Father Albert Lacombe* in 1874, and is said to have translated the catechism of the diocese of Quebec into Chippewa.
In 1832–33 Bellecourt began his mission to the Chippewas on the Assiniboine River, west of the Métis mission of Saint-François-Xavier, on land given by the Hudson’s Bay Company. He strove to persuade the Chippewas to build a village there like the one established by the Anglican missionaries at St Peter’s (near present-day Selkirk) on the lower Red River. He himself laboured as farmer, builder, and carpenter. By 1839 the mission village, Baie-Saint-Paul, with tiny fields along the river, was well established.
He then desired, however, to return to his native province, and Archbishop Joseph Signay* recalled him to work with the Indians at Lac Témiscamingue. But Bellecourt, apparently an emotional and impulsive man, soon returned to the west. In 1840 the tireless priest started missions at Wabassimong (White Dog) Falls on Winnipeg River, at Rainy Lake (Lac La Pluie), and at Duck Bay (Baie des Canards) on Lake Winnipegosis, but Baie-Saint-Paul and its people remained his chief care. Support for his work came from the Société de la Propagation de la Foi, the diocese of Quebec, and the bishop of Quebec.
In 1844 trouble began to develop in the Red River Settlement when an American at Pembina, Norman Wolfred Kittson*, attempted to challenge the legality of the HBC monopoly by trading furs with the Indians, and Bellecourt joined in the agitation to destroy the company’s position. He had not been hostile to the company itself, indeed his assistance in troubles between the Métis and the company in 1834–35 had been sought and was remembered by the HBC, and it is improbable that a man of his character was interested in the fur trade. He was, however, warmly committed to the cause of the Métis. Bellecourt believed that the Métis title to their land should be recognized, that they should be allowed a voice in government, and that “free trade” in furs was their right as natives of the northwest. Contemporaries said that he approved the claims for the Métis against the company listed in Alexander Kennedy Isbister*’s pamphlet, A few words on the Hudson’s Bay Company . . . , and that he supplied much of its argument. He was a leader at meetings held in February 1846 at the house of Andrew McDermot* in Red River and he drew up a petition in French, setting out the claims of settlers, Indians, and Métis. This petition, with 977 signatures, was dispatched to London, where it precipitated an extensive inquiry into the position of the HBC.
By participating in the agitation Bellecourt made himself a marked man and anathema to Governor George Simpson*. Simpson requested that the archbishop of Quebec, Mgr Signay, recall Bellecourt, but this action had already been taken. In the fall of 1847, after suffering the indignity of having his luggage searched for furs, Bellecourt went back to Canada. A petition was organized, however, requesting his return to Red River, and Bellecourt was anxious that his mission to the Indians and Métis should not be ended. Simpson learned that there was a possibility that Bellecourt might re-establish himself at Pembina, a base for the buffalo hunt and a Métis settlement on American soil, 60 miles south of Upper Fort Garry (Winnipeg), and he invited Bellecourt to come back to Red River, provided that he undertook “not to interfere in the politics of the country.” Bellecourt refused. In 1848, however, he did begin a mission at Pembina, a refuge outside the control of the HBC. In a sense Bellecourt had gone into partnership with Kittson against the company.
Simpson’s only recourse was to have the new governor of Assiniboia, Major William Bletterman Caldwell*, write in 1849 to the British chargé d’affaires at Washington protesting Bellecourt’s counselling the Métis to resist the authorities in Red River. There was some justification for the protest. Not only was Bellecourt attempting to draw off the Métis from Red River and assisting Kittson in making Pembina a centre of the fur trade, but he was also counselling the Métis in their continuing struggle with the government of Assiniboia. It was in fact Bellecourt who advised Jean-Louis Riel* and other Métis leaders on their resistance to the trial of Pierre-Guillaume Sayer who had been accused of illegal trade by the company. He may also have advised them in their petition for representation on the Council of Assiniboia and for the removal of Adam Thom*, recorder of Rupert’s Land. From his base in Pembina Bellecourt was thus able to participate in the controversies far more effectively than he had been allowed to do while residing in British territory.
