Theology of Inculturation of the Faith: the

Oblate-Aboriginal Encounter in Alberta

Catherine Caufield
University of Alberta

Abstract: Revealing and documenting what went horribly wrong in the context of colonization and particularly residential schools in Alberta and the Canadian north is important for the historical record. The high degree of complexity of our multifaceted history includes stories of Native and non-Natives who served in remote areas of Canada/Alberta before the turn of the twentieth century within what, due to national and international politics, came to be primarily Anglophone settlement moving west. Acknowledging the range of stories, including those from Oblates and Aboriginal Christians, is a current challenge for individuals, communities, academics, and politicians in Canada. My experience as a non-Catholic participant-observer at an Aboriginal Ministries conference puzzled me, because what I saw there contradicted my reified conceptualizations of Catholicism and the dynamics between Aboriginals and clergy. Discourses outside of the Aboriginal communities and parishes that were represented at the conference—discourses that were familiar and comfortable for me—were single-stories strongly associated with the qualities of oppressor and oppressed. Yet it was clear at the various gatherings inside the conference that those dichotomous categories lacked nuance and were in fact deeply varied, complicated, sometimes overlapping, and definitely not neatly separated into victim and victimizer. Conversations seemed to indicate that Oblates had transformed the Canadian north through advocacy work and building infrastructure such as hospitals, schools, cooperatives, and communication networks—and the north had also transformed them. My beginning experiences in this fraught field indicate a bi-lateral, rather than uni-lateral, dynamic. This created a very confusing situation, because it challenged my previous understandings of relationships between Aboriginal peoples and Christianities.


Keywords: Oblates, Alberta, Aboriginal, Canada, Catholic


Statement of Original Unpublished Work: By submitting this document to the Editor in Chief of CJSCF I am making a Statement of Original Unpublished Work not submitted to another journal for publication.




Scholarship on the Christian faith allows for exploration of confounding complexities as we live our humanness in the midst of challenging historical contexts. There are certainly no shortage of challenges. Human history is littered with war, conflict, betrayals, trade alliances, territorial expansion, conquest, and tactical victories as people, regardless of race, gender, religion, colour or ethnicity seek to obtain control of greater portions of the world’s resources. The waves of migration in the midst of, or following these upheavals and disruptions, uproots people either by force, or by choice. This is evident in the impact of the current exacerbation in the alternating ascendency of Albanians and Serbs, but also in the routing of the Cree by the Blackfoot, the defeat on the Plains of Abraham, the loss of Huron territories to Iroquois, the rise and fall of the Ottoman Empire in the Levant, etc. These transitions are, immediately and over time, accompanied by physical, social, cultural and linguistic disruption.

We can recognize that all humans share tendencies to greed and violence—regardless of the human and cultural cost—but, we also share propensities toward meaning-making: how do we explain our acts? This propensity gives rise to many stories, passed on through oral traditions or recorded in sacred texts, which codify violence and imbue it with meaning. Centuries later it can then be interpreted that it is religion that is inherently violent—rather than the human beings who act, and who construct meaning.

Karen Armstrong discusses this in much detail in her latest book Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence. What she points out is a seeming paradox: yes, religion can give meaning to violence: haShem commanded it, it is Allah’s will, in Jesus’ name; yet, too, religion can give a path to healing and reconciliation through spiritual disciplines (prayer, fasting, vision quest), ritual/ceremony (eucharist, sweat, dance), and reflective practices (confession, healing circles, study groups). This paradox of religion’s perpetration of violence and its healing capacity is reason to facilitate scholarship on the range of Christianities, the stances Christians take on social issues, the roles Christians play in society and the relationships between Christianity and other world views. This paradox informs the following analysis as it opens the possibility of enlarged consideration of the impact of Christianities on Aboriginal populations in Canada and Alberta. It does this through listening to oral sources of currently silenced Aboriginal Christian and non-Aboriginal voices of Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate (OMI), thus making a small contribution to providing important balance in this topical area.

Aboriginals in Canada

The most recent Canadian census, 2011, indicated a population of about thirty-three million. Of that one and a half million, about 4%, claimed Aboriginal Identity (Statistics Canada. 2011, Catalogue no. 99-011-X2011028). 64% of those claiming Aboriginal Identity self-identify as Christian; 36% of those claiming Aboriginal Identity self-identify as Catholic (Statistics Canada 2013, Catalogue no. 99-011-X2011007). This reflects the general Canadian population in which 67% claim Christianity and 39% of the overall Canadian population self-identify as Catholic. Of the 4% of Canadians who claim Aboriginal identity, 5% of that 4% (0.2% of Canadian population) claim to be followers/practitioners of Traditional (Aboriginal) spiritualities. When comparing the cited “Total Aboriginal identity population in private households by religion” with “Total population in private households by religion,” 1,870 non-Aboriginal Canadians claim Traditional (Aboriginal) Spiritualities (Statistics Canada 2013, Catalogue no. 99-004-XWE). The census data does not indicate numbers of people who are making use of more than one tradition, who are walking in two paths; nor do census numbers indicate depth of religious practice. This reflective comment in regard to a community in northern Saskachewan resonates with my experience in Latin American Indigenous communities[1] and with some of my conversations on Treaty 6 lands in what is now Alberta:

Most striking to me about the students, and the community as a whole, was their strong identification with Catholicism. In many ways, being Catholic was as important as being Dene: their religion was a key feature of their sense of self. (Bradford xi)

Generally, when people of Aboriginal ethnicity claim Christianity, wider public perception currently interprets this, politically correctly, not as Aboriginal agency but rather as religious imposition. Paradoxically, when non-Aboriginals claim Aboriginal spiritualities, this is viewed by many inside and outside of the academy as cultural appropriation. This puts non-Aboriginals in a situation in which they are either religiously imposing, or culturally appropriating. Ironically perhaps, these interpretations—imperialist imposition and cultural appropriation—are largely spearheaded by White interpreters: academics, therapists, politicians and lawyers (Waldram 383).

The current Canadian context follows in the wake of the anti-clericalism of 1960s-70s, and the historical revisionism of the 1990s. 1992 marked the context of the quincentennial of Columbus’ “discovery” of the Americas which lead not so much to celebrations of this event, but rather to re-conceptualizing history from the perspective of those who were not victors. These social and intellectual movements, combined with human avarice, contributed to creating fertile ground which allowed fomenting litigation against the Oblates to become widespread. This ultimately led to the most expensive class action suit in the history of Canada, and had a severe impact on the reputation and resources of the Oblates. The historical trauma that we rightly hear much about in relation to Aboriginal peoples, has in fact affected a range of people.

It seems ironic that a 1974 book by Oblate René Fumoleau, As Long As This Land Shall Last, is a scholarly work that indicates, early on—and by a Catholic religious—mutual, and community-engaged, research. This is indicated, among other things, in the title, which reflects the words of Chief Monfwi during treaty negotiations at Fort Rae in 1921, and also in the forward by James Wah-Shee who was then President of the Indian Brotherhood of the Northwest Territories. Tolly Bradford’s well-written and carefully documented Prophetic Identities further complicates the current largely mono-narrative with the story of Cree-Anglican priest Henry Budd.

The academic groundwork that has been laid in this area has relied on a diachronic and synchronic range of available written archival documents. This current academic paper engages some of these works by researchers such as Jim Miller, Raymond Huel, Kerry Abel and others and begins to incorporate oral materials, some of which are recorded interviews housed in the Royal Alberta Museum and some of which are personal interviews with living Plains Cree and OMI. “Begins” is the key word in the sentence above; the available oral material is enormous, wide-ranging, and complex. The surface has only barely begun to be scratched.

