Bishop Emile Grouard and Treaty 8

By Gregory A. Johnson(1)

Accounts touching on the missionary contribution to the making of Treaty 8 tend to focus on Father Lacombe, one of the most well known and best loved Oblate missionaries in the Northwest. Some writers have suggested that the venerable Father Lacombe played a key role in convincing the Indians gathered at the west end of Lesser Slave Lake in June 1899 to sign the treaty.(2) Yet, Bishop Emile Grouard, who accompanied Father Lacombe and the Treaty 8 Commission, also played an important role. Constant Falher, himself a long time missionary in the Northwest who participated in some of the negotiations, later claimed that “if Bishop Grouard had not advised the chiefs to sign the treaty, telling them there was nothing which was not to their advantage; the treaty would still be waiting to be signed today.”(3)

Bishop Grouard also wrote two accounts of the Treaty 8 negotiations; the first in a letter to Joseph Eugene Antoine, Assistant General of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate in France, which was published in the now obscure Missions de la Congrêgation Des Missionnaires Oblats de Marie Immaculée in Paris in 1900, and the second in his Souvenirs de mes Soixante ans d’Apostolat dans l’Athabaska-Mackenzie, which appeared in 1923. Although Grouard’s accounts are primarily descriptive and anecdotal, he nevertheless provided some interesting observations about the making of Treaty 8, particularly the different concerns expressed about the treaty in different places.(4)

The son of a policeman, Emile Jean Baptiste Grouard was born at Brûlon in the department of La Sarthe, France on 2 February 1840.(5) He was educated at the Petit Séminaire de Précigné and the Grand Séminaire du Mans. In 1860 he travelled to Canada with his cousin, Vital Grandin, who later became Bishop of the diocese of St Albert. For the next two years Grouard continued his studies at Laval University. He joined the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate and was ordained by Bishop Alexandre Taché in 1862. The Oblates then sent him to the Northwest.

His first posting was to Fort Chipewyan on Lake Athabasca. From 1863 to 1874 he was stationed at Fort Providence but travelled to a number of other missions, including Fond-du-Lac, Fort Liard, Fort Simpson, Hay River, and Fort Nelson. In 1874 he went back to Europe for a much needed sabbatical. It was during this stay that he became interested in the art of printing. Grouard always retained a love of literature and the arts and was in fact an accomplished linguist and artist. He had syllabic type specially designed for him in Brussels and when he returned to Canada, he brought a small press and type to Notre Dame des Victoires at Lac La Biche. It was the first printing press in Alberta.(6)

At that time, Notre Dame des Victoires (“Our Lady of Victories”) – also known as the Lac La Biche Mission – was the most important Oblate mission in the Northwest. Under the direction of the tactical genius of Bishop Henri Faraud, the mission served as the “warehouse of the North” from the 1860s to the mid-1880s. With the exception of a three year posting at Fort Dunvegan, Grouard and his press were stationed at Lac La Biche from 1876 to 1888. Thereafter he served at Fort Chipewyan and established a mission at Peel River.

In 1890, Grouard was named Vicar Apostolic of Athabasca-Mackenzie with the title of Bishop of Ibora. His motto was sub tuum praesidium – “under your protection.” He continued to reside at Fort Chipewyan. Then, in 1901, the vicariate of Athabasca-Mackenzie was split and he moved to Lesser Slave Lake the following year as Vicar Apostolic of Athabasca. Both the town and the vicariate were renamed in his honour in 1910 and 1927 respectively.(7) Grouard served his vicariate until his resignation in 1929. Elevated to Archbishop by Pius XI in 1930, he died at Grouard the following year at the remarkable age of 91. By that time the little man with the long white flowing beard had spent 69 years in the Northwest, most of them in present day northern Alberta, braving hunger, hardship, and danger to know and minister to his people.

It was that kind of experience which made Bishop Grouard a candidate for the Treaty 8 Commission. And, at least according to Grouard’s own account, the head of the commission, David Laird, invited him along to act as an advisor. Unlike Father Lacombe, however, Bishop Grouard was not at all optimistic about the outcome of a treaty between the Government of Canada and the Indians and Métis in the region covered by Treaty 8. “You know that the Government will make a Treaty with the Indians,” he wrote to Father Lacombe in March, 1899. “This makes me extremely worried. Alas, our good days are over!”(8) Indeed, by 1899 Bishop Grouard was becoming increasingly alarmed over developments in the Northwest, particularly the intrusion of whites into the region. Not only were they snatching up the best land and ruining the country by their greed, he complained, but the majority were Anglo-Protestant. This did not augur well for the future of Catholicism in the region.(9) Grouard thus approached and subsequently attended the Treaty 8 negotiations fully aware of their importance for the region and his religion.

