You are on page 1of 4

How the Mtis and missionaries saved the West

By Josephine Stodalka
From: Prairie Messenger, Catholic journal
In this, the designated Year of the Mtis, it is fitting to remember and honour the
role played by the Mtis in mediating a relatively peaceful settlement of the
Prairies. Thanks to these transition people cousins to two diverse cultures
there was prevented the near genocide that occurred south of the border. In this
historical account, their efforts along with those of the first Oblate missionaries
will be recalled briefly.
The Mtis or half-breeds as they were called have been described by a
historian as a proud, handsome race having taken the blood of diametrically
dissimilar races and cultures and rendered them into something more than the
sum of its parts. Much given to song, merriment, generous hospitality and nightlong dancing, they possessed a why worry about tomorrow? outlook. Among
other things, detractors called the devoutly Catholic Mtis priest-ridden.
Recorded history in southwestern Saskatchewan begins in 1869 when 15 Mtis
families accompanied the fur traders Dauphinais and Fisher in explorations west
of the uneasy settlement of Red River. The territory of Wood Mountain to the
Cypress Hills offered everything they were seeking warm chinooks, streams
and buffalo. Here, 400 miles away from the problems of the Red River Colony,
they spent a happy winter.
Their glowing reports of plentiful buffalo lured a larger group of Mtis winterers to
migrate the next year in July of 1870. Nearly 80 families trekked westward in a
caravan of more than 300 squealing Red River carts, 800 horses and 400
people. By September they were west of the present town of Willow Bunch.
Here one of their number, Charles Houle, became ill. Aware that there were
missionaries at the QuAppelle mission of Lebret, Charles brother rode back to
seek the help of a priest. Rev. Jean Lestanc, OMI, offered his assistance.
Unfortunately, they were too late; the sick man had died.
Lestanc, however, stayed with the Mtis that first winter and without delay a
rough chapel was constructed.
Meanwhile, American whiskey traders had moved across the border to establish
trading posts across the West. Swift degeneration of the Plains First Nations
followed, resulting in general wild west lawlessness, an extreme example of
which was the 1873 Cypress Hills Massacre a conflict between American
wolfers and Assiniboine Natives. Until the North West Mounted Police were
established in Western Canada in 1874, the Oblate missionaries felt compelled

to combat this influence and moved swiftly and permanently into what is now
southwestern Saskatchewan.
In 1870, Oblate missionary Rev. Jules Decorby was assigned to Maple Creek, a
Mtis village 18 miles north of the Cypress Hills. From this base Lestanc and
Decorby lived for four years with their nomadic parishioners, pitching tents near
rivers and creeks wherever buffalo could be found. The first chapels were humble
and primitive, much like the homes of the Mtis. Using available materials, the
buildings were made of poplar poles, prairie grass and clay. The roofs were of
sod and the windows of deerskins scraped to translucency. A thick buffalo hide
nailed to a frame served as a door.
In spite of hardships such as the stench of rotting buffalo carcasses, filthy living
conditions in smoky tents, vermin crawling everywhere, grizzly bears,
mosquitoes, flies, grasshoppers, wolves, solitude, nothing to read and hostile
Indians, Lestanc and Decorby appreciated and respected the Mtis. Earlier,
Archbishop Alexandre-Antonin Tach had declared that the half-breeds can be
classed among the really moral people. As noted by S.J. Dawson, a civil
engineer, in regard to the social condition of the early Red River settlement,
crime is scarcely known.
When Lestanc was transferred in 1874 to another post he wrote, I can honestly
say that my parish of some 200 wandering families was the best parish in all of
North America. A large number of people attended morning mass and in the
evening as many as could, gathered again for prayer.
During the last winter he spent with the Mtis, he baptized 88 persons, confirmed
76 and officiated at 10 marriages.
There was a feeling of mutual respect between the missionaries and their
parishioners. Interviews with early Mtis families in the Maple Creek area
described how Lestanc and Decorby would accompany them on their buffalo
hunts. The men would line up solemnly for confession and communion before the
hunt began. After giving the final blessing, the priests would join them on their
ponies. Before long the black-robed missionaries would find themselves caught
up in the thrill of the hunt, shrieking as fiercely as everyone else!
One Mtis family, the Leveille family of Maple Creek, has a unique history. Their
mother was Julia MacKenzie, half-breed daughter of the explorer Alexander
Mackenzie. In 1874, Louis Leveille and some of his brothers met the North West
Mounted Police at Old Wives Lake south of present day Moose Jaw and acted as
their interpreters and guides. This association lasted for 30 years, staying firm
through the Riel Rebellions.
A legend told by Gabriel Leveille, son of Louis Leveille, provides evidence of the
faith the Mtis held in their priests. One day Lestanc and a First Nations guide
were being hotly pursued by a war party of Blackfoot. After riding all day, they

were forced to stop and camp for the night. Rolling himself in his blankets,
Lestanc was soon peacefully asleep. The guide, however, was restless and
fearful until he rose from his bed and found the reason for the priests calm.
Before retiring, Lestanc had waved his arm and had created a lake around the
hill on which they were camped, thus protecting them from their enemies. Any
listener doubting this story would receive such a withering look from Gabriel that
one would hastily agree that the good father must indeed have possessed great
The missionaries played an important role in preventing the Saskatchewan
Rebellion from escalating into a full scale war in 1885. Their reputation as
peacemakers was well-known according to a telegram sent by Prime Minister
John A. Macdonald to the Lieutenant-Governor in 1884 when he wrote: You
must assume responsibility for peace of the district as Governor. Would Lacombe
or Hugonard by of any service? (At that time Lacombe was stationed at
Gleichen and Hugonard at Lebret).
Oblate Fathers Vegreville, Moulin, Fourmond, Legoof, Leduc, Grandin and others
kept down the malcontents who would otherwise have joined Riels forces.
Lacombe alone had visited all the First Nations reserves in the Calgary area and
by his Christian diplomacy had persuaded them to maintain a strict neutrality.
Had the Western First Nations joined their brothers of the East and North this
history would have had even more dramatic events to record, for the Blackfoot,
Piegan, Bloods, Crees and Assiniboines were known to be the most warlike and
cruel on the Plains.
Lacombes intimate friendship with Crowfoot and other powerful chiefs was
without doubt a principal cause in keeping these formidable tribes in check. He
and other missionaries played similar roles when the railway went through Indian
lands. Van Horne, the general manager of the CPR, acknowledged the
companys debt to the missionary who had averted bloodshed between railway
workers and First Nations and always made sure that donations to Lacombes
mission were shipped free of charge from Montreal to Calgary.
Since Maple Creek, N.W.T., belonged to the Diocese of St. Albert, the first
Catholic chapel in Maple Creek, built in 1885, may have been a recipient of
Lacombes charity. The missionaries and the Mtis then began to celebrate mass
in a permanent church rather than in primitive temporary chapels. It was an
abrupt end to a nomadic way of life, but it was not as bloody as it might have
been. This buffer race were cousins to two diverse cultures. Because they could
speak at least two languages that of the mother (usually Native) and that of
the father (usually white) they provided an important bridge between the
Native and the white settlers. Thanks also to the leadership and friendship of
Oblate missionaries, they allowed the region to be settled in a relatively peaceful

Josephine (Kambeitz) Stodalka is a former resident of Maple Creek. A retired

teacher, she currently lives in Medicine Hat with her husband Bill.