Historical Trauma

Historical trauma is a new label, an explanatory framework that, as described by James Waldram, an anthropologist at the University of Saskatchewan, places the plight of the individual within the collective, and the collective within historical processes that still remain in force (377). Waldram comments that “we do not yet know just how wide-spread [historical trauma] has become among sufferers, and to date it possibly remains more vivid within the purview of scholars, therapists, and political commentators, and elemental to national events such as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission” (383). He observes that the idea that “Aboriginal people need to be educated about their experiences of trauma—even when they deny such experiences—is advocated in some of the literature” (381). He also points out the “tendency of researchers to assume faulty methods and concepts when Aboriginal communities displayed relatively low rates of posttraumatic stress disorder, rather than exploring more meaningfully the idea that the rates really were lower” (383).

Interestingly, according to Waldram, “Aboriginal people engaged in healing programs, where the understanding of these relevant historical processes is most acute, do not seem to recite the historical trauma narrative in any measure unless educated to do so” (382). This finding is cooberrated by Ronald Niezen in his research compiled in the 2014 book Truth and Indignation, in which he describes a pattern of templates and exclusion in the Truth and Reconciliation hearings. Martha McCarthy summarizes some general perspectival points of tension in the citation below between those of hagiography, anthropology, and Aboriginal Christians:

Church historians tend to concentrate on the transfer of Christianity, neglecting the social and cultural changes which it exacted. Those at the other end of the spectrum, primarily influenced by anthropology, concentrate their judgements on the imposed ‘civilization,’ disregarding the validity of a genuine acceptance of Christian beliefs by those who received the evangelizing [. . .] The history of their acceptance of Catholicism show that these spirit-guided people were able to integrate the spirituality of Catholicism into their lives, fit its rules of conduct into their society like the traditional guidance of the elders, and find in its rituals and sacraments helpful spiritual contacts in times of trouble or joy. The Catholicism they incorporated became theirs; no one has the right to define it out of existence. (xx, xxi)

McCarthy, basing her comments on archival evidence dating back to the mid-seventeenth century in Canada, indicates Aboriginal capacity to blend perspectives and approaches, taking what was expedient and ignoring the rest. It would seem that it is “settler” populations that have been primarily struggling with “us” and “them” absolutism, particularly since the late 1980s-early 1990s, in the context of the quincentennial of Columbus’ voyages from Spain. The theology of inculturation of the faith articulates this historic, and ongoing, struggle between the boundaries of “us,” and openness towards understanding “them,” and to what extent to integrate, or not, perspectives of “others.”

And who are the others when Aboriginal Christians divide along traditionalist and Christian lines and then along Pentecostal and Catholic lines, and Christian Whites seek to incorporate traditional Aboriginal practices into liturgy?

The relationship between religious and Aboriginals can and has been constructed not as reciprocal but rather as “reciprocal,” meaning that discovering similarities and sharing was really just pretend, simply a veneer for self-serving motives. Nevertheless, in adding depth and texture to a reified history, Raymond Huel, Martha McCarthy, and Kerry Abel all point out that Aboriginals were not averse to “using” missionaries to obtain goods. Another reality is that within some communities, regardless of colour or race, Christianity has and is being leveraged for healing. And, similar to late nineteenth and early twentieth century Athabasca Country and Rupert’s Land, connections with this religion are being actively sought.

Directions in Aboriginal Ministry

At the 2012 annual Roman Catholic Conference on Aboriginal Ministry “Directions in Aboriginal Ministry” an Aboriginal participant addressed the mixed gathering of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Canadians together with foreign-born priests being trained for service in northern and remote communities saying: “We reached out to them [religious][2] to join our families; we did that. What can we do so religious come with us again?”[3] This comment supported archival evidence[4] which indicated that religious were present in Aboriginal communities in the west at the invitation and request of the community in the past, and that there was ongoing desire on the part of at least this Aboriginal representative for continued interaction with those who had Catholic missionary vocations. Evangelization, as imposition, is most usually cited as the impetus for mission; however, often a desire or even obligation to help alleviate suffering in areas of the world that are under social, cultural and political duress, motivates people to travel far from home and family to live in difficult conditions, which is appreciated by those whose difficulties are thereby somewhat or wholly alleviated. At this same conference, Murray Chatlain, then Bishop of the Diocese of Mackenzie-Fort Smith, outlined some of the gifts he has received through his ministry, including a deepened connection with the spiritual realm.[5] This reflection points to a theological flexibility and willingness on the part of at least this representative within the Roman Catholic hierarchy to both seek to understand and, to some extent, enter into Aboriginal spiritualities. It also reflects some dynamism, rather than stasis, amongst those who are ordained into the church hierarchy.

Complexity of Lived Experience

As many Indigenous and non-Indigenous are aware, there is a far greater range of testimony than that which has been encoded by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. This came to light for me four years ago now, during a two-week long train-the-trainer workshop for health care professionals. I had arrived in the workshop milieu back in 2007, ostensibly as a researcher from the Faculty of Nursing, but quickly discovering that I had considerable healing work of my own to do. During that particular workshop, several years after my initial encounter, I was sitting in a sauna with several other women as we recuperated from an intense day of work in healing circles. One of the women shared her experience as a young child, being allowed to explore the inside of a little six-seater airplane with her siblings, and her horror when instead of leaving the plane when satiated with exploration, the little craft took off . . . and the years it took her to realize that the man, becoming smaller and smaller on the tarmac below, her father, had made the arrangements himself to have her sent to residential school. She was at the workshop in her capacity as a psychologist with a major centre here in Alberta, a profession and livelihood made possible for her through an externally funded education that now enables her to do healing work in communities in north eastern Alberta.

Some time after that, I was doing archival work at the Royal Museum here in Edmonton. There are many stories recorded there as part of the Oblates of the West Project directed by David Goa, founder of the Folklife Program at the Museum, which indicate both humans in difficulty, and humane response. This is the voice of an Oblate, who at the time of interview in 1991 was Provincial of Grandin Province:

I remember seeing a family very, very poor living in a tent in sixty below weather with little children and how miserable and how cold that was and trying to alleviate that suffering, trying to be present to that and understand what are the causes, why is it such, why are these people living so miserably, why are they so poor, and how can they live with dignity got me to get involvement in I guess what you would call structural transformation and social justice issues (Piché 1991, 10:40-12:50).

It was interesting to explore this rich archival record because much of it, like the encounter in the sauna, also challenged my previous understanding. As a Christian missionary, the Oblate’s response was not: “how can I impose my beliefs on you” but rather, “how can I help you.” It would appear that, consistent with the perspective reflected in what is now referred to as the theology of inculturation, Oblate-Aboriginal relations were generally responsive and interactive in nature. The evidence suggests that even prior to Vatican II understandings of “inculturation” informed Oblate activity in Rupert’s Land and Athabasca Country (present day Alberta).

Inculturation of faith

Inculturation of Faith is a theological framework that not only permits but encourages Roman Catholic missionary religious to understand the worldviews of those to whom they minister, in order “to hear, distinguish and interpret the many voices of our age, and to judge them in the light of the divine word, so that revealed truth can always be more deeply penetrated, better understood and set forth to greater advantage” (Gaudium et spes; 1965, paragraph 44; see fuller context of citation below). The essence of this constitution is reflected more recently in a comment made by Gary Gordon, then Bishop of Whitehorse, at the 2012 Aboriginal Ministries conference: “good medicine recognizes good medicine.” An OMI who spent years in the north expresses the application of this essence in practice: “What is there already and what do we bring. [. . .] it is in dialogue that we discover, we re-discover, our own faith through sharing it. New questions bring new dimensions of faith also” (Piché 1991). Although there is a notable shift in the understanding of mission among OMI themselves in the wake of Vatican II, the idea of inculturation has its roots in a small Jewish sect spreading into foreign cultures.

