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MORICE, ADRIEN-GABRIEL (named at birth Marie-Gabriel-Adrien-Arsène), Oblate of Mary Immaculate, Roman Catholic missionary, linguist, ethnographer, historian, newspaper editor, and author; b. 28 Aug. 1859 in Saint‑Mars-sur-Colmont, France, son of Jean Morice, a wheelwright, and Virginie Seigneur, his second wife; d. 23 April 1938 in St Boniface (Winnipeg).

A mediocre student, Adrien-Gabriel Morice attended the local elementary school and, at age 14, he entered the Petit Séminaire de Mayenne. Steeped in French Catholicism’s tradition of romanticizing the North American wilderness and its inhabitants, he decided to become an Oblate missionary in Canada after Bishop Vital-Justin Grandin* gave a talk at his school. The prospect of heroic deeds, though certainly an attraction, took second place to the promise of power. Morice would recount in an astonishingly hubristic autobiography, published under an assumed name in 1930, how he had felt called upon “to battle among, and conquer, the lowly of America.” In preparation for this task he attended three colleges. The juniorate at Notre-Dame-de-Sion, which he entered in 1874, provided a three-year grounding in the classics; the noviciate in Nancy tested his suitability for the priesthood; and the scholasticate in Autun gave him two years of philosophy and theology.

On 9 Oct. 1879, while at Autun, Morice took his perpetual vows, even though he had already demonstrated difficulty in obeying his superiors. He bragged about his low grades and was preoccupied with his own projects, which often involved writing or printing. He avidly read the Missions de la Congrégation des missionnaires oblats de Marie Immaculée (Paris), the order’s accounts of its proselytization, and he used the reports to prepare and print lectures which he read to the younger students. He almost certainly introduced them to the work of Émile Petitot*, an Oblate missionary and scholar he greatly admired. His later achievements would so parallel those of Petitot that he must have deliberately emulated the older man. He even planned to convert members of the Canadian native group to whom Petitot had ministered, and he added learning their language to a long list of activities which took up time that should have gone to pursuing his studies. The director of the scholasticate would later inform Morice’s superior in Canada that the young man had been taken to task for vanity, ambition, and insubordination. The Oblates did not expel him, in part because he demonstrated intelligence, energy, and a flair for languages, all desirable qualities in a missionary. But the crisis caused by the French government’s anticlerical policies probably best explains the extraordinary indulgence with which Morice was treated. In June 1880 he was one of about 30 students sent abroad to finish their training.

Although Morice was delighted to be dispatched to British Columbia, he was less enthusiastic about his responsibilities there: teaching catechism and music at the residential school in St Mary’s mission (Mission City) while preparing for ordination. He much preferred printing catechisms and writing ethnographic reports for the Missions. When his tutor, Father Alphonse Carion, insisted that he devote more time to his studies, Morice began a campaign of passive resistance, which developed into open revolt. He flouted community rules, refused to perform his teaching duties properly, created confusion by ringing bells at the wrong times, and, most scandalous of all, received Holy Communion without first going to confession. Father Jean-Marie-Raphaël Le Jeune*, who witnessed this perplexing behaviour, concluded that Morice was almost totally lacking in spirituality. He only began to apply himself when he realized that he would have more liberty as a priest. In a letter to Bishop Louis-Joseph d’Herbomez* in September 1881 he admitted that he wanted to be ordained quickly so as to be free of his tutor. Herbomez performed the rite on 2 July 1882.

Once ordained, Morice would devote himself to gaining power as a missionary. He would also seek recognition as a specialist in native languages and cultures, like that achieved by Petitot. These ambitions could be realized only on the frontier, where the lack of restraints placed on him and the natives’ eagerness to acquire the putative benefits of Christianity would give him independence and authority. Without them, he would quickly experience mental and physical breakdowns.