Like many of his contemporaries, Grouard had no doubts about why, after so many years of neglect, the Canadian Government wanted to negotiate Treaty 8: the Klondike gold rush and the massive influx of whites had forced the government to establish a system of administration in the region so that a transportation network could be developed to exploit the resources. He also had no doubts about why the government turned to the missionaries for help. “The government of Ottawa,” he wrote, “was not without apprehension concerning the success of its undertaking. Some alarming stories printed in the newspapers were describing the Indians as ill-disposed, discontented, even hostile. It seemed therefore important to the government to use all means to succeed.” Since most of the Indians in the treaty area were Catholic, the government sought the assistance and influence of Catholic missionaries and especially that of Father Lacombe. At first extremely reluctant to join the treaty commission, Father Lacombe gave in to his sense of duty.(10) Never one to be caught short, Lacombe packed a portable chapel which he could convert into an alter. Some mornings he held Mass in his tent with Commissioner James McKenna as his acolyte and the Métis trackers as the congregation.

Grouard and Lacombe met at Athabasca Landing. The commission was due at Lesser Slave Lake on June 8, but the lack of men to man the boats and to tow the line delayed the departure. Grouard’s accounts suggest that the commission was scouring the countryside for help. Finally, on June 3, the “caravan,” as Grouard called it, got underway. The journey was uneventful. One particularly touching moment, however, occurred on June 13. Grouard and Lacombe were alone in their tent sharing stories when someone knocked at the door. It was the entire commission, led by Commissioner Laird, and they had come to pay homage to Father Lacombe on the day of his golden jubilee to the priesthood. Some members of the commission read well composed tributes which were written on birch bark. A tent served as the temple, a portable table was used for an alter, and the prairie grass as a rug. Grouard sang hymns in Cree.

Finally, on June 19, the commission arrived at Lesser Slave Lake. Grouard recorded that “there were no signs of the hostile feelings that had been anticipated.” The following day the proceedings began. Grouard recalled that a huge tent had been set up in a large open area. The commission took on an almost military-like atmosphere as a trumpet sounded and an honour guard presented arms to the government commissioners. The Indians then arrived. Commissioner Laird stood, stated his title and commission, and then produced his letters patent bearing the Royal Seal. He then outlined the intentions of the government, the area of the territory it wanted to “annex,” and the obligations it promised to fulfil – freedom for the Indians to hunt and fish, but guarantees of land, agricultural machines, seed, livestock, and so on if they wish to take up farming. The government also promised $5.00 per head each year. Chiefs were to receive $25.00 and headmen $15.00 per year. All would receive twice the amount in the first year. Finally the government promised to establish schools. According to Grouard, Laird told the Indians that they were not obliged to accept the treaty. They were to deliberate the government’s propositions, choose a chief and councillors to speak for all, and come back for a second meeting.(11)

At the second meeting, Grouard was struck by the fear and hesitancy of the Indians. “It was evident that these people were hesitant, afraid of not sufficiently preserving their liberty and involving themselves in ties they could not break,” he wrote. Even at the third meeting and the final reading and signing of the treaty, he noted, “[T]here were still some hesitations at the thought of seeing all their past freedom and independence vanish forever.” Grouard believed that Father Lacombe had tipped the scales in favour of the treaty. “…[T]here remained some indecision in their minds,” he wrote, “so Fr. Lacombe addressed them, and showed them that it was in their best interests to accept the propositions that were being made to them.” In later years, Grouard was somewhat more circumspect. “What would they gain by refusing? They wouldn’t stop the government from settling in the country in spite of their opposition; furthermore, they would lose the important advantages being offered to them.”(12) Once the treaty was signed, a big safe filled with dollar bills was opened and those gathered proceeded to collect their money. Very few got very far because, Grouard noted, “…close by, merchants had already set up their counters, where in a very short time, the money was spent.” After the conclusion of the negotiations at Lesser Slave Lake, the commission decided to split into smaller groups to cover the territory. Grouard travelled with Commissioner Laird and Father Lacombe to Peace River Landing, Fort Vermillion, and the Little Red River while Commissioners J.A. McKenna and James Ross went to Dunvegan, Fort St John, and up the Peace River.

