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Preservation of Aboriginal Languages

Learning the languages

When the Oblates first arrived in the Canadian North-West in 1845, without hesitation, they set about learning the Native languages, as proselytising in the Indigenous languages was what they did in France and was considered to be part of the mandate of their Congregation. In the Red River region, the language spoken by the Ojibway was Saulteaux, an Algonquin language. In the Diocese of St Boniface, headed by Bishop Norbert Provencher, Jean-Baptiste Belcourt was the teacher. He had learned the Saulteaux tongue, and was said to be as competent as the Native speakers themselves. He taught the language to the newcomers, Brother Alexandre Taché and Father Pierre Aubert. When it came to learning languages, the Oblates always proceeded in this way; the most adept at the language would become the professor and teach the others. In the Diocese of Grouard-McLennan, during the 1930s, a new arrival remembered how Father Constant Falher was the resident expert in Cree, and taught him the language. Always on the lookout for catchy tunes to use for hymns in Native languages, an elderly missionary remembered another missionary composing a text on the air of a Breton traditional song he had heard from the 78 rpm record the former had received from his family.

The Beginnings

Father Joseph-Pierre-Blaise Aubert inaugurated the Oblate missions among the Aboriginal Peoples of the West with a visit to the Saulteaux of Wabassingmong, in 1846. It was, however, the newly-ordained Father Alexandre Taché, who was sent with the diocesan priest Abbé Louis-François Laflèche, to establish a new mission at Île-à-la-Crosse, where a fur trade post stood at the South end of the lake of the same name. The Aboriginal Peoples there spoke Cree, also an Algonquin language, and Chippeway, of the Athapascan family of languages, far different from the former.1 At first, as they did not know either of these languages, they taught prayers in French, even though they knew this was not at all satisfactory. They found a teacher, an old, blind man who was perfectly bilingual in Cree and Chipewyan but did not know a word of French. Nevertheless, they worked with him in learning the languages.

Other sources specify that, when the missionaries arrived in the Athabasca-Mackenzie region, towards Great Slave Lake and beyond, it was common for the Aboriginal People to speak a jargon of three languages - Cree, Chipewyan and French. This was due to the long-term presence of French-Canadian fur trade voyageurs in the area, something that was very helpful to the Francophones when they were trying to learn the languages, and get their message across.2  After all, French Canadian voyageur Jacques Beaulieu and his associates preceded Peter Pond’s famed entry into the Athabasca-Mackenzie Basin (1778) by perhaps 10 years, and remained in the upper Mackenzie region where they married women from the area. It must also be remembered that, after this time, the North-West Company, from Montréal, dominated the area, and its employees were all Francophone. Thus, there was a huge precedent for French in this region. One French word hints at this ancient presence - the word for European outsiders used in the Lake Athabasca region, until quite recently, was “bouton,” as buttons were unknown to the Native Peoples until the arrival of the French.3

When Father Taché first visited Lake Athabasca, in 1847, he found that the Aboriginal People already knew the basic prayers in French, even if they did not understand the language. Earlier visits had been made by Jean-Baptiste Thibault at Portage-la-Loche, where the Chipewyans had rallied to meet him. Father Taché was now sufficiently proficient in the Chipewyan language to teach his converts the prayers in their own language. Taché was soon joined at Île-à-la-Crosse by the young Father Henri Faraud, who set about to learn Chipewyan and Cree, but he had a hard time of it at first. The Aboriginal Peoples did not hesitate to tell him he spoke like a little child, but he persisted and, little by little, he learned the language. In 1850, Father Faraud went to Fort Chipewyan where he established Nativity Mission.

The Syllabic Method

Page du livre de prières montagnais, Fonds Oblats, Province Grandin, Archives Provinciales de l'Alberta/Page from Chipewyan Prayer Book, Oblate Fonds, Grandin Province, Provincial Archives of Alberta.While they were studying Cree and Chipewyan at Île-à-la-Crosse, Fathers Faraud and Taché had been introduced to the syllabic method of writing Cree, which had been developed by the Methodist missionary James Evans, around 1840-44. The Oblates adapted this technique to the Chipewyan language by adding a few symbols and inventing some others. Father Faraud also adapted his proselytizing method with a clever innovation; he began teaching his neophytes to read syllabics. After two weeks, three of the young men he was teaching were able to recognize characters and read and write; they were then able to teach others how to do so. When he visited Great Slave Lake in April of 1852, the first eight days of his mission visit were spent teaching the Dogrib to read. Once they were able to do so, he began to teach them prayers. Presumably, he was writing out the prayers and handing the sheets out for further reference. This method brought him great repute with the Aboriginal Peoples of the Athabasca Mackenzie.