Ironically, Morice’s rebellion had so weakened him that he was initially considered too sickly for missionary work. He was assigned to run a school for white and Métis children in Williams Lake, a semifrontier town in British Columbia’s northern interior. Refusing to substitute what he would describe in his autobiography as a “common, colourless career” for his dream, he engaged in three years of passive resistance and active disruption. He taught poorly, cut himself off from fellow Oblates, neglected basic priestly duties, and disturbed his colleagues when they said their office. On 19 Aug. 1885 his exasperated superiors exiled him to Fort St James on Stuart Lake, an area dubbed the “Siberia of the fur trade” by the trading companies, which used the posting to punish troublesome employees.

The decision to send Morice further north was a veiled capitulation, for the priest had long regarded this vast region as the promised land. Home to the seminomadic Carrier, among the most remote and least acculturated native peoples, and to bands of nomadic Sekani who traded at forts McLeod and Grahame, it suited him admirably. Morice came to love the rugged terrain. Exploring the mountains, lakes, and rivers provided escape from the routine of his work, and conquering these physical obstacles and naming them, often after himself, doubtless gave him some of the recognition he sought.

Knowing exactly where he wanted to work, Morice had started to learn the Carrier language from a pupil at Williams Lake. Enchanted by its complexity, especially the words and structures used to describe movement and the material world, he studied with diligence. Mastery of the language would be essential for the accumulation of both religious and secular authority. Indeed, Morice would later boast that his knowledge served “to render him king of the country.” Fearing that native contact with European society would threaten his supremacy, he rejected Carrier requests to be taught English, which he spoke and wrote fluently. Within months of his arrival he had emulated Petitot in devising a syllabic script. No doubt because of this haste, the script has certain phonological weaknesses. It nevertheless proved to be a great practical success. The system was so simple that in each village Morice could teach it to one person, who in turn became the village teacher. Before long most Carrier had learned to read and write. At first Morice used a rudimentary printing press; later he would get the Carrier to pay for more sophisticated equipment, which he would use to produce religious material. From 1891 to 1894 he would also print a newspaper called Test’ Les Nahivelnek [The Paper Which Tells]. His first mission director at Fort St James, the aging and easy-going Father Charles Pandosy*, seems to have given his young companion carte blanche to work on his various projects.

Morice found that most of the Carrier wanted to become Catholics but were reluctant to jettison their traditional beliefs. They had requested that the Oblates establish their structure of indirect rule, known as the Durieu system after its architect, Bishop Paul Durieu*. To ensure conformity to Catholic orthodoxy, Durieu appointed native watchmen who denounced transgressions and captains who meted out punishment with the approval of the visiting missionary. Public confessions and penances, including whippings and other forms of humiliation, were among the methods used during the first phase of the system to break ties with paganism. At the end of this process of repression, fear of chastisement would be superseded by fear of hell and by an awed respect for the sacraments. In the second stage, the moulding process, Durieu included much pageantry. Dramatic and realistic passion plays became extremely popular. Morice’s eyewitness reports of these theatricals appeared in Missions. He soon became an admirer of the Durieu system, but seldom went beyond the repressive stage: since this was run by native watchmen and captains, the arrangement gave him time to pursue his academic interests. He enjoyed organizing some modest pageants, but used the threat of cancellation to encourage obedience. The Carrier tolerated his behaviour, even when punishment was used for acts that were not sins.

The enthusiasm with which the Carrier embraced Catholicism and accepted the Oblates’ authoritarian theocracy can be explained as an attempt to assuage feelings of vulnerability. Their shamans could not control the new diseases brought by Europeans. The natives, who noticed that whites generally survived these illnesses, concluded that Christianity provided the newcomers with protection. Morice skilfully exploited the havoc wrought by epidemics to discredit those who resisted his hegemonic ambitions, especially the shamans. Yet after the natives formally converted to Catholicism, Morice still used fear and an arbitrary, punitive approach. His superior at Fort St James after Pandosy’s departure in 1887, Father Georges Blanchet, complained to Bishop d’Herbomez that Morice refused to hear the confessions of converts who missed any of his sermons. The bishop endorsed Blanchet’s position that a priest could not use the denial of confession as a disciplinary measure.