Metanoia, a Greek term for changed perception, is ever present in the Church. Inculturation is a recent term for the centuries old concept of the manifestation of metanoia in regard to insights and practices with particular regard to the mission of the Church. The term “inculturation” is fluid; it is not always understood in a consistent way. It has been a consideration for the Church from its earliest centuries as a fledgling and marginal sect within the Greco-Roman world, when it needed to define what its boundaries were as it expanded from its Jewish roots to the worlds of the Gentiles. Accommodation and adaptation to the varying contexts in which Christianity and later Roman Catholicism found itself seem to be dialectically based in the sense of a back and forth movement in which catechism is communicated to receivers—over a wide range of global communities—and in turn the cultures of those receivers influences shifts and changes in Catholic teachings over time. Explicitly putting cultural difference on the table has created an institutional context with some range of flexibility.

Documentation in the archives at the Royal Alberta Museum indicate that in essence inculturation is related to differing symbolic life.[6] Roger Hutchinson[7] observes that inculturation “go[es] beyond the mere search for solutions to particular problems [. . .] the apologies issued by churches and finally by the government are more usefully understood as contributions to ongoing dialogues than as solutions to problems.”[8] In her 1995 study of “the dialogue (and it was a two-way conversation) between the Oblates and the Dene in the first three-quarters of a century of their relationship” (xvii) McCarthy points out that “according to this theory [inculturation] the Christian message must assume its own life within many cultures without destroying them” (xvii). She continues with an observation which serves to highlight the place of Oblate missionary activity within the broader context of seismic international changes: “[Christianity] cannot continue as an imported religion, though, when European Christianity came lock-step with Western civilization, it threatened to do so” (xviii).

An Oblate who spent years in the north expresses it succinctly: “What is there already and what do we bring. [. . .] it is in dialogue that we discover, we re-discover, our own faith through sharing it. New questions bring new dimensions of faith also” (Piché 1991). As Achiel Peelman notes, “Nous ne savons pas d’avance quelle Église renaȋtra avec la Parole de Dieu qui est allée mourir dans la terre missionnaire” (“We do not know in advance what Church will be reborn with the Word of God that has gone to die in missionary land” 1988, 192).

This perspective is reflected in Gaudium et spes (joys and hopes), the “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World,” one of four Apostolic Constitutions coming out of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965):

From the beginning of her history she has learned to express the message of Christ with the help of the ideas and terminology of various philosophers, and has tried to clarify it with their wisdom, too. [. . .] For thus the ability to express Christ’s message in its own way is developed in each nation, and at the same time there is fostered a living exchange between the Church and the diverse cultures of people (Gaudium et spes; 1965, paragraph 44)

Accommodation and adaptation to the varying contexts in which Christianity, and later Roman Catholicism, are responsively based in the sense of a back and forth movement in which the teaching of the church is communicated in a wide range of global communities, and in turn the way in which that teaching is heard and embodied has an effect on how the Church understands itself, and, it leads to shifts and changes in Catholic teaching and practice over time. While some of these changes occur locally, some resonate within the whole of the Church.

Gaudium et spes [joy and hope], is the “Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World,” one of four Apostolic Constitutions[9] coming out of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965).[10] It states that:

From the beginning of her history she has learned to express the message of Christ with the help of the ideas and terminology of various philosophers, and has tried to clarify it with their wisdom, too. Her purpose has been to adapt the Gospel to the grasp of all as well as to the needs of the learned, insofar as such was appropriate. Indeed this accommodated preaching of the revealed word ought to remain the law of all evangelization. For thus the ability to express Christ’s message in its own way is developed in each nation, and at the same time there is fostered a living exchange between the Church and the diverse cultures of people. To promote such exchange, especially in our days, the Church requires the special help of those who live in the world, are versed in different institutions and specialties, and grasp their innermost significance in the eyes of both believers and unbelievers. With the help of the Holy Spirit, it is the task of the entire People of God, especially pastors and theologians, to hear, distinguish and interpret the many voices of our age, and to judge them in the light of the divine word, so that revealed truth can always be more deeply penetrated, better understood and set forth to greater advantage. (Gaudium et spes; 1965, paragraph 44; italics mine)

This document remains the reference point for the position of the Church on what was then referred to as “accommodation,” or “adapation” and has more recently evolved to “inculturation.” Of note in this document is the doctrinal declaration of a willingness, grounded in Catholicism, to engage with not only philosophers but with all as a means of clarifying the message of Christ. There is acknowledgement that Christ’s message can be expressed “in its own way;” that is, in the way of the particular context. Thus, perhaps ironically, this perspective is consistent with 1990s postmodernist views that it is in dialogue with “the other” that we see who we ourselves are.[11] This 1965 document advocates engaging with others for the stated purpose of helping the Church penetrate revealed truth more deeply to better understand it and to help all peoples live their lives consistent with spiritual truth. In the Roman Catholic world spiritual truth remains catholic, as in universal, Truth. Therefore, flowing from this perspective, “accommodated preaching” is promulgated as the law of all evangelization.

In 1962 the Jesuit J. Masson coined the term “inculturated Catholicism” (Lapointe n.d.). Evidently, this is prior to Gaudium et spes. It took almost fifteen years for the term inculturation to be used with its present theological meaning: at the 32nd Congregation of the Society of Jesus, December 1974 to April 1975 the term was officially used. It was then introduced to the 1977 Synod of Bishops on catechesis by the then Superior General of the Jesuits, Father Peter Arrupe. Pope John Paul II officially adopted it in his 1979 Apostolic Letter Catechesi Tradendae, and by this act gave it doctrinal value (Lapointe n.d.).

John Paul II subsequently created the Pontifical Council for Culture, 20 May 1982.[12] This council, later merged with the Pontifical Council for Dialogue with Non-Believers, is charged with engaging with those who profess no religion and with creating and nurturing relationships with various religious, governmental and non-governmental organizations.

A third Vatican reference related to this concept is from the 1985 final report of the Extraordinary Synod for the twentieth anniversary of the closing of the Second Vatican Council which defines inculturation as “the intimate transformation of authentic cultural values through their integration in Christianity in the various human cultures.” Here, ironically at this twentieth anniversary celebration of Vatican II, the injunctions of the Vatican II document Gaudium et spes to hear, distinguish and interpret the many voices of our age in order to penetrate Mystery more deeply are reduced to absorbing the other in “Christianity;” that is, in Roman Catholicism.

In his Foreward [sic] to Martha McCarthy’s From the Great River to the Ends of the Earth: Oblate Missions to the Dene, 1847-1921 (a title taken from a line in Psalm 72), Huel comments that McCarthy has “identified the changes in Oblate missionary activity beginning as an initial proclamation of the Gospel, later encompassing education and health care and finally evolving into an intermediary role between the Dene and the federal bureaucracy. With respect to the response of the Dene, she demonstrates that the Dene were free to accept, reject or modify the teachings of the Oblates. The Oblate apostolate in the Mackenzie was a complex phenomenon. In addition to interaction with the Dene it necessitated relations with the Hudson’s Bay Company, Anglican competitors and the Dominion government and its agencies” (xiv).

