Where Mountains Meet The Sea: A Coastal History

Posted by Daniel on Jun 20, 2010

Part Four

The Anglicans were not the only denomination to take up missionary work. William Duncan had been gone from Fort Simpson for thirteen years when the second-most famous missionary to work the coast arrived on the scene. Thomas Crosby (at left) was a 34-year-old ordained Methodist preacher when he answered a call from the Tsimshian in 1874 to come among them. Crosby’s brand of fire-and-brimstone Weslyan Methodism was a far cry from Duncan’s stolid Anglicanism. Crosby himself had been converted at a camp meeting in Ontario and he brought his fervent, emotional style of preaching with him when he migrated west to British Columbia. He came to Fort Simpson at the request of Alfred Dudoward and his wife Kate, prominent figures in the Tsimshian community, who had converted to Methodism during an earlier visit to Victoria.


For the next twenty-three years Crosby, along with his wife Emma, carried on a far-flung coastal ministry. He oversaw expansion to the Nisga’a, to Skidegate on the Queen Charlottes, to Bella Bella and Bella Coola, to Port Essington and Kitamaat. He was constantly on the go, visiting all the villages and logging and fishing camps that were part of his mission field. He thought nothing of jumping in his canoe and paddling several hundred kilometres. During his long absences, Emma maintained the mission at Fort Simpson as well as directing her pet project, a home for Aboriginal girls that she opened as an extension to the family’s own house in 1879.


In 1884 Thomas became even more mobile with the addition of Glad Tidings, a 21.5-metre steam-powered launch, paid for by public subscription and built in New Westminster by a ship’s carpenter named William Oliver who had recently converted to the church. With Oliver nursing the boilers and Crosby in command, Glad Tidings became the indispensible means by which the Methodists carried out their work. The vessel travelled nearly 15,000 kilometres a year, hauling lumber and supplies, making visits, responding to emergencies. It ran until 1903 when, on the way to Victoria for repairs, it was wrecked in a storm at Shushartie Bay at the north end of Vancouver Island. Glad Tidings had proven the worth of the marine mission, however, and it was succeeded by a series of vessels of various sizes and descriptions that were used by missionaries along the coast.


Along with the Protestant denominations, the Catholic Church had its own missionaries active on the coast with their own model villages in the manner of Metlakatla. The Catholic missionary effort was spearheaded by the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, a religious order founded in the south of France. In British Columbia, the Oblates concentrated their efforts on the south coast and the interior, leaving the middle and north coast to their Protestant rivals. From their initial base in the Oregon Territory, the Oblates moved their headquarters to Esquimalt in 1858 and then to New Westminster in 1864. They had their greatest influence in the Fraser Valley and the interior, but important missions were located at Hesquiat on the west coast of Vancouver Island, and at North Vancouver, Sechelt and Sliammon north of Powell River.


Central to the Oblate missionary effort was the so-called “Durieu system”, named for Father (later Bishop) Paul Durieu, one of its chief proponents. The “system” imposed a rigid structure of social control on the villages where it was introduced. As much as possible missionaries attempted to isolate their charges from intercourse with the outside world. Through chiefs and appointed “watchmen”, they imposed a strict behavioural code designed to protect the people from sin and prepare them for the inward transformation of faith. Liquor was banned, boys and girls were segregated, and most Aboriginal spiritual practices were eradicated. Totem poles and ceremonial regalia were burned. The passion play, not the potlatch, became the main religious expression. Traditional housing and dress were replaced with homes and clothing in the European style. Those who broke the rules were punished, to the extent of public flogging. (In one instance, at Lillooet, the abuse went so far that Father Eugène Chirouse was charged with assault, a highly-publicized black eye for the church and its system.) The Catholics championed an early form of self-government for the Aboriginal villages, but the purpose was total control by the missionary, not autonomy for the people.


The response of the Aboriginal people to the arrival of the missionaries, Catholic or Protestant, was mixed. Many—like the Nisga’a chief who told Thomas Crosby, “God gave you the Bible, but he gave us the dance and the potlatch, and we don’t want you here”—were antagonistic, or at least indifferent, to the new religion. Father Augustin Brabant, the Oblate missionary at Hesquiat, was seriously wounded and almost died after a local chief shot him. Brabant recovered and returned to his mission, but he despaired at his lack of progress. “Our position would almost make an angel lose heart and courage. Solitude. We have not seen a white man since October [five months] and we have not received any mail for several months. Our provisions are nearly all gone and what remains is the poorest kind. And our Indians are as bad, and as much attached to their pagan ideas as before we commenced our work here.”


Yet many other coastal people, the vast majority even, welcomed Christianity. It has been estimated that at the beginning of the twentieth century, ninety percent of the Aboriginal population of the province was nominally Christian. It is not difficult to understand why. The missionaries arrived at a time of great cultural disruption. Smallpox and other epidemic diseases were killing local spiritual leaders and leaving survivors uncertain about the power of their own beliefs. The new religion, with its promise of salvation and eternal life, sounded very attractive. More practically, the missionaries provided health care, fought the liquor traffic, opened schools, established homes for girls who had been seduced into the sex traffic, and in many cases took the First Nations’ side in their struggle for more land. In a climate of despair, missionaries seemed to offer hope.


Yet what exactly did conversion mean to the Aboriginal people? It is unlikely that they were giving up all, or even most, of their own spiritual beliefs. Much to the chagrin of the missionaries, most local people seemed quite capable of absorbing Christian ideas and practices into their own ways of understanding the world. As they had been doing ever since the first Europeans arrived, the coastal people were making a strategic accommodation to the presence of yet another new force in their lives. But religious conversion was only part of what the missionaries were after. In the end they wanted to accomplish a complete cultural makeover. They recognized that the Aboriginal lifestyle was not conducive to a settled pattern of existence, and they knew that the spiritual worldview of the people permeated every aspect of their lives. To be truly and thoroughly Christian, the missionaries thought, the First Nations would have to give up all their cultural practices; what missionary Charles Tate called “the blanket and the paint, symbols of the uncivilized life”. That meant getting married in church, living in European-style houses and wearing European-style clothes, taking regular jobs, and most importantly, abandoning all of their ceremonies, whether they were explicitly “religious” or not.