If the primary objection of Indians at Lesser Slave Lake to signing the treaty was a fear of losing their way of living – and there is no reason to doubt Grouard about that – it was quite different at Peace River Landing. There, Grouard noted, “the Indians had got in their heads [the idea] that by signing the treaty, they were then supposed to enlist in the British Army, that they would be taken away from their families and would be sent to the end of the world to fight against the enemies of Her British Majesty. We had great difficulty to make them understand that Her Majesty the Queen had enough soldiers without them; so they signed the treaty.”(13) News of the tensions then building in South Africa had already spread to the Northwest and it seems that some of the signatories to Treaty 8 viewed it as a military alliance.(14)

At the Little Red River it was a different response again. Grouard had to solve a “case of conscience” when a Cree Chief, who had been converted only recently, refused to sign the treaty on the grounds that he would be stealing. “The government proposes that we hand over our country, and in return it offers us money,” the Chief explained to Grouard. “But I didn’t make this country, it is God who made heaven and earth. Therefore, if I receive money, I would be stealing, I would be selling something that doesn’t belong to me.” Taken aback by the Chief’s logic, Grouard told him that the money was a compensation. According to Grouard, the Chief “understood, and without hesitation, he accepted the terms, and signed the treaty.”

The “case of conscience” was undoubtedly one of the lighter moments for Bishop Grouard. But there were other and much more serious matters on the Bishop’s mind. For Grouard, the single most important issue surrounding Treaty 8 was schools. “The promise of schools for the Indian children gave me greater concern than anything else,” he later wrote.(15) Why was he so concerned about schools? The Manitoba Act of 1870 had provided for a dual system of Protestant and Roman Catholic schools. In 1890, Manitoba’s Liberal government under Thomas Greenway abolished public funding of Catholic schools – largely because most of the immigrants to Manitoba were Anglo-Protestant. French-Canadians and Catholics across the country viewed the move as a betrayal of their rights. The issue was fought in the courts several times during the 1890s and it was the key issue in the 1896 election. Wilfrid Laurier and the Liberals won that election and promised a “sunny ways” approach to the schools question. Under what is known as the Laurier-Greenway compromise of 1896, schools were allowed to hire Catholic teachers under certain circumstances and provision was made for religious instruction during the last half-hour of the school day. The compromise, however, did not restore separate schools.

From Grouard’s point of view, the writing was on the wall. Most of the immigration to the Northwest was Anglo-Protestant. Would the Oblates face the same situation in the Northwest as they did in Manitoba? Initially, at least, Grouard was somewhat hopeful because of the appointment of Father Lacombe to the treaty commission. “[I]t filled me with joy,” Grouard wrote. “I saw in it a sign of the government’s benevolent dispositions toward religion.”(16) Those hopes quickly gave way to suspicion, when, at Lesser Slave Lake, Laird declared only “… in a general and vague manner that schools will be built.” What kind of teachers? What kind of instruction?, Grouard asked himself. The answers never really came and Grouard became increasing disillusioned, to the point where, in 1901, he wrote to Prime Minister Laurier complaining that “Treaty promises are far from being fulfilled … The Indians, as well as myself, have some right to be treated with a little more generosity.”(17) For Bishop Emile Grouard, the Treaty 8 experience was not a very enjoyable one.

How accurate was Bishop Grouard’s account of the Treaty 8 negotiations? Not very, according to descriptions provided by Anglican missionaries who attended the proceedings. The Anglicans portrayed the Roman Catholics as a deceptive bunch of schemers who were attempting to use the treaty to advance their own interests. Reverend William G. White, for example, wrote: “To our dismay Père Lacome [sic] was announced as Counsellor & advisor to the Commission. … No doubt Père Lacome [sic] & Bishop Gruard [sic] made good use of their opportunities on the passage up.”(18) Similarly, Reverend George Holmes made references to Roman Catholic “designs” and attempts to have the Indians oppose any European settlement in the Treaty 8 region. He even wrote to other Anglican missionaries in the Treaty 8 area warning them of Roman Catholic machinations.(19) As for Father Lacombe’s much vaulted role in helping to convince the Indians to sign Treaty 8, Holmes wrote: “… Pere La Combe [sic] addressed the Indians only after they had all accepted the Govnt [government] terms, but you will see that the Church will try & claim the credit for him of being the means of its success.(20) Another Anglican missionary, Malcolm Scott, went so far as to claim that the Indians did not want any clerical intervention, that the Roman Catholics exerted no influence, and that the Indians only wanted to hear what the “Tall Chief” (Commissioner Laird) had to say.(21)