Inculturation of the faith can be understand as a doctrinal nexus for the ongoing issues, concerns, and discussions around what it means to be situated as a Catholic in a world where there are others. The thinking around the ideas encapsulated by this term map a path through complex webs of inclusivity and diversity present in plural contexts, assisting in reflecting on the right approach or the best thing to do in actual, lived situations where there are differing spiritual lives. It is in this way that inculturation informed the work of the Oblates, assisting them in mapping a path together with Aboriginal peoples in response to significant English Protestant and other federally-supported immigration to the West, and thus within the newly forming civil life of Alberta.


Les Oblates missionnaires de Marie Immaculée (OMI)

In general, the term “oblate” refers to either clergy or laypeople affiliated in prayer with an individual monastery of their choice, who have made a formal private promise (annually renewable or for life) to follow the Rule of St Benedict in their private life at home and at work as closely as their individual circumstances and prior commitments permit. The technical term for these practitioners is “secular” oblates. Interestingly, as the secular oblate is in an individual relationship with the monastic community and does not form a distinct unit within the Catholic Church, there are no regulations in the modern canon law of the Church regarding them.

There are also a small number of conventual or claustral oblates who reside in a monastic community. The technical term for these practitioners is “regular” oblates. As committed volunteers, they share in the life of the community and undertake, without remuneration, any work or service required of them. They are not monks or nuns however. A conventual oblate may cancel this commitment at any time; and it is canceled automatically if, after consultation with the chapter, the superior sends the oblate away for good reason. Thus oblates, whether secular or regular, oblige themselves to God without binding themselves by profession and vows.

The Oblates who came to Athabasca Country and Rupert’s Land in the 1840s however, were different. They were part of a religious congregation committed to a consecrated life with a missionary charism. The French Revolution (1789-1799) and its claims of liberté, egalité et fraternité have rung down through the history of the West and continue to do so today, as have the effects of another historical development, the Enlightenment. The Romantic movement in art and literature was one response that arose following the Revolution.[13]

Spear-headed by the French priest Eugene de Mazenod, the creation of the OMI on January 25, 1816 was another response to the Revolution and an emerging modernity that had unseated the sociopolitical power of the church and marginalized non-empirical ways of knowing. Still during a period of Bourbon rule (1815-1830), and ten years after its formation, on February 17, 1826 the ultramontane[14] congregation of the Oblates was given recognition by Pope Leo XII. As noted, OMI are not oblates in the sense of “oblate” as discussed above (secular and regular) because the OMI do take simple vows and follow the Rule of St. Benedict.[15] However, particularly in the early history of Alberta, they tend not live in community.[16] In addition to the male OMI, there are a number of female orders of oblates, including the Oblate Sisters of Providence, the Oblate Sisters of the Holy Family, Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary, Grey Nuns/Sisters of Charity, and the Oblate Sisters of the Sacred Heart and Mary Immaculate. Although all use the term “oblate” in their name, each has its own unique founding history and raison d’être.

Not only did the formation of the Oblate congregation take place in the wake of the French Revolution and the Enlightenment, but also it had only been a century earlier that the steam engine had been invented (Spain, 1606 and England, 1698), creating possibilities for large scale manufacturing, rail and sea transport. In the late eighteenth century and on into the nineteenth century this new invention spread. European economies were rapidly industrializing, causing further decline in the feudal system as large-scale urbanization took hold. Following the decline of the last land-based global Empire, that of the Ottomans, at the end of the First World War, the rational positivism of the Enlightenment and the republican liberalism of the French Revolution intellectually contextualized ideas of nation, citizenship, democracy and rights in the radically changing social, political, and economic environment of the nineteenth century.[17] As Raymond Huel, historian emeritus at the University of Lethbridge, notes, “the Oblates [OMI] were the product of a specific age and culture and their outlook, values and aspirations were conditioned by that experience” (xiv). This does not however, preclude contemporary analyses to judge them solely through particular twentieth and twenty-first century values, interests, and aspirations!

Choquette asserts that “the Oblates of Mary Immaculate were the cutting edge of the Catholic ultramontane conquest of Canada’s northwest. Their apostolic methods were fundamentally determined by their Catholic doctrine and theology, which in turn determined specific policies, methods, and tactics in relation to Indians, their evangelization, their conversion to Christianity” (200). Choquette’s language is harsh, given the range of local, national and international forces at play during this period. David Goa, who was curator of Folklife at the Royal Alberta Museum working in the field with diverse cultural communities throughout Alberta from 1972 to 2002, comments:

In my many and various conversations with Oblates, time and time again, I have been struck by how they seek to hold the local community in high regard and also how they see, based on their faith that all are the image of God, the kind of presence they have had in these communities as also providing a safe haven for those who have become isolated or put upon. The genius of tight community and shared tradition and norms is certainly the web of relationships woven over time and binding no matter what. The presence of Oblates has, largely, I think, been deemed good by local communities when they were not in a hyper-political state. Coming and going from the rectory was as more common than going to the Hudson Bay store or hunting and fishing. It was also self-evident that the rectory was a kind of sacred place where you could also go if you found yourself in difficulty at home or in the centre of the community, a place for those marginalized (even for a brief time) to seek harbour. When I speak about the civil vocation of the missions this is what I am aiming at. It is not they provided an alternate or different space or place. Rather, they provided, or sought too, a new layer to what was there, extend the capacity of living together, over-time, so that reintegration might
become possible and health return (Goa and Piché 1998).

Huel observes that “the Oblate apostolate is [. . .] a frontier experience in which a French institution domiciled and adapted itself to the conditions in and the demands of the interior of the Canadian North West” (1996, xx  italics mine). Huel’s observation supports the thesis that not only did the OMI have a significant impact on creating infrastructure in what were then remote areas but, reciprocally, those remote areas and their peoples had a significant impact on the OMI. Robert Choquette, whose research focus is conflict between Protestants and Catholics in the missionary fields of the Canadian Northwest, comments that “because of their Roman Catholicism, the Oblates had a decided advantage over their Protestant rivals in the conduct of Indian missions. The most fundamental reason for this advantage is the sacramentalism that is a basic characteristic of Catholic doctrine. Starting from a theology of continuity between nature and the transcendent, Catholics believe that any created object, person, or institution can be the locus and bearer of God’s grace. The Catholic thus tends to be much more appreciative of the ways of nature [and] of the ways of the Indian” (191).

The next section looks more closely at this sense of non-exclusivity in bearing God’s grace—what, as discussed above has become to be termed inculturation—as an orientation that underlay the interactive nature of relationships between OMI and various Aboriginal communities (particularly Woodland and Plains Cree, Blackfoot, Blood, and Beaver, Dene, Siksika, and Piegan, which are tribes located in what is now Alberta) particularly, although not exclusively, following Vatican II. “L’inculturation n’est pas une réalité nouvelle. La proclamation de la Bonne Nouvelle du Christ est un trait fundamental des Églises, ce kérygme s’est adapté aux diverses situations culturelles auxquelles les missionnaires furent confrontés. Cependant, ce n’est que depuis Vatican II que le term “inculturation” est employé systématiquement pour exprimer ce trait fondamental de l’Église” (“Inculturation is not a new reality. The proclamation of the Good News of Christ is a fundamental trait of the Churches, this proclaiming has adapted to various cultural situations with which missionaries were faced. Nevertheless, it is only since Vatican II that the term “inculturation” has been systematically used to express this fundamental trait of the Church” Peelman, Les nouveaux défis de l’inculturation 10). This observation refers to the way in which the fundamental trait of missionary work, preaching the Good News, has historically adapted to socio-cultural situations in the mission field.