Early in 1888 d’Herbomez also admonished Morice for calling a new village Moricetown. Far from heeding the bishop’s rebukes, Morice continued to name lakes, mountains, and rivers after himself; in addition, he made life so difficult for Blanchet, a gentle man much loved by the Carrier, that later that year the priest begged to be transferred before Morice’s perpetual disagreements drove him mad. That year Blanchet ceded supervision of the mission to Morice to avoid further conflict, but he would remain there, building churches and doing housework, until his retirement ten years later. A succession of priests, finding Morice impossible to work and live with, and refusing to become his servant, chose to leave. As the only missionary who spoke Carrier, Morice had a tremendous advantage. The kindly, pragmatic Blanchet had given up trying to learn the “horribly difficult” language and therefore could not confess those turned away by his colleague. Morice’s linguistic prowess and his successful intimidation of both his fellow priests and his native converts had enabled him within a few years to exercise a clerical hegemony in British Columbia’s northern interior.

Morice’s ability to command obedience from the natives also gave him power in secular affairs and allowed him to undermine the authority of the Hudson’s Bay Company’s fur traders and that of the native chiefs who had previously acted as intermediaries. When independent traders set up a post in Quesnel, south of Fort St James, to compete with the HBC, Morice offered to declare the new establishment off-limits to native trappers. He demanded, in exchange, that the HBC ship in his supplies cheaply, make an annual $50 contribution to the mission, and let him pick the native crews for the company’s boats. Clearly, he created or strengthened dependency so as to subordinate natives and whites alike.

In contrast, the Indian agent, Richard Ernest Loring, was treated as a friend and a peer by Morice. During his annual visits, Loring, who understood neither the language nor the culture of the Carrier, found it convenient to let Morice assume his duties, such as making announcements and settling disputes. Morice therefore had little reason to perceive Loring as a rival. He limited any interference from the Department of Indian Affairs while reinforcing native reliance on him. Morice used the natives’ dependence to exact unpaid assistance with his explorations and cartography, as well as with his linguistic publications. Carrier men sometimes accompanied him for weeks as guides, boatmen, and porters – they even carried him on their shoulders across shallow rivers.

Secure in his dominant position among the natives, Morice sought to affirm his supremacy in scholarly fields. In 1890 Bishop Durieu and several priests, in search of a script suitable for use with the Chinook Jargon, rejected Morice’s syllabics in favour of a shorthand that was to be adapted by Father Le Jeune because of its greater flexibility. Outraged by the challenge to and repudiation of his work, in 1894 Morice included a diatribe in the preface to the second edition of his Carrier primer. Durieu characterized his comments as “unspeakable” and ordered him to stop publishing the attack and to remove the offending page from printed copies. Morice refused to comply.

Despite Morice’s blatant disobedience, in 1896 Durieu allowed him to spend a year in France to prepare two books for publication. Unfortunately, the patron who was to finance his Carrier‑French dictionary lost his fortune in the Panama scandal, so it was not printed at that time. The second manuscript appeared as Au pays de l’ours noir: chez les sauvages de la Colombie Britannique: récits d’un missionaire (Paris and Lyon, 1897), a memoir describing his exploits as a missionary and explorer. After his return to Fort St James, Morice continued his exploration and scholarly pursuits. Writing mostly in English, his early contributions on subjects as diverse as “The use and abuse of philology” and “Déné surgery” appeared in the Transactions (Toronto) of the Canadian Institute. Later, the more prestigious American Anthropologist (Lancaster, Pa) would publish a number of articles, many devoted to esoteric linguistic topics.

Morice’s great fascination with language came to inform his anthropological reports, usually but not always to good effect. At times his study of linguistics provided invaluable clues that he used to establish cultural borrowing and interethnic contact, but he tended to attribute too much importance to language in determining ethnic origins and affinities. Probably influenced by philologist Horatio Emmons Hale*, he was convinced that if two groups spoke the same language they were “certain” to have a common ancestry. His failure to realize that language was not an immutable phenomenon, but could be learned or abandoned, remained an unfortunate weakness in his ethnographic work. In addition, his resort to ethnic stereotyping marred his efforts to explain group actions and interactions. He insisted, for example, that the Carriers’ inherent propensity to imitate accounted for their copying elements of west-coast culture and not vice versa. He also delighted in exposing the dubious theories of others. A skilled, aggressive polemicist whose preferred weapon was ridicule, he even scolded Petitot, whose work he greatly admired.

