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Missions and Religious Life
 

At the height of the pemmican war [see An Arduous Task, Marked by a Private War (1812–21)], Thomas DOUGLAS, 5th Earl of Selkirk, believed that the establishment of a mission would stabilize the young colony and help restore order. It was in this context that the first Roman Catholic priests settled at Red River, as recalled in the biography of one such man, Joseph Norbert PROVENCHER, the region’s future bishop:

“In 1816 Selkirk and Miles Macdonell*, the [Hudson’s Bay Company] governor of Assiniboia, had asked [the bishop of Quebec Joseph-Octave] Plessis to send a missionary to the Red River, in the hope that the presence of a mission would put the colony on a more solid footing. A Catholic himself, Macdonell was well aware that the majority of the new settlers were Irish and Scottish Catholics, and that the region’s Métis and French Canadian population, consisting of former engagés of the [North West Company] and their families, was also in large part Catholic.…

“Provencher, [the priest Sévère] Dumoulin, and [the seminarist William] Edge left Montreal on 19 May 1818, and on 16 July reached Fort Douglas (Winnipeg), where the governor of Assiniboia, Alexander McDonell*, lived. They were warmly received by the Catholics in the settlement.… According to Plessis’s instructions, the first two objectives of the mission were to convert the ‘Indian nations scattered over that vast country’ and to care for the ‘delinquent Christians, who have adopted there the customs of the Indians.’ The missionaries had specific orders to learn the Indian languages, to instruct and baptize Indian women who had married French Canadians à la façon du pays, and then to bless these unions. They were to remain neutral in the conflict between the two companies and to teach ‘by word and deed the respect and allegiance owed to the sovereign.’”

 

Converting and educating aboriginal people, evangelizing among the settlers (especially the Métis), seeing to their spiritual needs, and obtaining support from the authorities in the thick of strong rivalry between religious faiths: these were some of the responsibilities of missionaries such as William COCKRAN, a Protestant, after the end of the pemmican war in 1821:

“Cockran arrived in the settlement at a critical juncture in the affairs of the Anglican mission and the development of Red River. The Reverend John West*, who had come in 1820 to establish the mission, and the Reverend David Thomas Jones*, who succeeded West in 1823, had determined the particular nature of the mission’s relationship with the Hudson’s Bay Company and with the Roman Catholic missionaries at Saint-Boniface (Man.). Much, however, remained to be accomplished. The principal challenge facing Jones and Cockran was the evangelization of the large numbers of mixed-bloods migrating from the trading posts of the interior to Red River especially after the amalgamation of the HBC [Hudson’s Bay Company] and the North West Company in 1821.”

 

Missionary work for aboriginals was marked by competition between Roman Catholics and Protestants, as related in the biography of the Catholic missionary Jean-Baptiste THIBAULT:

“[In 1835], in the bishop’s absence, Thibault showed himself to be a wise and skilful administrator of the western missions. The building of the cathedral at Saint-Boniface progressed, and the yield from the farm belonging to the mission increased. Thibault proved to be a good preacher, without being too verbose. Above all, he was good at expounding; this quality was appreciated by Bishop Provencher, who considered that Christianity should be brought to the Indians by persuasion, and not ‘in the Protestant fashion’ by gifts. In such a manner the ministers of the different faiths accused each other of trading in souls.”

 

The biographies that appear in the lists below provide additional information about the spread of missions and the relationship between the spheres of religion and politics from 1812 to 1870.

 

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