Inculturation of the faith is not about imposition; it is about integration: to what extent are various perspectives compatible with Catholicism. And some are. As Gary Gordon, then Bishop of the Diocese of Whitehorse, commented at the Aboriginal Ministries conference: “good medicine recognizes good medicine.”

OMI in Rupert’s Land and Athabasca Country (Alberta)

At the turn of the nineteenth century, in what a century later would became the Province of Alberta in 1905, the population of Rupert’s Land (the watershed of all rivers and streams flowing into Hudson Bay) and Athabasca Country (the land around Lake Athabasca) was comprised of Aboriginals, fur traders, and Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC) officials. HBC was incorporated by the British in 1670 and had a monopoly on trade in Rupert’s Land. The Montréal-based North West Company was merged into the HBC in 1821.

In 1842 the secular priest, Jean-Baptiste Thibault, arrived at Lac Ste. Anne (Huel 1996, 47) as the first Catholic clergy in Athabasca Country. OMI Alexandre Antonin Taché arrived three years later[18] and subsequently made significant contributions to the development of civil life in what would become Alberta. Taché built missions within an administrative entity called the Vicariate Apostolic of Athabaska-Mackenzie.[19] This was in a context of an HBC in which “most of its officers in the Athabasca and Mackenzie districts were Anglicans who enjoyed an uneasy relationship with the Roman Catholic priests” (Abel 141). Kerry Abel observes that “the history of mission work in the northwest is as much a story of competition between sects [Roman Catholics and Anglicans of the Church Missionary Society] as it is a story of missions to [Aboriginals]” (114). John Webster Grant refers to the situation between religious groups, including Methodists, as a “contest” (100).[20]

Founded in 1861, St. Albert (Alberta) “became an important centre both for the diffusion of Roman Catholicism and for the preservation of French-Canadian and Métis culture in the west” (Webster Grant 147). A few years later the federal government was actively promoting settlement of west:

During the 1890s, the Council of the Northwest Territories abolished the use of French in the territorial assembly, in courts and in schools. Thereafter, English was to be the only language of instruction in Catholic schools, with the exception of the first few years of primary school, where French could be used only if the children did not know another language. Compromises were reached with the French population in the following years, and in 1926, the curriculum was modified to include some class work in French, a policy which was accepted with other ethnic groups as well. (“Francophone Communities”)

Clifford Sifton, Minister of the Interior at the turn of the twentieth century, was not in favour of bilingualism. The Francophone Émile Legal, who had replaced Vital Grandin as Bishop in St. Albert for example, was succeeded by the Anglophone Henry John O’Leary in 1920 (“Francophone communities”). Political preferences, in combination with preferential tariffs for those coming to the West from outside Canada, lead to increased immigration from Britain, the United States, and agricultural communities from Europe. These factors, including the increasing number of Protestant missions, challenged the Roman Catholic and francophone presence. In addition to intersectorial tensions between religions, government, and commerce with their related ethno-cultural aspects, there were other contextual elements to consider such as gold discovered in the Yukon in 1896 and oil in Fort Norman in 1920 (Fumoleau xxviii), factors which would have deep, far-reaching, and ongoing effects on the economies and physical environments into which the OMI forayed.

The skills of the Oblates were essential to the establishment of early Albertan settlements as they included carpenters, blacksmiths, farmers, ranchers, millers, and sawmill operators. Choquette comments that “as a rule, the Catholic missionary was more explorer and builder than theologian. Taché rushed to the defense of his men when they were accused of being to rough-hewn. He argued that their lives were all too frequently those of workers, swinging an axe, wielding a hoe, snowshoeing, fishing, farming, or building a cabin. Such activities, year in and year out, did not make for sophisticated men of letters, or theologians. However, it was such thankless work that had ensured the foundations of most of the Northwest’s first Christian communities” (194). In 1857 the OMI affiliated with the Grey Nuns who worked with them in major centres where they administrated schools, dispensaries, and charitable enterprises (Webster Grant 103).

Abel observes that “the Roman Catholic missionaries professed many concepts not much different from Dene tradition. The confessional, the charismatic religious specialist, the concept of fasting, and the wide charismatic religious specialist, the concept of fasting, and the wide range of saints/spirits who could intervene in the course of events may have been referred to with a different vocabulary, but the concepts were similar” (141). This is theoretical observation is reflected in a range of comments found in an extensive oral archive located at the Royal Alberta Museum, such as this excerpt from Oblate Camille Piché:

I remember sharing with George [Slavey, Willow River] one time when he started talking to me about the life of these people, like how they lived prior to the coming of the White man. What were their values and I was as—well I shouldn’t say astounded because I’ve always felt that very deeply, but it was very striking to hear George talk about that lifestyle in just about the same terms as the Acts of the Apostles does. He said we used to live together and help one another. If a person was in need, whatever the hunter brought back from the bush it was understood that the person in need, if there was a widow with children, she would get what she needed for her family so that nobody would be without. And people loved one another, people cared for one another. And I thought my goodness gracious how close that is to the Gospel ideal if you wish that is presented to us.

So in this case when we talk about development and removing somebody from the tent who would want to remove George from that setting and from those values. It is a question of simply rejoicing with him as a Christian that somehow his people and his culture and the God that he serves in a sense has taught him the pretty well the same values we have at the heart of our gospel message. And for George there was no separation between the Christian faith that he has embraced and the native spirituality that he has grown up with. And for me hearing him talk about that I certainly had no problems with it either. I truly believe that George to me represents in his value system, in his approach to life, his respect of creation and of the environment and the tremendous care he has for the people around him, taking care of his brother for thirty years in that little old house with his other older brother who is with him and nobody, that is not mentioned in any books or trumpeted all over the place, it’s just a fact of life. So that is one aspect, to be able to recognize the Gospel values if you wish that were there before so it is not a question of coming and bringing Gospel values as simply recognizing what is there already. (Piché 1991, 10:40-12:50 and 23:19-29:31)

Abel notes that:

The Roman Catholics provided more medical care and maintained a large orphanage at Providence that became a highly valued institution because it provided an alternative to infanticide in times of hardship [. . .] the Oblates made more of an effort to understand Dene traditions and cultural values, tending in the process to demonstrate greater sympathy towards them. Furthermore, the Oblates were more willing to tolerate these traditional ideas among the people who asked for baptism or took communion. The Oblates did not see a fundamental conflict between Christianity and the hunting economy [. . .] the Oblates [. . .] encouraged the use of such items [pictures, medals, rosaries, crucifixes, and other religious objects] as part of their traditional methods of reaching non-literate audiences. Because the Dene associated these objects with personal power, the Anglican refusal to supply them must have seemed most peculiar and suspicious. Were the ministers refusing to share their power or their secrets? The behavior of the priests was in some ways more consistent with Dene expectations and their ideas more consistent with Dene traditions. (141-142)

McCarthy emphasizes that “during this mission process the Dene also changed. They were not empty vessels into which the Catholicism preached by the Oblates could be poured. The history, religious beliefs, and changing circumstances of the Dene influenced their acceptance or rejection of the Christianity preached to them. If that faith had been totally alien, they would have rejected it altogether, or conformed only superficially. But when they accepted Catholicism, they did so, in many ways, on their own terms, in conformity with their own cultural and spiritual understandings. They accomplished for themselves much of what present mission theory calls ‘inculturation,’ long before that concept or ideal was expressed or accepted [. . .] over many years together, Oblate and Dene developed their understanding and acceptance of ‘the other’ and a shared belief” (xviii, xv).

