The Presbyterian Church in Canada's Mission to Canada's Native Peoples, 1900-2000

Article excerpt

Christian missions to the Native peoples of North America pushed the boundaries that organizers of the 1910 Edinburgh World Missionary Conference had so carefully defined. None of the members of Commission I, charged with delineating the boundaries of the Christian and non-Christian worlds, would have suggested North America was non-Christian, yet they needed to account for the mission to the Native peoples in Canada and the United States. Near the end of Commission I's report, almost as an afterthought, the mission among North America's Native peoples was included as proclamation to "the non-Christian world." (1) If the Native mission was among non-Christian people, then it was cross-cultural foreign mission, with the values and practices of that type of mission influencing the method of carrying out the work. If, however, the Native mission was being carried on within a Christian country, then the values and practices of home mission applied. The authors of Commission I's report were uncertain how to categorize the work among Native peoples of North America, (2) an uncertainty they shared with those involved in that mission, both missionaries and mission planners. The ambiguity was exacerbated by questions about the relationship between the mission and the government. The lines boldly drawn in the Commission VII report--"The reproach that missionaries desire to Europeanise the inhabitants of mission lands, if ever true, is now absurdly false" (3)--were far harder to maintain when there was no distance between the mission and the government. While North American missionaries serving outside of North America could maintain some distance, fragile and limited as it was, between themselves and the colonial powers, missionaries serving in North America had no such distance from the colonial powers. Those who funded the mission were the same people who elected the governments and expected their elected officials to function as colonizers.

Categorizing the mission to Canada's Native peoples remained problematic for the Presbyterian Church in Canada throughout the twentieth century. This uncertainty resulted in a failure to nurture a Native Presbyterian church. Furthermore, the inability of the mission to distance itself from the government of Canada caused the church to be regarded as part of the colonial system. By the end of the twentieth century, Canadian Presbyterians defined the mission to the Native people as social justice: caring for the poor and seeking reconciliation with those Native people the church had sinned against.

Early Vision for Building a Native Church

A group of Canadian Presbyterians involved in Native missions on the Prairies met in 1908 to articulate a vision. (4) Men and women, Native and non-Native--all had opportunity to speak and participate in drafting the recommendations. The group included missionaries on reserves seeking to raise up Native congregations, along with principals and teachers from the residential and industrial (vocational training) schools run by the church, with financial support and bureaucratic guidance from the Canadian Department of Indian Affairs. A number of the school principals served as preachers and worship leaders in Native congregations on Sundays, further blurring the line between congregation building and cultural assimilation.

The unspoken assumption behind the 1908 recommendations was that mission work among the Native peoples of Canada was foreign mission. (5) The recommendations emphasized the need to learn the language of the people. Even residential school principals and teachers were urged to learn Native languages. Native spirituality was regarded as a potential evangelistic tool, and its helpful aspects were to be preserved in the development of a Native Christian faith. The group called for buffer zones around reserves to protect Native people from being harmed by the unsavory aspects of Euro-Canadian culture.

In hope of developing Native congregations, evangelistic meetings were held on every reserve and in each residential school where the Presbyterian Church had a presence in 1908-9. …