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The Prairie Provinces
Chapter X. Missions and Schools


We have now followed the history of the North-West from the founding of the Hudson’s Bay Company down to 1867, the year of confederation, when it was felt by many statesmen that the Dominion of Canada should include our great prairie land. Up to this point our attention has been fixed upon exploration, trading and settlement. Foremost came the explorer whose motive was to discover and claim new territory in the name of his sovereign. Following closely upon and sometimes even accompanying the explorer came the trader, eager to make gain out of the fur trade with the Indians. Behind the trader, feeling his way more cautiously, came the settler in search of a new home. Important as are the achievements of all of these, yet a history of our land would be far from complete were no mention made of a pioneer whose aim in coming to the rude settlements of the Red River valley was nobler than that of explorer, trader or settler, namely the missionary.

Students of Canadian history are familiar with the picture of those heroic pioneers of Christianity, the Jesuits, struggling through the frozen snows of Acadia, wading the swift rapids of the Ottawa, or penetrating the forest wilds of the Huron land. A member of this order, of 1731, was the first Christian priest to visit Rupert’s Laud. Five years later a second priest, attached to an expedition under Verendrye’s son, was killed by the Sioux Indians a little west of Lake Superior.

In 1818, the Roman Catholic Church made its first permanent establishment in the country, when the Rev. Joseph Norbert Provencher arrived at the Red River settlement, which was to be the scene of his untiring labors for thirty-five years. His work lay at first among the French-Canadians and the disbanded soldiers of the de Meuron regiment. A church and mission house were built on the east bank of the Red River, where it receives the waters of the Assiniboine; and to the new colony was given the historic name of St. Boniface. Upon the death of Bishop Provencher, in 1853, Bishop Tadic, who had for several years been in charge of the missions farther inland, came to St. Boniface to enter upon a work which has made him a well-known figure in the religious and political life of the West.

But the Red River mission was only a small part of the work undertaken by the Roman Catholic Church. As early as 1842 a priest visited the Saskatchewan valley and the English River district, founding a mission station at each point. He a la Crosse, the point at which Bishop Tache labored for several years, was the centre of the missionary system, which quickly extended into the Athabaska district and even down the valley of the Mackenzie. The work of the missionary was rendered difficult by the tendency of the Indians to travel about the country on hunting expeditions. In order to keep in touch with his converts the priest was forced to follow them in their wanderings, although by every means possible he tried to encourage them to settle down and till the soil.

Prior to the year 1820 110 Protestant missionary had entered the country, although the original settlers claimed that Lord Selkirk had promised them a Gaelic - speaking minister. During this year there arrived, as chaplain of the Hudson’s Bay Company, an Anglican clergyman, the Rev. John West, whose service was gratefully received by many of the colonists. On the west bank of the Red River, two miles below the Assiniboine, a rude school-house was erected, which served also as a church. After a ministry of three years Mr. West returned to England.

In 1825, the settlement welcomed the arrival of the Rev. William Cochran, who is commonly recognized as the founder of the Anglican Church in Rupert’s Land. During the forty years of his faithful service, the work of the Church was widely extended. The position of the settlements, scattered along the two rivers, made a series of missions a necessity. Mr. West’s chapel was replaced by what was known as the “Upper Church,” the present St. John’s Cathedral. About six miles farther down the Red was erected the “Middle Church,” later called “St. Paul’s.” Fifteen miles below Upper Fort Garry Mr. Cochran built the “Lower Church,” which has given place to the fine stone structure known as St. Andrew’s. Evidence of this pioneer clergyman’s interest in missions is found in the erection of a church at the “Indian Settlement,” the parish of St. Peter, and of another among the Crees about Portage la Prairie. In 1865, Mr. (then Archdeacon) Cochran died, only a few days before the arrival of Dr. Machray, the newly appointed Bishop of Rupert’s Land. Bishop Machray’s scholarship and missionary zeal made him an invaluable factor, not only in the religious but also in the educational life of the country.

The Anglican Church, like the Roman Catholic, found its greater work outside the settlements, in ministering to the needs of the Indians. Of twenty-four clergymen fifteen labored in the interior, scattered here and there between Moose Factory, on James Bay, and the Yukon. Of these, eleven were natives of Rupert’s Land, speaking one or more Indian tongues, and therefore peculiarly fitted to endure all the hardships and privations of western missionary experience. The difficulty of their work was increased by the necessity of tramping for days, often on snowshoes, to meet straggling bands of Indians. With these they lived in their humble wigwams, helping them in their search for food, and day by day teaching them the Gospel.

Naturally the disappointment of the Selkirk settlers at not receiving a Gaelic-speaking minister was very great. So liberal, however, was the spirit in which the clergymen of the Anglican Church modified their form of worship, that most of the Presbyterians gave their support to the chapel built by Mr. West. Yet the agitation among the settlers never wholly ceased until, in 1851, the Presbyterian Church of Canada was prevailed upon to send out a minister, its choice being the Rev. John Black. Fully three hundred Presbyterians left St. John’s and rallied about the

newcomer, and three years later the Kildonan church was built. The missionary spirit of the Presbyterians soon manifested itself in the sending forth of the Rev. James Nisbet to found a mission in the Saskatchewan Valley, 011 the site of Prince Albert.

A fourth church, the Methodist, had as early as 1840 taken part in the missionary work among the Indians at Norway House and -on the Saskatchewan. The year 1868 witnessed the arrival of the Rev. George Young, the most notable representative of this denomination in the Red River settlement.

The missionaries of all denominations gave themselves in a spirit of self-sacrifice to the laborious, and often dangerous, mission of carrying the message of the Gospel to colonist and native alike. But another, and equally great, service they rendered in undertaking, almost unaided, the work . of education. Closely connected with every mission station the school was to be found. Out of the humble schools attached to the three oldest mission churches grew the colleges ot' St. Boniface, St. John’s, and Manitoba.


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