Huel comments that “as a religious congregation whose purpose it was to work among the poor, the Oblates possessed an internal discipline as well as a sense of unity of action [. . .] the practice used by the Oblates in these popular missions, that is, living and working among the poor and instructing them in their own language, was not only pragmatic but readily modified to suit different conditions” (34). McCarthy adds: “though the OMI did not attempt to change the content of their theology, they did adapt to the Dene ways of learning, using methods originally developed to reach the poor of Provence [. . .] these methods accomplished, to some degree, the [mutual] inculturation favoured by theologians of today” (183). The question for this present work is: did the Catholic theology Inculturation of Faith determine the apostolic methods of the OMI, did their work contribute to formulating this theology; how did concepts that are now labelled “inculturation” determine specific “methods and tactics” (per Choquette) in relation to Aboriginals and their integration of Christianity?

Methods and tactics

There are several areas in which OMI were particularly active in Rupert’s Land and Athabasca Country: orphanages, language retention, agriculture, education, communication networks, and health care. Each of these will be glossed below with especial focus on the relationship between the material work and the intercultural incultuation stance between the Oblates and the Aboriginal peoples they encountered.


Huel points out that “in the early period of establishment the Oblates gathered abandoned orphans, the disabled and the elderly in their missions and provided the young with a modicum of education” (73). This comment reflects OMI responsiveness to one of the most immediate needs they saw in the communities: the killing of members whom the community could no longer support (Boyden, 2005).


Choquette notes that “in all areas, the first priority was to learn the aboriginal languages, preferable before even setting foot in the mission field. In fact most Catholic missionaries did learn the Indian languages” (194). This, as noted above, in a context in which the native tongue of the majority of the OMI, French, was being minimized through government policy, immigration, and other missionary activity. Nevertheless, there were notable linguistic contributions made by religious which have served to preserve First Nations languages, leaving, in fact, extant repositories for present-day Aboriginals seeking to strengthen their knowledge of their ancestral languages. Émile Grouard (1840-1931) brought the first printing press to what is now Alberta and from Lac La Biche. He used syllabic type to produce works in Cree, Montagnais, Beaver, and Loucheu, including the life of Jesus in Cree and a Montagnais dictionary (Huel 2015, np). There was also the production of a prayer book in Cree syllabics and Albert Lacombe’s (1827-1916) Cree dictionary, which were made possible with the support of the Grey Nuns.


“In 1853 Eugene de Mazenod issued a statement of ‘Instructions on Foreign Missions’ that told Oblates that ‘every means’ should be used ‘to bring the nomad tribes to abandon their wandering life and to build houses [and] cultivate fields. The Athabasca-Mackenzie missionaries never really followed these orders, however, primarily because the missionaries themselves quickly learned that a sedentary, agricultural life was extremely difficult in the north. Their own gardens frequently failed, and they relied heavily on fish for food, like the people to whom they were ministering” (Abel 118). Nevertheless, after St. Albert was established in 1861 it “became the first major centre of agriculture in Alberta” (Webster Grant 147).

Communication Networks: Transportation and telecommunications

Generally the OMI relied on HBC transport routes and then on the railways; however, they were nevertheless instrumental in building roads as well as in establishing steamship routes, gaining a measure of independence from the HBC. In 1854 Taché oversaw the construction of a road between Lac La Biche and Fort Pitt (in present-day Saskachewan) (Huel 1996, 58). A sawmill was built by OMI at Lac La Biche (Huel 1996, 58) and in 1892 Grouard constructed one much further north at Lake Athabasca, which provided him with the materials to build three steam boats (Huel 2015, np). The Saint-Joseph plied the water between Fort McMurray and Fort Smith, the Saint-Alphonse between Fort Smith and the Arctic Ocean, and an unnamed boat served communities along the Peace River (Huel 2015, np). Choquette notes that the OMI also produced newspapers (1995, 1). During the 1970s Piché was instrumental in setting up a communications network in northern Alberta to facilitate inter-Aboriginal communication regarding use of their lands.

Health Care

After Second World War privately run church hospitals, orphanages and nursing homes were increasingly turned over to the lay sector.


Education is perhaps the most sensitive issue within the wide range of activities undertaken by the OMI in Canada’s northwest. Huel cautions that “abuse in residential schools must not be studied in isolation but within the context of the educational system in general and the family and society at large. Without this larger picture, conjecture will prevail and conclusions at best will be tenuous and tendentious” (1996, xxvi). Nevertheless, the educational issue has been, for the large most part, sensationalized and leveraged in a variety of ways that are not within the scope of this paper to unpack; however, others have begun to make forays into this politically charged field.[22]

Early on, in the mid-nineteenth century, Grouard was concerned with the disruption brought about in Aboriginal communities as increasingly large numbers of Europeans came west (Huel 2015, np). “The schools were begun out of necessity once the buffalo were gone and the fur trade collapsed. With small pox, Spanish flu, tuberculosis and such epidemics recurring frequently, the native population was decimated and the people destitute” (Piché 2006). In 1899 the federal Indian commissioner David Laird invited Grouard to participate in negotiating a treaty to protect the Aboriginals, pursuant to the provisions in the Royal Proclamation of 1763. Huel comments that Grouard “was not optimistic about the outcome and suspected the true motive of the government was colonization” (2015, np). In the years following the signing of Treaty 8 Grouard lobbied the federal government for Catholic boarding schools for Aboriginals and by 1927 there were five of them in the Athabasca vicariate.[23] These schools also served as orphanages (Huel 2015, np), sites at which that the social services arm of the government used to house children that they had removed from their parents (Piché 1991).

McCarthy comments that “by 1921 many Dene were third-generation Catholics, who identified themselves as such. They shared in the sacraments and life of the Church, endured considerable hardships to attend the great religious feasts and held devout gatherings at their winter camps with their own spiritual leaders. Their Catholicism was distinctively Dene, much as many other branches of Catholicism exhibited unique characteristics. The institution was never quite as monolithic as it appeared to outsiders, despite the universality of its beliefs and rituals. Each branch of Catholicism preserved singular aspects while conforming to the teachings and practice of the Church” (xx).[24]

Post Vatican II

By the early 1960s church leaders in the north, such as Denis Croteau as Bishop of Mackenzie-Fort Smith (1986-2003), were conscientiously reflecting and acting to integrate Aboriginal and Catholic practice within fluid understandings of inculturation based on both doctrinal theory and experience in the communities. At the Aboriginal Ministries conference there was much excitement and anticipation of the imminent canonization of Kateri Tekakwitha,[25] a seventeenth century Mohawk woman who lived in a Jesuit mission just south of Montréal. In the context of the OMI transition to a post-Vatican II mission Peelman observes:

L’engagement de l’Église pour l’évangelization des cultures changera de plus en plus le visage concret de l’Église. Ainsi, la mission cesse désormais d’être un chemin à sens unique. Le rapport entre l’Église et les cultures est inévitablement un rapport réciproque. L’Église proclame l’Évangile dans les nouvelles situations culturelles de l’humanité tout en se mettant à l’écoute de ces cultures. Les cultures s’ouvrent au message du Christ tout en contribuant à l’humanisation de l’Église

The church’s engagement with the evangelization of cultures will increasingly change the outward face of the church. In this way, mission now ceases to be a one-way road. The relationship between the church and cultures is inevitably a reciprocal relationship. The church proclaims the Gospel in new cultural situations of humanity while at the same time disposing itself to listen these cultures. These cultures open themselves to the message of Christ and thereby contribute to the humanization of the church (1988, 192).

