Arrival of the Missionaries

Robert Rundle and wife. Rundle was one the first missionaries to come to Western Canada and preform marriages at Fort Edmonton and Rocky Mountain House. Glenbow ArchivesAnother force that further challenged the customs of intermarriage within fur trade society and served to alter the position of aboriginal and mixed blood women was the coming of the missionaries.

In the mid-19th century there was increased pressure on the Hudson's Bay Company to support the establishment of missions in and around the forts that would improve the morality of fur trade life, which at this time was gaining a reputation for being licentious. The HBC conceded and around the mid-19th century both Catholic and Methodist missionaries began arriving in Western Canada, their two largest goals being to convert the Aboriginals to Christianity and to reinstate Christian morality in the forts.

Formalizing unions through Christian marriage ceremonies was one of the main things that had to be done in order to achieve this latter goal. Therefore, to now be considered married, all couples that were formally joined by mariage à la façon du pays - or "mariage after the custom of the country" - had to be remarried by the missionary. This process increased the vulnerability of traders' wives since those men who wished to take advantage of the situation could ignore their mariage à la façon du pays and the obligations it implied. Formerly wives, these women could now be considered mistresses - an object of temporary sexual gratification. Furthermore, both the historians Sarah Carter and Sylvia Van Kirk argue that aboriginal and mixed blood women, not their male partners, were blamed for living in a state of supposed sin; racism increasingly dictated that promiscuous tendencies were inherent in Aboriginal women. On the other hand, Van Kirk notes that perhaps it was beneficial to women that the missionaries insisted on Christian marriages because for those wives who did take the vows it was their only guarantee of security in a world that was rapidly changing.

Aside from marriage, missionaries also insisted upon education, believing it necessary to the salvation of future generations. They built many of the first schools in Western Canada on their mission sites. Both Aboriginal and mixed blood children were encouraged to attend schools, where they would learn Christian thought, either French or English and all the other subjects that were necessary for the "civilization" of their minds. Mixed blood daughters of higher ranking officials were also encouraged to learn the accomplishments of a lady including manners and poise, music, dance and art. Of course, the missionaries and the parents who sent their children to these schools believed that they would help native children to adapt to a changing world, which in a sense they did. However, these schools also served to further alienate children from their aboriginal heritage and entrench them in a world that, especially for women, was becoming hostile to those of Aboriginal descent.


Sources:

Carter, Sarah. "Categories and Terrains of Exclusion: Constructing the 'Indian Woman' in the Early Settlement Era in Western Canada." Telling Tales. Eds. Catherine Cavanaugh and Randi Warne. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2000.


Van Kirk, Sylvia. Many Tender Ties: Women in Fur Trade Society, 1670-1870. Canada: Watson & Dwyer Publishing, 1980.

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Heritage Trails #478 - Women In The Fur trade

The success of the Fur trade depended of the involvement of native women to a large degree. They prepared the skins, influenced trade and made pemmican. Marriage between European fur traders and native women were common. Learn of the marriage practices of the fur trade in the early days of Canada.

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