Even a cursory glance at the Anglican accounts leaves one wondering if they and Bishop Grouard had attended the same set of negotiations. It is well to recall, however, the broader historical context within which both Grouard and the Anglican missionaries witnessed the proceedings. Early missionary activity in the Northwest was plagued by one overriding problem: the lack of money. Despite the vast wealth of the Roman Catholic Church, the Oblates were constantly complaining of a shortage of funds needed to sustain much less expand operations. On several occasions Oblate Bishops, such as Henri Faraud, travelled to Europe on what were commonly known as “begging missions” in an effort to raise money. The Oblates also published the Missions de la Congrêgation Des Missionnaires Oblats de Marie Immaculée, a sort of popular travelogue designed to whet the appetite of the reader with tales of bravery, excitement, and hardship in the face of never ending danger and impending doom. The intent, of course, was to raise more money and Bishop Grouard’s letter to Joseph Eugene Antoine – subsequently published in Missions de la Congrêgation Des Missionnaires Oblats de Marie Immaculée – must be viewed in that light.

The Anglican missionaries faced the same money problem.(22) But their position was further complicated by the desire to break Roman Catholic dominance in the Northwest.(23) Despite the many examples of friendships between Roman Catholic and Anglican missionaries, the Northwest was the scene of a sometimes vicious religious war and many missionaries viewed it as such. George Holmes, for instance, wrote of Father Lacombe and Treaty 8: “The old gentleman was very genial before the treaty began; and they [Roman Catholics] are all the same until you meet them on the battlefield.” Fighting a rearguard battle, Anglican missionaries had a vested interest in painting a picture of scheming Roman Catholics who could be beaten with the Lord’s help and more money. Thus, Reverand Holmes crowed to his Bishop of torpedoing a plot he claimed Father Lacombe and Bishop Grouard had “… of inducing the people here to take land instead of money `scrip’ & to go on to Saddle Lake or somewhere near, where Pere La Combe [sic] has a large tract of country on which he hopes to settle Halfbreeds in order to keep them out of the way of Protestant contamination; and, in the end, secure the land for the Church having the poor Halfbreeds as their tenants. I did all in my power to warn the people against being caught in this snare, and, thank God, the whole scheme fell thro.” A few months later Holmes again wrote of Roman Catholic “designs” having failed, adding that more missionaries and money were needed to carry on.(24) Another Anglican missionary, Henry Robinson, was even more blunt. “If we are to have the pleasure of carrying the Gospel to the Beaver Indians,” he wrote to his Bishop, Richard Young, “we must have men & means” (emphasis in original).(25)

These differing descriptions of Treaty 8 do not mean that Bishop Grouard was telling the truth while the Anglicans were lying, or vice versa. Each assessment was coloured by the particular need for which it was written. Bishop Grouard’s description of Treaty 8, especially that contained in his letter to Joseph Eugene Antoine, was driven by the necessity of perhaps embellishing the role of the Oblates and Father Lacombe in securing the agreement of the Indians. The Oblates were the dominant religious presence in the Northwest and their aim was to present to potential benefactors the picture of an active religious order playing an important role. Behind that, of course, was the growing Oblate concern over the influx of Anglo-Protestant immigrants and how that might harm the Roman Catholic position. The Anglican assessments were driven by the desire to break the Roman Catholic lock on the Northwest. However much real power and influence the Roman Catholics exerted, they were portrayed as a group of schemers whose dastardly designs were only thwarted through the quick vigilance of Anglican missionaries (with some help from God).(26) That general assessment merely reflected the second string position of the Anglicans themselves. In both cases, however, the assessments of Treaty 8 were driven by the need for money. The differing descriptions also belay any notion that all whites viewed Treaty 8 in the same light.

1I would like to acknowledge the generous assistance provided by Tom Maccagno and Jules Laberge of Lac La Biche, Alberta, in the preparation of this article.