The beatification and canonization of an Aboriginal woman is one such outward face of the Roman Catholic Church. The argument in this paper has been that the seeds of this evolution were there decades before they filtered up into the highest levels of church hierarchy. On the ground the people whom, as some would posit, are the church, were already interacting with other cultures in reciprocal ways—changing them, and being changed by them.

McCarthy wrote in the early 1990s that “over the course of many years [the OMI] learned much from the Dene, how to survive and travel in the north, how to speak the languages of the people, what was acceptable and not acceptable to them. They also became aware of a Dene spirituality and world-view based on community sharing which, in many ways, was closer to early Christianity than was the more secular and individualistic nineteenth-century European Christianity they knew” (xvii-xviii). Inculturation of faith, practiced without such a label by OMI in the missions fields of the Canadian northwest, is now clearly an overt aspect of Roman Catholic theology in Alberta. It provides intellectual grounding upon which to discuss how to be oneself in a world where there are others, how to share oneself with others, and how to understand others as they are in their own terms. It has certainly been a painful journey for not only Aboriginals, but also for the OMI. Camille Piché, Provincial of Grandin Province from reflects:

Perhaps now, if these events (residential schools and Indigenous Residential Schools [IRS] litigation) can be understood as a certain purification of our mission, we can continue our ministry with a renewed dialogue. In-kind commitments will require that we work along with native people, or First Nations as they now choose to be called, and not for them. According to the agreement, ministry, projects, and programs will have to be approved and assessed by both the Oblates and the Aboriginal people. The Apology stated: “recognizing that within every sincere apology, there is implicit the promise of conversion to a new way of acting, we, the Oblates of Mary Immaculate of Canada, wish to pledge ourselves to a renewed relationship with the Native People of Canada.” We now have the occasion to do so. Oblates have now committed significant amounts of money and personnel to aboriginal ministry for the next 10 years, offering us the challenge of a “renewed relationship.” (2006, np)

This reflection articulates a perspective of recognizing, in hindsight, wrongful action—that however well-intentioned, harm was caused. And yet the commitment, dedication and loyalty remains. Although there has been discord, which lead to significant loss for the OMI both in terms of reputation and economic security, there is willingness to remain connected—and to help others. And, as the Aboriginal woman indicated at the Aboriginal Ministries conference, there is also willingness on that side to continue the relationship.

Living together with mutual recognition and respect


This article has glossed official documents regarding what has come to be termed “inculturation,” explained “Oblates” and in particular the OMI and their work in what is now the Province of Alberta, revealing that even prior to Vatican II understandings of “inculturation” informed Oblate activity in Rupert’s Land and Athabasca Country (present day Alberta).

This final section comments on Oblate, Cree, and Blackfoot relations moving forward. Roger Hutchinson, professor Emeritus of Victoria University in the University of Toronto forthrightly observes that “the pressing question is how native and non-native Canadians are going to live together with mutual respect in a shared future and shared country” (43). In the wake of the winding up of the Truth and Reconciliation events on June 2, 2015, Jeffrey Simpson wrote: “If the Chief Justice sees the history as one of ‘cultural genocide’—‘genocide’ being the most heinous of all collective crimes—then her court, as it has already demonstrated, will be or has become the country’s chief of past sins, encouraging in the re-creation in present-day idiom sovereign ‘nations’ and territories within Canada, thereby deepening radical parallelism between aboriginal and non-aboriginal people rather than furthering a search for what we might have in common and what we might do together” (np, italics mine).

Inculturation provides a way of thinking that helps us to integrate the realities of living in culturally diverse contexts, and of being aware that the nature of our interactions are not one-way. Going forward, will developing a more complex understanding of OMI-Aboriginal encounters help us respond effectively to the challenges of healing from historical trauma? How does thinking labelled “inculturation” intersect with current Aboriginal perspectives regarding a shared future in a shared country? These questions remain active discussion points in the context of living together with difference.

Given the lived experience of OMI of moving through difficult and often painful relationships as a result of externally imposed parallelism, and their persistence nevertheless with the model that is available in the theology of inculturation of the faith, perhaps there is possibility here, should the broader Canadian public be willing, to include not only Aboriginals but also OMI, to learn from them and their experience as well in regard to furthering the search for evolving ways of getting to know the ways of “the other,” while also remaining ourselves, in the interest of our shared civil life in Alberta and Canada.



Abel, Kerry M. Drum Songs: Glimpses of Dene History. Montréal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2005.

Armstrong, Karen. Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence. New York: Knopf, 2014.

Boyden, Joseph. Three Day Road. Toronto: Viking, 2005.

Bradford, Tolly. Prophetic Identities. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2012.

Choquette, Robert. The Oblate Assault on Canada’s Northwest. Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 1995.

“The Church, in the Word of God, Celebrates the Mysteries of Christ for the Salvation of the World.” Extraordinary Synod for the Twentieth Anniversary of the Closing of the Second Vatican Council. December 7, 1985.

Code of Canon Law.

“The Congregations.”

“Francophone Communities.”

Fumoleau, René. As Long As This Land Shall Last: A History of Treaty 8 and 11, 1870-1939. Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2004.

Goa, David J. and Camille Piché. Camille Piché interviewed by David Goa, Curator, Folklife Program, Provincial Museum of Alberta. August 13, 1998.

———. Camille Piché interviewed by David Goa, Curator, Folklife Program, Provincial Museum of Alberta. January 1, 1991.

Grant, John Webster. Moon of Wintertime: Missionaries and the Indians of Canada in Encounter Since 1534. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1984.

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Huel, Raymond. “Grouard, Émile (Émile-Jean-Marie).” Dictionary of Canadian Biography. Vol. 16. Toronto and Québec: University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2015.

———. Proclaiming the Gospel to the Indians and the Métis. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 1996.

———. “Jean L’Heureux: Canadien errant et prétendu missionnaire auprès des Pieds-Noirs.” Après dix ans—bilan et prospective: les actes du onzième Colloque du Centre d’études franco-canadiennes de l’Ouest tenu à la Faculté Saint-Jean, Université de l’Alberta, du 17 au 19 octobre 1991. G. Allaire, P. Dubé and G. Morcos, eds. Edmonton: Institut de recherche de la Faculté Saint-Jean, 1992. 217-218.

Hutchinson, Roger. “Past Sins and Future Hopes: Residential Schools Apology.” Ethical Choices in a Pluralistic World. The Chester Ronning Centre for the Study of Religion and Public life. Camrose: Augustana Campus of the University of Alberta, 2008. 43-51.

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“International Theological Commission.” Faith and Inculturation. 1988.

McCarthy, Martha. From the Great River to the Ends of the Earth: Oblate Missions to the Dene, 1847-1921. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 1995.

Miller, Jim R. Shingwauk’s Vision: A History of Native Residential Schools. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1996.

Milloy, John S. A National Crime: the Canadian Government and the Residential School System, 1879-1986. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1999.

“The Obligations and Rights of Clerics.” Code of Canon Law. 232-289. 1983.

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Peelman, Achiel. Les nouveaux défis de l’inculturation. Montréal: Novalis, 2007.

———. L’inculturation: l’Eglise et les cultures. Paris: Desclée, 1988.

“The Pontifical Council for Culture and the Pontifical Council for Dialogue with Non-Believers are United.” Inde a Pontificatus. John Paul II, Motu Proprio. March 25, 1993.