Over 40 years later, when Father Joseph Le Treste visited the isolated Chipewyan community of Black Lake where, under a large tent, the faithful insisted on having the Du Mont Mass, which they called the Nèdhè, and used their Chipewyan prayer books to accompany it.4 The missionary was quite surprised when, curious, he examined an old and very frail sheet of music that one of singers was using. It turned out to be a notation in syllabics of a plain chant hymn. He also remarked that this singer had an amazing voice that would have put the divas of the world to shame.

The first Chipewyan catechism in syllabic script was prepared by Father Faraud, finalized in 1856 with the collaboration of Bishop Taché and Father Vital Grandin. The text was printed in Montreal in 1857. A second part was subsequently published and comprised 22 hymns and 144 pages. A second edition of this work was published in 1865 and contained 38 hymns and 180 pages. The hymns were based on well-known French airs. A Chipewyan catechism was also published and was typical of the genre with questions and answers; the book also had prayers and hymns. At the same time, a Cree catechism was published in syllabic script and was considerably bigger, having some 288 pages.

The use of syllabics was welcomed by the Aboriginal population. The biggest problem was finding the funds to publish, and a publisher who was willing to prepare the lead font for printing.

The Early Publications

Calendar/Calendrier 1906, The Kitchitwa Miteh Cree Review, Legoff, Alberta.The Oblates adapted the “Chronological Ladder,” which had been developed by Bishop Norbert Blanchet and printed in Montreal. This was an illustrated teaching aid to use in their evangelization. One of these posters was given to the Metis Picher (Piché?), who, in 1841, visited St Boniface seeking a missionary for his people in the Foothills of the Rockies.5  Although it is often attributed to Father Albert Lacombe, Lacombe used Blanchet’s idea and prepared a similar version, and had it printed in 1872. This was a large, polychrome poster with two ladders side by side, which were meant to be superimposed. It is possible the idea was drawn from similar religious teaching aids that had been used in Brittany since the 18th century. The Chronological Ladder has no text in it, only illustrations that indicate the road that rises to the heavens and Paradise, or the one that descends into Hell.

The first dictionary in an Aboriginal language was published in 1874, in Montréal, in French and Cree by Father Lacombe. His collaborators, who regretted that their names were omitted from the 900-page work, were Father Constantine Scollen, who had spent a winter with Lacombe at Rocky Mountain House preparing the work. The grammar was produced by the Grey Nuns of the Sainte-Anne Mission, and comprises 170 pages. A letter of appreciation by Bishop Faraud was included in which he explains the genius of this language in expressing empathy, a concept which he calls “cas vicaire” [substitution], in that there is a terminology in Cree that does not exist in the languages he is familiar with. This dictionary uses the French alphabet. Lacombe published a Cree catechism in 1886.

One of the missionaries who made rapid advances in the Far North was extremely lucky in having his works published. In 1875, 12 years after arduous missions among the Dené, Father Émile Petitot returned to France for some well-deserved rest. During his stay, he attended an international conference of scholars of the Americas in the city of Nancy, where he presented a paper on the Asiatic origins of the Amerindians, for which he provided linguistic proof by comparing idioms from Sino-Siberian and Athapascan languages. It was at this conference that he had the good fortune to meet a wealthy young man who was so impressed by Petitot and his ideas that he decided to publish forthwith all of the missionary’s works. So it was that the first Dené dictionary was published in Paris by E. Leroux in 1876; 350 volumes of the work were also published in San Francisco that same year. Since he was now guaranteed that his work would be published, the prolific Petitot composed books on the languages families of the Athapascans (Tlinglits and Dene) and Algonquins. He also wrote prayer books; tales from the Bible in Chipewyan, Inuktituk and Hare; and collected folk tales and traditional stories from the Aboriginal Peoples. He is considered to be the precursor of modern anthropologists.

The Printing Press with Syllabic Type

Stanhope Press acquired by Father Petitot. Oblate Collections, Grandin Province, Royal Alberta Museum.Father Petitot had accompanied the young father Émile Grouard on the return trip to France in 1874. Father Grouard, who was Bishop Grandin’s nephew, had spent several years in the Vicariate of Athabasca-Mackenzie, but a severe case of bronchitis had left him voiceless. He was sent to France to treat this laryngitis. While he was there, he ordered a set of syllabic type from a firm in Brussels. In Paris, he set about learning the printer’s trade at A. Hennuyer, a large publishing house. He was even allowed to practice in off hours, and was able to print up a book of Bible tales in Chipewyan with a syllabic text, « Petite histoire sainte en « montagnais et en caractères syllabiques.” Hehad prepared this with Bishop Faraud before leaving Lac la Biche.

