Colonial, Neo-Colonial, Post-Colonial: Images of Christian Missions in Hiram M. Cody's the Frontiersman, Rudy Wiebe's First and Vital Candle and Basil Johnston's Indian School Days

Article excerpt

Christian missionaries, mission stations and missionary educational policy have played a key role in relations among Canada's indigenous and non-indigenous peoples. For the most part, historians and history books have furnished us with our understanding of these realities. But fictional images are also a part of this picture. This paper problematizes notions of the colonial, the post-colonial and the neocolonial by locating Rudy Wiebe's First and Vital Candle over against Hiram A. Cody's The Frontiersman: A Tale of the Yukon, on the one hand, and on the other, Basil Johnston's Indian School Days. The appositioning of Wiebe's novel and Cody's antecedent colonial narrative suggests the postcolonial status of Wiebe's novel. But Native writer Johnston's depiction of life for Native children at a Christian Residential School implicitly interrogates some of the premises of Wiebe's novel to suggest that its post-colonial status might easily be understood as a form of appropriative neo-colonialism. In so doing, Johnston writes back to the Christian missionary's God. The paper closes with some remarks about post-colonial reading as a form of ethical praxis, with specific reference to images of Christian missions and their legacy, the Residential School, in Canadian literature written in English.

Christian missionaries, mission stations, missionary educational policy and their legacy have played a key role in relations among Canada's indigenous and nonindigenous peoples. In various times and regions, Jesuit, Recollect and Oblate orders have maintained a strong Roman Catholic missionary presence. Even the Sulpician "aristocrats in cassocks" never abandoned the work of spreading the Christian gospel to indigenous peoples, while Ursuline convents propagated Christianity by "frenchifying" girls, as one Iroquois chieftain put it.(f.1) From the late-eighteenth to the early-twentieth centuries, British colonial dominance often meant Protestant missionary dominance.(f.2) Anglican, Methodist, United Church and other non-conformist and lay Christian missions accompanied non-indigenous settlement, in an association captured in the programmatic phrase, "the bible and the plough."(f.3)

Just a generation ago, to locate Christian missions on the economic, social and political landscapes of Canada probably would have conjured up numerous positive images: the missionary as pioneering hero, sometime technological wizard and curer of souls; the mission station as a centre of medical and agricultural technology, a physical and spiritual refuge in a harsh land; and missionary educational policy as a disciplined, yet essentially charitable sharing of literacy skills and Christian ethics, especially in the residential school system. But these days, we are also familiar with numerous counter-images: the missionary as hypocrite and desecrator of the land; the mission station as prison, fortress and haven of evil spirits; and missionary educational policy as physical and sexual abuse, and propagandistic indoctrination. For the most part, historians and history books have furnished us with these images.(f.4) But fictional images are also a part of this picture.

Recent years have seen several extended studies of the portrayal of Native Canadians in Canadian literature.(f.5) We might expect any inquiry of this sort to account for ways in which imaginative writers in Canada have represented the history of Christian missions among the country's Native peoples. Yet we have no sustained examination of literary portrayals of Christian missions, still less of the ways in which transformations in such imaging have contributed to changing constructions of relations among Canada's indigenous and non-indigenous peoples. Fully considered, of course, such matters demand the capaciousness of a monograph. The purpose of this paper, therefore, is twofold: first, to serve as a pilot study, indicating some of the more salient issues such a monograph needs to take into more detailed account; and second, to locate these issues in the interplay of three narrative modalities -- the colonial, the neo-colonial and the post-colonial. …


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