The coming of free trade in 1849 made removal to Pembina unnecessary for the Métis, and the United States treaty of 1850 which arranged transfer of lands to Minnesota treated the Métis as whites, thus denying them a share in the Indian title. The great flood of 1852 overwhelmed Pembina as it did Red River, and the new cart brigades of the free trade went through to St Paul [see Joseph Rolette]. The mission did not flourish. In 1853 Kittson moved his headquarters to St Joseph (Walhalla, North Dakota) and in the same year Bellecourt took up residence there, on an escarpment to the west where a small Métis settlement began. But the Métis and the HBC had come to terms in the new era of free trade, and Bellecourt was once more a humble missionary. At St Joseph he served with his usual zeal, but difficulties developed both with his helpers and with his superiors, perhaps because of the habit of working alone which he had formed over the years.
Bellecourt left the northwest in 1859 on vacation and was not allowed to return. At the request of Bishop Bernard Donald MacDonald* of Charlottetown, he was sent to serve in the parish of Rustico among the Acadians of Prince Edward Island. There he tried to improve the material lot of his people, as he had done by introducing agriculture to the Chippewas. He inspired the founding of the Farmers’ Bank of Rustico which was incorporated in 1864 and lasted until 1894. This was a genuine “people’s bank”: the directors and the first president, Jérôme Doiron, were all farmers; the first cashier, Marin Blanchard, was a school-teacher. The initial capital was set at £1,200. J. T. Croteau writes: “It was by far the smallest bank, measured by share capital, ever to operate in Canada, it was the first people’s bank in Canada, and it was the precursor of the North American credit union movement through its influence upon the pioneer credit union organizer,” Alphonse Desjardins* of Quebec. Bellecourt also established a school and a library. Through his friend, the historian François-Edmé Rameau* de Saint-Père, he received an annual gift of 1,000 francs from Napoleon III for the library. Bellecourt gave up his parochial duties in 1869, but two years later he was sent to Havre-aux-Maisons (Îles-de-la-Madeleine) where he served until his final illness.
Bellecourt’s tenacity and courage in his work as a missionary are admirable. But his career perhaps exemplifies the difficulty of using someone trained to be a parish priest as a missionary. Bellecourt’s fundamental error was that, like so many before him, he attempted to use agriculture and its sedentary life as a means to convert nomads. Father Lacombe may have been wiser in attempting to make the faith itself nomadic.
After a brief illness, Bellecourt died at a farm he had acquired near Shediac, and was buried at Memramcook.
[A complete list of Bellecourt’s writings, both in English and in Algonkian, is found in B. B. Peel, A bibliography of the Prairie provinces to 1953 (Toronto, 1956). References to manuscript sources can be found in J. M. Reardon, George Anthony Belcourt, pioneer Catholic missionary to the northwest 1803–1874, his life and times (St Paul, Minn., 1955), 205–17, which is the most complete study of G.-A. Bellecourt’s life to date. w.l.m.]
HBC Arch. A.11/95 (Caldwell to the British chargé d’affaires, Washington, 31 July 1849); D.4/35 (Simpson to Christie, 18 Dec. 1849); D.4/37, D.4/45 (Simpson to the archbishop of Quebec, 3 March 1848); D.5/20 (Christie to Simpson, 30 Nov. 1847); D.5/21 (Bellecourt to Simpson, 28 Jan. 1848); D.5/25 (Christie to Simpson, 29 May 1849). G.B., CO, Hudson’s Bay Company. (Red River Settlement.) Return to an address of the Honourable the House of Commons, dated 9 February 1849 . . . ([London, 1849]). HBRS, XIX (Rich, Johnson, and Morton), xlix, lxxxviii–ix. A. K. Isbister, A few words on the Hudson’s Bay Company with a statement of the grievances of the natives and the half-caste Indians, addressed to the British government through their delegates now in London (London, 1847). J.-H. Blanchard, The Acadians of Prince Edward Island, 1720–1964 (Ottawa, Ont., and Hull, Que., 1964). MacMillan, Catholic Church in PEI, 115–16, 264–65, 305–6. Morice, Hist. of the Catholic Church, I. J. T. Croteau, “The Farmers’ Bank of Rustico: an early people’s bank,” Dal. Rev., XXXVI (1956–57), 144–55.