As Morice continued his academic work, his summer journeys to minister to his distant flock were neglected, as were his duties at the Stuart Lake mission. He spent the winter of 1899-1900 in New Westminster writing while recovering from pneumonia. He found that his stay there suited him, and he made plans to return for the winter of 1903-4. By the fall of 1903, his neglect of his priestly duties, his failure to teach English, his autocratic manner, and the increasingly audacious demands he made on the Hudson’s Bay Company had combined to bring him down. Some of the more acculturated natives who had learned English no longer needed him as an intermediary and had taken their complaints to Bishop Augustin Dontenwill. Reports from a young priest sent to assist him, Pierre-Marie Conan, described how Morice treated the natives “like slaves,” while in matters of spiritual development, he allowed them to fall well behind converts elsewhere.

In November 1903 Morice learned of his removal from his post while on his way to winter in New Westminster. Predictably, he accused his superiors of persecuting him and refused to live in peace with his colleagues. For the next two years he seems to have stayed in the Vancouver area, and then he went to Kamloops. He completed his first venture into the historian’s territory, The history of the northern interior of British Columbia formerly New Caledonia, 1660 to 1880 (Toronto, 1904), which would be highly praised. Morice’s pioneering use of oral evidence arguably qualifies him to be recognized as Canada’s first ethnohistorian. Another important project was published by the provincial government as Map of the northern interior of British Columbia ([Victoria], 1907). As late as 1945 the province’s chief cartographer would praise its “astonishing fidelity” and judge Morice to be a better surveyor than his professionals. In Kamloops he had compiled the Dictionnaire historique des Canadiens et des Métis français de l’Ouest (1908), a useful reference work. He lasted just two years there before he received such a severe beating in a fight with fellow priests that he had to be moved again. Oblate authorities in Rome gave serious consideration to having him certified insane and confined to an asylum. Ultimately, they feared that with his facile pen, his command of English, and his polemical skills, he would cause a scandal. They transferred him to Manitoba.

For close to 20 years, Morice lived mainly in St Boniface, although he stayed elsewhere for periods of a year or two. The first interlude was in 1910, when he was sent to Duck Lake, Sask., to assume the editorship of a new French-language newspaper, which he named Le Patriote de l’Ouest. He quickly turned everyone against him. At the Oblate juniorate in St Boniface, he employed previously successful tactics for isolating and alienating himself and for provoking and disturbing others.

In early 1920, still alleging persecution, Morice fled the juniorate and spent two years living like a fugitive in Saskatchewan. Gullible parish priests took him in, but they soon regretted their hospitality. In despair, the priests at Marieval put him in a car and, without notice or permission, dumped him on the unsuspecting parish priest in Lebret. His superiors once again discussed whether they could risk scandal by confining him. They decided against that solution, concluding that he should not be held responsible for his actions. Still, he could not be allowed to continue causing trouble. A doctor who had examined him declared that he was suffering from neurasthenia, a diagnosis linking mental illness with physical exhaustion. Today narcissistic personality disorder would likely be the assessment. Probably at his patient’s suggestion, the doctor recommended that Morice live alone or in a place of tranquillity. In 1925 the Oblates provided him with a house in Winnipeg, purchased from an obliging, deferential widow who stayed on as housekeeper. Morice needed, as always, a refuge from the society of his peers and the authority of his superiors.