2See, for example, David Leonard, “Why Commemorate Treaty 8,” Legacy, May-July 1999, 17-20; and Jodeen Litwin, “The Making of Treaty 8,” New Trail, Spring/Summer 1999, 13-19.

3Roman Catholic Mission Archives, Fort Smith, file: Indiens-Traité avec eux, Falher, O.M.I. to Breynat, 13 August 1937; and René Fumoleau, As Long as this Land Shall Last: A History of Treaty 8 and Treaty 11, 1870-1939 (Toronto, 1973), 67.

4Grouard to Joseph Eugene Antoine, 27 December 1899, Missions de la Congrêgation Des Missionnaires Oblats de Marie Immaculée, Vol. 38 (Paris, 1900). Antoine never read the letter because he died on 11 January 1900. Emile Grouard, O.M.I., Souvenirs de mes Soixante ans d’Apostolat dans l’Athabaska-Mackenzie, (Lyon, 1923), 357-74.

5Biographical material from Gaston Carrière, o.m.i., Dictionnaire biographique des Oblats de Marie-Immaculée au Canada, Vol. II (Ottawa, 1977), 116-17.

6See Bruce Peel, “Early Mission Presses in Alberta,” Library Association Bulletin, November 1963, 12-15.

7Geographic Board of Canada, Place-Names of Alberta, Ottawa, 1928, 60. It is amazing how many authors get this small fact wrong by mixing up the name of the town with the name of the vicariate.

8Quoted in Fumoleau, As Long as This Land Shall Last, 67.

9Raymond J.A. Huel, Proclaiming the Gospel to the Indians and the Métis (Edmonton, 1996), 201-02. Grouard wrote to Joseph Antoine regarding the influx of whites: “In short, it was a real invasion that changed completely the way of life of the Aboriginal People.” Grouard to Antoine, 27 December 1899, Missions de la Congrégation des Missionnaires Oblats de Marie Immaculée, Vol. 38 (Paris, 1900).

10See Katherine Hughes, Father Lacombe: The Black-Robe Voyageur (Toronto, 1920), 377-79. So badly did the government want Father Lacombe that Prime Minister Sir Wilfrid Laurier himself made an appeal to the old missionary. Bishop Grouard and Father Lacombe were accompanied by Fathers Husson, Calais, and Falher and two Sisters of Providence.

11For a more detailed account of these proceedings see Charles Mair, Through the Mackenzie Basin: A Narrative of the Athabasca and Peace River Treaty Expedition of 1899 (Toronto, 1908), esp. 54-65.

12Grouard, Soixante ans d’Apostolat, 370.

13Grouard, Soixante ans d’Apostolat, 372

14I would like to thank Rod Macleod of the University of Alberta for drawing my attention to this. The South African or Boer War did not actually begin until October 1899, but tensions had been building there for a number of years. That some of the signatories to Treaty 8 viewed it as a military alliance is intriguing and merits further investigation.

15Grouard, Soixante ans d’Apostolat, 368.

16Grouard, Soixante ans d’Apostolat, 358.

17Quoted in Fumoleau, As Long as This Land Shall Last, 108.

18Provincial Archives of Alberta, Acc. No. 70.387 A281/329, Box A34, White to Bishop Richard Young, 1 July 1899. I am grateful to Professor Bob Irwin for drawing my attention to this and other Anglican assessments of Treaty 8.

19Provincial Archives of Alberta, Acc. No. 70.387 A281/148, Box A32, Holmes to Young, 4 April and 25 August 1899. See also A281/283, Box A33, Scott to Young, 31 August 1899.

20Provincial Archives of Alberta, Acc. No. 70.387 A281/148, Box A32, Holmes to Young, 24 June 1899.

21Provincial Archives of Alberta, Acc. No. 70.387 A281/283 Box A33, Scott to Young, 31 August 1899.

22Provincial Archives of Alberta, Acc. No. 70.387 A281/248, Box A33, Robinson to Young, 19 September 1899.

23Today, more than 60% of Alberta’s Native people are Catholic.

24Provincial Archives of Alberta, Acc. No. 70.387 A281/148, Box A32, Holmes to Young, 24 June and 25 August, 1899.

25Provincial Archives of Alberta, Acc. No. 70.387 A281/148, Box A33, Robinson to Young, 18 January 1900.

26Although it should be noted that a body of Native oral tradition suggests that Father Lacombe and the Oblates did help convince the Indians to sign Treaty 8.