When he returned to Notre-Dame-des-Victoires Mission on the shores of Lac la Biche, he and Bishop Faraud set up the Stanhope Press that they had acquired. During the winter of 1877 they printed the first book published in Alberta, a book of hymns (Cantiques Montagnais), using the syllabic type. They re-edited the Petite histoire sainte at Lac La Biche. During this time, Father Grouard accompanied his colleague Father Dominique Collignon on mission visits to Chipewyan communities of the region at Heart Lake and Cold Lake. When they showed their Chipewyan syllabic prayer books to the people, and explained to them how the characters were read, they found to their great joy that they learned to read them in a matter of hours! Everyone wanted a copy and was willing to pay for it. Although Grouard and Faraud had learned Chipewyan at Lake Athabasca, the Aboriginal Peoples at Heart Lake and Cold Lake had no problem with the quality of the language, having only slight difficulties with a few proper nouns.

During this time, in 1877, Father Grouard and Bishop Faraud printed up a Cree translation of a law for the protection of the buffalo for the Government of the North West Territories.  Grouard joked that they should now be known as the “Queen’s Printer.” They certainly were not lacking in projects. A Chipewyan prayer book with meditations by Father Laurent Le Goff was published in 1878. The same year, they undertook to publish a Kutchin prayer book by Father Zéphérin Gascon, but ran out of paper when they had a third of the book prepared. By the time they received the paper they had ordered from their supplier, a year had passed. The book was finished in 1879.

When Father Grouard was transferred to Nativity Mission in 1879, he took the Stanhope Press with him and continued printing books, producing another prayer book, with a catechism and hymns, of 216 pages.

It must be remembered that publishing a book was not a simple process. The type had to be set; the pages printed, folded and sewn in booklets; the binding had to be prepared; the book bound; the margin had to be cut and the pages opened. It was hard work, and took a lot of patience to accomplish these very repetitious tasks.

Kitchiwa Mateh/ Sacred Heart Review/Revue du Sacré Cœur and the Newsletters

Newsletter, Cree/Lettre circulaire crie, Kitchitwa Miteh, 1906, vol I, No. 1.The Stanhope press seems to have traveled a great deal. In 1897, it was still at Nativity Mission, where it was said that books in six different languages had been printed. It is possible that it was also used to publish a newsletter in 1895. The press left Fort Chipewyan and also seems to have been at Saint-Paul-des-Métis, where it was taken back by a missionary who pointed out that the press was meant for the Aboriginal Peoples. It may have journeyed to Saddle Lake to the residential school there, and perhaps to Hobbema where, in 1906, a little newspaper was published in Cree with some passages in English and French. This newsletter was published until the 1970s, but another more modern press was probably used later. The Stanhope Press currently is part of Oblate Collections housed at the Royal Alberta Museum. For many years, it was kept at the Rutherford Library of the University of Alberta where the syllabic plates of a prayer book decorated a large wall. One could not pass by without thinking of all those who were inspired by this published work.

During the residential school period, the directors of the schools encouraged the publication of newsletters to keep their students and their families informed of school activities. This initiative was well received, and became easier as technological innovations came on stream (gelatine print, mimeographing, etc.)

The French newspaper

Edmonton, AB - Printing 'La Survivance'. (OB11222 - Oblate Collection at the PAA)The Oblates also took on other printing projects - probably their largest undertaking was the purchase, in 1928, of a printing press from the owner of L’Union, a French-language weekly that was based in Edmonton. The purchase was done with a consortium of city businessmen. La Survivance, as it was known, was a weekly and was the mouthpiece of the Association canadienne française de l’Alberta (ACFA). It was distributed across Alberta, but there were also subscribers in British Columbia and Saskatchewan. The Oblates were very involved in the publication of the paper and provided many of its editors free of charge; these included Fathers Achille Auclair (1930-1934), Gérard Forcade (1934-1949), Paul-Émile Breton (1942-1944 and 1950-1953), Jean Patoine (1953-1972), Clément Tourigny (1964-1965), and Jean-Maurice Olivier (1965-1967) . The newspaper was sold to the ACFA for a dollar in 1967, and became Le Franco-Albertain, and is now Le Franco.

The Oblates were also active in fundraising to establish a French-language radio station in Alberta, a project that met with considerable resistance from the English-language community and took at least ten years to achieve. Nevertheless, the station was opened in 1949. It was sold to Radio-Canada in 1973.