Morice still had his printing press, and he created a publishing house for his prolific literary output. His vow of obedience had been a travesty from the start; now, as his own publisher, he made a mockery of the vow of poverty as well. Since he had found freedom, his paranoiac exhibitions and erratic behaviour stopped. Possibly he had resorted to such displays when he felt they were needed; possibly they were brought on by the stress and exhaustion of prolonged battles with those who thwarted his will. Throughout his struggles with authority, his intellectual stamina had never faltered. He managed to publish his major, three-volume work on church history, Histoire de l’Église catholique dans l’Ouest canadien, du lac Supérieur au Pacifique (1659-1905), in Winnipeg and Montreal in 1912. Guy Lacombe, historian of the Oblates, considered that Morice’s work, though well researched, belonged to the pre-professional school of Catholic historical writing, which typically depicted missionaries as heroes and sought to promote priestly vocations. While on the prairies, Morice would enthusiastically take up his pen in defence of the French Canadians and the Métis.

Interestingly, when Morice finally got some of the recognition he so strongly believed he deserved, it came principally from the English-language academic world. After a fire at Duck Lake in November 1910 had destroyed the manuscript of the Carrier dictionary he had worked on for many years, he had had to start again. He turned, of course, to the natives and above all to Louis Billy Prince, the chief at Fort St James. Using Morice’s syllabics, they corresponded for many years and on two occasions, in 1920 and 1927, Morice returned to the mission. Prince spent three weeks collecting data and helping Morice to appreciate fully the genius of the language. Yet he received neither acknowledgement nor compensation for his crucial assistance. Indeed, Morice asked for money from the Carrier to defray the cost of publication. Although they remembered and resented his exploitation of his priestly authority, they responded to his appeal. The Carrier language (Déné family): a grammar and dictionary combined (Mödling, Austria, and Winnipeg, 1932), published in two volumes by the Anthropos Institute in Austria and by the author, would be read by a small number of specialists. The eminent linguist Edward Sapir praised it in American Anthropologist as a “magnificent work” demonstrating “an obvious mastery” of the language and an approach to the subject that “deserves to rank as a real contribution to linguistic method.”

Additional recognition came in the form of honorary degrees. During his brief sojourn at Duck Lake Morice had developed a friendship with Walter Charles Murray*, president of the University of Saskatchewan, who had the rare ability to remain on good terms with him. At Murray’s invitation he had lectured at the university in 1911 and between 1912 and 1914. Murray arranged for him to be awarded an lld in May 1933. The Oblate-run Université d’Ottawa would bestow a similar degree the following year.

Adrien-Gabriel Morice was obviously a gifted and creative linguist, and his map and History of the northern interior have both, with good reason, become classics. A professional anthropologist has praised his sensitive observations and excellent reporting. Yet he failed in what was supposed to be his vocation: clearly, he should never have been ordained. His native parishioners were badly neglected and exploited; his fellow priests and his Oblate superiors were the principal targets of his withering contempt. His treatment of Louis Billy Prince and others was typical of his need to subordinate and exploit, something he could not have realized in a European society. His psychological difficulties pushed him towards the geographical and social margins of his world. He died a bitter recluse in 1938.

David Mulhall

This biography is based on the author’s Will to power: the missionary career of Father Morice (Vancouver, 1986), which contains an exhaustive inventory of documents that have been consulted. The writings of Father Adrien‑Gabriel Morice are listed in Gaston Carrière, “Adrien‑Gabriel Morice, o.m.i. (1859–1938): essai de bibliographie,” Rev. de l’univ. d’Ottawa, 42 (1972): 325–41. Details about some aspects of Father Morice’s post-missionary career can be found in R. [J. A.] Huel, “Adrien-Gabriel Morice, o.m.i.: brief sojourn in Saskatchewan,” Rev. de l’univ. d’Ottawa, 41 (1971): 282–93.

Arch. Départementales, Mayenne (Laval, France), État civil, Saint‑Mars-sur-Colmont, 28 août 1859.

General Bibliography

Cite This Article

David Mulhall, “MORICE, ADRIEN-GABRIEL (Marie-Gabriel-Adrien-Arsène),” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 16, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed May 24, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/morice_adrien_gabriel_16E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/morice_adrien_gabriel_16E.html
Author of Article:   David Mulhall
Title of Article:   MORICE, ADRIEN-GABRIEL (Marie-Gabriel-Adrien-Arsène)
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 16
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   2015
Year of revision:   2015
Access Date:   May 24, 2024