the Métis and missionaries saved the West
In this, the designated
Year of the Métis, it is fitting to remember and honour the role
played by the Métis in mediating a relatively peaceful settlement
of the Prairies. Thanks to these ”transition people” —
cousins to two diverse cultures — there was prevented the near
genocide that occurred south of the border. In this historical account,
their efforts along with those of the first Oblate missionaries will
be recalled briefly.
The Métis or “half-breeds”
as they were called have been described by a historian as a proud, handsome
race having taken the blood of diametrically dissimilar races and cultures
and rendered them into something more than the sum of its parts. Much
given to song, merriment, generous hospitality and night-long dancing,
they possessed a “why worry about tomorrow?” outlook. Among
other things, detractors called the devoutly Catholic Métis “priest-ridden.”
Recorded history in southwestern
Saskatchewan begins in 1869 when 15 Métis families accompanied
the fur traders Dauphinais and Fisher in explorations west of the uneasy
settlement of Red River. The territory of Wood Mountain to the Cypress
Hills offered everything they were seeking — warm chinooks, streams
and buffalo. Here, 400 miles away from the problems of the Red River
Colony, they spent a happy winter.
Their glowing reports of
plentiful buffalo lured a larger group of Métis winterers to
migrate the next year in July of 1870. Nearly 80 families trekked westward
in a caravan of more than 300 squealing Red River carts, 800 horses
and 400 people. By September they were west of the present town of Willow
Here one of their number, Charles Houle, became ill. Aware that there were missionaries at the Qu’Appelle mission of Lebret, Charles’ brother rode back to seek the help of a priest. Rev. Jean Lestanc, OMI, offered his assistance. Unfortunately, they were too late; the sick man had died.
Lestanc, however, stayed
with the Métis that first winter and without delay a rough chapel
Meanwhile, American whiskey
traders had moved across the border to establish trading posts across
the West. Swift degeneration of the Plains First Nations followed, resulting
in general “wild west” lawlessness, an extreme example of
which was the 1873 Cypress Hills Massacre — a conflict between
American wolfers and Assiniboine Natives. Until the North West Mounted
Police were established in Western Canada in 1874, the Oblate missionaries
felt compelled to combat this influence and moved swiftly and permanently
into what is now southwestern Saskatchewan.
In 1870, Oblate missionary
Rev. Jules Decorby was assigned to Maple Creek, a Métis village
18 miles north of the Cypress Hills. From this base Lestanc and Decorby
lived for four years with their nomadic parishioners, pitching tents
near rivers and creeks wherever buffalo could be found. The first chapels
were humble and primitive, much like the homes of the Métis.
Using available materials, the buildings were made of poplar poles,
prairie grass and clay. The roofs were of sod and the windows of deerskins
scraped to translucency. A thick buffalo hide nailed to a frame served
as a door.
In spite of hardships such
as the stench of rotting buffalo carcasses, filthy living conditions
in smoky tents, vermin crawling everywhere, grizzly bears, mosquitoes,
flies, grasshoppers, wolves, solitude, nothing to read and hostile Indians,
Lestanc and Decorby appreciated and respected the Métis. Earlier,
Archbishop Alexandre-Antonin Taché had declared that “the
half-breeds can be classed among the really moral people.” As
noted by S.J. Dawson, a civil engineer, in regard to the social condition
of the early Red River settlement, “crime is scarcely known.”
When Lestanc was transferred in 1874 to another post he wrote, “I can honestly say that my parish of some 200 wandering families was the best parish in all of North America. A large number of people attended morning mass and in the evening as many as could, gathered again for prayer.”
During the last winter he
spent with the Métis, he baptized 88 persons, confirmed 76 and
officiated at 10 marriages.
There was a feeling of mutual
respect between the missionaries and their parishioners. Interviews
with early Métis families in the Maple Creek area described how
Lestanc and Decorby would accompany them on their buffalo hunts. The
men would line up solemnly for confession and communion before the hunt
began. After giving the final blessing, the priests would join them
on their ponies. Before long the black-robed missionaries would find
themselves caught up in the thrill of the hunt, shrieking as fiercely
as everyone else!
One Métis family,
the Leveille family of Maple Creek, has a unique history. Their mother
was Julia MacKenzie, half-breed daughter of the explorer Alexander Mackenzie.
In 1874, Louis Leveille and some of his brothers met the North West
Mounted Police at Old Wives Lake south of present day Moose Jaw and
acted as their interpreters and guides. This association lasted for
30 years, staying firm through the Riel Rebellions.
The missionaries played an important role in preventing the Saskatchewan Rebellion from escalating into a full scale war in 1885. Their reputation as peacemakers was well-known according to a telegram sent by Prime Minister John A. Macdonald to the Lieutenant-Governor in 1884 when he wrote: “You must assume responsibility for peace of the district as Governor. Would Lacombe or Hugonard by of any service?” (At that time Lacombe was stationed at Gleichen and Hugonard at Lebret).
Oblate Fathers Vegreville,
Moulin, Fourmond, Legoof, Leduc, Grandin and others kept down the malcontents
who would otherwise have joined Riel’s forces. Lacombe alone had
visited all the First Nations reserves in the Calgary area and by his
“Christian diplomacy” had persuaded them to maintain a strict
neutrality. Had the Western First Nations joined their brothers of the
East and North this history would have had even more dramatic events
to record, for the Blackfoot, Piegan, Bloods, Crees and Assiniboines
were known to be the most warlike and cruel on the Plains.
friendship with Crowfoot and other powerful chiefs was without doubt
a principal cause in keeping these formidable tribes in check. He and
other missionaries played similar roles when the railway went through
Indian lands. Van Horne, the general manager of the CPR, acknowledged
the company’s debt to the missionary who had averted bloodshed
between railway workers and First Nations and always made sure that
donations to Lacombe’s mission were shipped free of charge from
Montreal to Calgary.
Since Maple Creek, N.W.T.,
belonged to the Diocese of St. Albert, the first Catholic chapel in
Maple Creek, built in 1885, may have been a recipient of Lacombe’s
charity. The missionaries and the Métis then began to celebrate
mass in a permanent church rather than in primitive temporary chapels.
It was an abrupt end to a nomadic way of life, but it was not as bloody
as it might have been. This buffer race were cousins to two diverse
cultures. Because they could speak at least two languages — that
of the mother (usually Native) and that of the father (usually white)
— they provided an important bridge between the Native and the
white settlers. Thanks also to the leadership and friendship of Oblate
missionaries, they allowed the region to be settled in a relatively
Josephine (Kambeitz) Stodalka is a former resident of Maple Creek. A retired teacher, she currently lives in Medicine Hat with her husband Bill.