Simpson, Jeffrey. “Fixating on the past makes progress difficult.” Globe and Mail. June 2, 2015.

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Statistics Canada. 2011. 2011 National Household Survey (NHS). Statistics Canada Catalogue no. 99-011-X2011028. Ottawa. Date modified: 2014-03-04.

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[1]    See for example: “Challenges for a North American Doing Research with Traditional Indigenous Guatemalan Midwives.“ International Journal of Qualitative Methods 5.4 (December 21, 2006).

[2]    The Roman Catholic Church distinguishes three general groups of people: religious, laity, and clergy. The term “religious” refers to priests, monks and nuns who are part of various religious orders who follow the Rule of the particular order and tend to live in community. A man may be a member of an order, a religious, as well as an ordained priest. Laity refers to Catholics who have not received Holy Orders (ordination); non-ordained religious are canonically laity because they do not receive Holy Orders, but rather take solemn vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. Secular, diocesan priests are the clergy who serve parishes (a geographical area with a church; several parishes make up a diocese).

In the language of the Roman Catholic Church the secular (sæculum) is still within the church, but outside the cloiser. Religious who follow a Rule and have also been ordained are considered “regular clergy;” those who have received Holy Orders but live outside the cloister are the “secular clergy.” The secular cleric makes no profession and follows no religious rule; they possess their own property like the laity (“The Obligations and Rights of Clerics.” Code of Canon Law Cann. 232-289).

[3]    Directions in Aboriginal Ministry Conference, St. Albert, Alberta, July 17-21, 2012.

[4]   While curator of Folklife at the Provincial Museum of Alberta (1972-2002) David Goa with Daivd Ridley and Henriette Kelker made a series of interview recordings, some of which have been transcribed, and are still remaining in the collections of the Royal Alberta Museum, Edmonton. See comments under “Complexity of Lived Experience” below.

[5]    He also noted: time/flexibility; value of spirituality/leading prayer/connection with spiritual realm; openness, vulnerability (rather than pretense); generosity, sharing of gifts.

[6]    David Goa, Curator, Folklife, Provincial Museum of Alberta in interview with Camille Piché, OMI, Provincial Superior, Grandin Province. August 13, 1998.

[7]    For nearly three decades Roger Hutchinson has been based at Victoria University in Toronto, first in the Department of Religion, then at Emmanuel College (Toronto School of Theology), where he completed his teaching career as professor of church and society while serving as principal from 1996 to 2001.

[8]    Roger Hutchinson. “Past Sins and Future Hopes: Residential Schools Apology.” Ethical Choices in a Pluralistic World. The Chester Ronning Centre for the Study of Religion and Public life. Camrose: Augustana Campus of the University of Alberta, 2008. 43-51.

[9]    Lumen Gentium (the Church, 1964), Sacrosanctum Concilium (Sacred Liturgy, 1965) and Dei Verbum (Word of God, 1962).

[10]   Other Catholic Ecumenical Councils include:

Nicaea I (325); Constantinople I (381); Ephesus (431); Chalcedon (451); Constantinople II (583); Constantinople III (680-681); Nicaea II (787); Constantinople IV (869-870); Lateran I; Lateran II; Lateran III; Lateran IV; Lyon I; Lyon II; Vienna; Constance; Florence; Lateran V; Trent (1545-1563); Vatican I (1869-1870); Vatican II (1962-1965)

[11]   See, for example: Ignatieff, Michael. The Rights Revolution. Toronto, House of Anansi, 2000; Ricoeur, Paul. Oneself as Another. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992; Multiculturalism and The Politics of Recognition: An Essay by Charles Taylor. Ed. Amy Gutmann. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992; Kristeva, Julia. Strangers to Ourselves. Trans. Leon S. Roudiez. New York: Columbia University Press, 1991.

[12]   Inde a Pontificatus, article 1 (John Paul II, 25 March 1993, motu proprio) merged the Pontifical Council for Dialogue with Non-Believers (founded in 1965) with The Pontifical Council for Culture (see

[13]   In reaction to the collective focus on rational empiricism, Romanticism (±1800-1850) in literature and painting redirected the gaze from observation, reason and measurement to elements such as emotion, nature, imagination, and heroism.

[14]   Ultramontane, “beyond the mountains,” refers to Catholics in southern France who continued to support papal leadership over national.

[15]   For further information on the Oblates in Alberta, please see:, and

[16]   For current activities, see Oblate Communications: The Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate.

[17]   For more detailed argument on the Oblates, and Alberta, situated within this large historical context of nation-building in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, see my “Oblates and Nation-building in Alberta.” Religious Studies and Theology 32.2 (December 2013): 145-161.

[18]   “Francophone Communities” in Oblate in the West: The Alberta Story.

[19]  Vicariate of Missions of Athabasca-Mackenzie (1864), sub-divided into separate Viciariates Athabasca and Mackenzie in 1901; the latter was again sub-divided into Athabasca and Grouard Vicariates in 1927: Lac Ste Anne, Fort Chipewyan (Nativity mission), Fort Dunvegan (St. Charles mission), Fort Vermillion (St. Henri mission), Lac La Biche (Notre-Dame-des-Victoires), Grouard (St. Bernard mission), Brosseau (St. Paul-des-Cris), and Edmonton (St. Joachim). Notre-Dame-de-la Paix, Notre-Dame-des-Prairies and Rouleauville (all three within what is now Calgary).

Diocese of St. Albert (1862), sub-divided into the Diocese of St. Albert and the Archdiocese of Edmonton (1912).

For detailed information about the missions see Huel’s chapter “The Oblate Missionary Frontier” in his Proclaiming the Gospel to the Indians and Métis (1996).

[20]   This dynamic can arguably still be seen in Albertan communities today with the addition of Evangelical Christian groups and Aboriginal traditionalists competing with Roman Catholics, Anglicans and United Church (Methodists).

[21]   As well as educating others in a rapidly changing world, the OMI were also attentive to their own education. In 1917 the first theological faculty is set up at the Oblate Immaculate Conception Scholasticate in St. Joachim’s Parish, Edmonton. At that time diocesan seminarians attended the scholasticate along with those discerning a calling for the religious life. In 1927 however, the Oblates moved to Saskatchewan. The Archdiocese of Edmonton took over the building and called it St. Joseph Seminary (SJS) and it became a formation center only for diocesan priests. Following Vatican II, in 1969 the theology faculty of SJS became Newman Theological College (NTC) by an Act of the Alberta Legislature. NTC was then opened up to religious and laity. SJS remains on the NTC campus as a residence and house of formation for diocesan candidates to the priesthood; however, seminarians now constitute just one sector of the overall student body (

[22]   See for example: Simpson, Jeffrey. “Fixating on the past makes progress difficult.” Globe and Mail. June 2, 2015.; Niezen, Ronald. Truth and Indignation: Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission on Indian Residential Schools. Toronto: University of Toronto, 2013. Gatehouse, Jonathon. “The residential schools settlement’s biggest winner: A profile of Tony Merchant.” MacLean’s. April 4, 2013.

[23]   In 1901, at the request of Grouard, the Vatican divided the enormous vicariate of Athabasca-Mackenzie into two vicariates: Athabasca and Mackenzie.

[24]   This has also been noted by me in my extra-Canadian experiences of Roman Catholicism, which have been most focused in México, Perú, and Ethiopia.

[25]   Kateri was beatified by Pope John Paul II, June 22, 1980 and canonized by Pope Benedict XVI at St. Peter’s Basilica on October 21, 2012.