FRÉMIOT, NICOLAS-MARIE-JOSEPH (baptized Nicolas-Joseph), Roman Catholic priest, Jesuit, and missionary; b. 5 Oct. 1818 in Bellefontaine, dept of Vosges, France, son of Joseph Frémiot and Marie-Jeanne Didier; d. 4 July 1854 near present-day Blind River, Ont.
After five years of training with the Society of Jesus in France, Nicolas-Marie-Joseph Frémiot was ordained subdeacon in September 1846 and priest one year later. He departed at once for the Canadian mission field to which the Jesuits had only recently returned after a long absence [see Jean-Pierre Chazelle*], and spent his first winter in the Montreal region. On 20 May 1848 he set out for Sandwich (Windsor), Upper Canada, site of the most westerly Roman Catholic parish at that time. Only after his arrival was he informed that he and Father Jean-Pierre Choné were to establish a mission at Pigeon River at the west end of Lake Superior. From Sault Ste Marie, Frémiot travelled west with Father Choné and Brother Frédéric de Pooter. At Pigeon River, near the newly determined international boundary, they ministered to the region’s Northern Ojibwa Indians. Father Choné was the senior in age and in experience, already familiar with the Ojibwa language that Frémiot had yet to learn, so that in the first year of their association Choné had to undertake most of the journeys from the Pigeon River mission while Frémiot studied to prepare himself for his later work. At different times in his ministry Frémiot made good use of the Ojibwa grammars written by fellow missionaries George-Antoine Bellecourt* and Frederic Baraga*.
In 1849, a year after their arrival, Choné and Frémiot decided to move their headquarters to the Kaministikwia River near Fort William (Thunder Bay), and Frémiot spent the fall there in charge of building the new Mission de l’Immaculée-Conception. During the next four years the two priests divided duties between them, one remaining at Fort William, the other travelling to the smaller Hudson’s Bay Company posts and to the mining locations at Isle Royale in Michigan and at Prince Bay. As time went on Frémiot undertook most of the extended journeys while Choné concentrated on the area near the mission and on the school for Indian children that he had begun. It was Frémiot, for example, who established a mission at Nipigon in February 1852. Later the same year the two men parted in amity with no hint of the disharmony that sometimes existed between Choné and his assistants, and Frémiot set out for his new headquarters, Wikwemikong on Manitoulin Island, where Jean-Baptiste Proulx*, a fellow missionary, had previously laboured. Given a roving commission, he usually travelled among the Ottawas, the Potawatomis, and the Saugeens (a mixed group of Ojibwas, Potawatomis, and Ottawas), about whom his previous experience had taught him little. But, on his final journey along the north shore of Lake Huron, he again encountered the Northern Ojibwas.
While performing the many arduous tasks demanded of a pioneer missionary, Frémiot wrote a number of lengthy and detailed letters to his colleagues in Canada and abroad. These letters are particularly important as a counterbalance to contemporary accounts by John McLean* and Thomas Gummersall Anderson* of the region and its native peoples. Frémiot assessed Indian life from a point of view far removed from that of those who sought economic advantage or the expansion of Canadian political power, and his horror at many of the customs he described was tempered by his sympathy for the individuals he met. He perceived that most of the young Indians owed their livelihood to the HBC, and he questioned the effect on them of both the long journeys undertaken to secure furs and the company’s practice of paying with merchandise, some of it worthless. As a witness to the discussions held in 1849 between Canadian representatives, led by Anderson, and the Indians around Fort William prior to the treaty concluded the next year by William Benjamin Robinson*, Frémiot had a rare opportunity to record contacts between Indians and whites and the resulting misunderstandings. At first, he was inclined to view the treaty as acceptable, if only because it seemed preferable to American contemporary practice, which included pushing the Indians to the area west of the Mississippi River, but, observing its effects, he came to regard it as a shameful bargain that reduced the Indians to poverty.
Frémiot’s experience and influence were largely restricted to the small groups he served at his missions and on his travels. For most of his missionary career he was far removed geographically from the centres of institutional power; in the Thunder Bay region he had little contact with government officials or with missionaries of other faiths, and the mines he visited were closing down rather than expanding their operations. His own training, moreover, had left him completely isolated from the pressures and prejudices of contemporary politics. His was the voice of the European humanist in the Canadian wilderness.
In a letter dated 2 Feb. 1851 Frémiot described his many missionary trips as involving “at one and the same time the greatest hardships and dangers, but also the greatest consolations and, perhaps, the greatest rewards.” He fell victim to those very dangers some three years later when he drowned in the Mississagi River while on a journey among the Ojibwas. He was buried at Wikwemikong.
AD, Vosges (Épinal), État civil, Bellefontaine, 5 oct. 1818. Lettres des nouvelles missions du Canada, 1843–1852, Lorenzo Cadieux, édit. (Montréal et Paris, 1973). Thunder Bay district, 1821–1892: a collection of documents, ed. and intro. [M.] E. Arthur (Toronto, 1973). M. A. Norton, Catholic missionary activities in the northwest, 1818–1864 . . . (Washington, 1930). [M.] E. Arthur, “Le Père Frémiot à Thunder Bay, de 1848 à 1852,” RHAF, 25 (1971–72): 205–23.