Aboriginal Manuscripts

R.P. Legoff, Livre de Prière en  langue montagnaise, La Survivance Printing Ltd, 1934, 1890, Fonds Oblats, province Grandin, Archives provinciales de l'Alberta/R. P. Legoff, Prayer book in the Chipeweyan language, La Survivance Printing Ltd,1934, 1890, Oblate Fonds, Grandin Province, Provincial Archives of Alberta. Page 1, Prières, cantiques et catéchisme en langue montagnaise ou chipeweyan, Lac la Biche, 1887,  Fonds Oblats, province Grandin, Archives provinciales de l'Alberta/Page 1, Prayers, hymns and catechism in the Montagnais or Chipeweyan language, Lac La Biche, 1887, Oblate Fonds, Grandin Province, Provincial Archives of Alberta. Page 2, Sceau d'approbation de Mgr Henri Faraud, 'Nous évangélisons les pauvres' et sa devise 'Je ne refuse aucun travail', texte en caractères syllabique montagnais. Fonds Oblats, Province Grandin, Archives provinciales de l'Alberta/Page 2, Seal of approval by Bishop Henri Faraud, with text in chipewan syllabics, and on crest, the motto of the Oblates 'We envangelise the poor' and Faraud's motto 'I do not refuse any work'. Page 3, Alphabet syllabique et nombres, livre de prières, Fonds Oblats, Privince Grandin, Archives provinciales de l'Alberta/Page 3, Alphabet and numbers from Prayer Book, Oblates Fonds, Grandin Province, Provincial Archives of Alberta. Page du livre de prières montagnais, Fonds Oblats, Province Grandin, Archives Provinciales de l'Alberta/Page from Chipewyan Prayer Book, Oblate Fonds, Grandin Province, Provincial Archives of Alberta.

Prières, catéchisme et cantiques dans la langue des Indiens Castors, Lac la Biche, 1888, Fonds Oblats, Province Grandin, Archives provinciales de l'Alberta/Prayers, catechism and hymns in the Beaver Indian language, Oblate Fonds, Grandin Province, Provincial Archives of Alberta. Alphabet en langue castor, en syllabiques, et nombres, Fonds Oblats, Province Grandin, Archives provinciales de l'Alberta/ Alphabet and syllabics in the Beaver language, and numbers, Oblate Fonds, Grandin Province, Provincial Archives of Alberta. Prières en syllabiques, du livre de prières castor, 1888, Fonds Oblats, Province Grandin, Archives Provinciales de l'Alberta/Prayers in syllabics, from Beaver prayer book, 1888, Oblate Fonds, Grandin province, Provincial Archives of Alberta. Newsletter, Cree/Lettre circulaire crie, Kitchitwa Miteh, 1906, vol I, No. 1. Calendar/Calendrier 1906, The Kitchitwa Miteh Cree Review, Legoff, Alberta.


Champagne, Claude. Les débuts de la mission dans le Nord-Ouest canadien: Mission et église chez Mgr Vital Grandin, o.m.i. (1829-1902). Ottawa: Éditions de l’Université d’Ottawa, 1983.

Champagne, Joseph-Étienne, o.m.i., Les Missions Catholiques dans l’Ouest Canadien (1818-1875). Scolasticat Saint-Joseph, Ottawa: Éditions des Études Oblates, 1949.

Champagne, Juliette,  La Mission Notre-Dame-des-Victoires, Lac-la-Biche, 1853-1963, entrepôt et couvent-pensionnat, Narrative history and interpretative matrix for the historic site:, final report, in house occasional paper, Alberta Culture and Historic Sites Services and Lac La Biche Mission Historical Society, 1992.

Morice, Adrien.-Gabriel, o.m.i., Histoire de L’Église Catholique dans l’Ouest Canadien: Du Lac Supérieur au Pacifique (1695-1905).  Tomes I, II, III., Montréal: Granger Frères, 1915.

Peel’s Bibliography of the Canadian Prairies to 1953, revised and enlarged, based on the work of Bruce Braden Peel, Ernie B. Ingles, N. Merrill Distad, et al, editors, University of Toronto Press, 2003.

Trottier, Alice, « Les débuts de La Survivance », Aspects du passé franco-albertain, dir, A. Trottier et al, Histoire franco-albertaine, 1, Salon d’histoire de la francophonie albertaine, Edmonton, 1980, 113-121.

1. The French called the Chipewyan « montagnais ». They occupied the region between the Churchill - « la rivière des Anglais »  - and Athabasca Rivers and Great Slave Lake. It is thought that the name « montagnais » came from the hilly country around Lake Athabasca and was given to them by the early fur trade voyageurs who roamed this area in the latter half of the 18th century. Other sources suggest voyageurs were reminded of the « Montagnais » Cree of Quebec.

2. Claude Champagne, Les débuts de la mission dans le Nord-Ouest canadien, Mission et Église chez Mgr Vital Grandin, o.m.i. (1829-1902), Éditions de l’Université d’Ottawa, 1983, p. 105.

3. As told to Juliette Champagne by Father Léon Mokwa, circa 1995. An expert Cree and Chipewyan speaker, Fr. Mokwa lived for many years at Fond-du-Lac, at the Mission of Our-Lady-of-Seven-Sorrows, on Lake Athabasca.

4. Joseph Le Treste, Souvenirs d’un missionnaire breton dans le Nord-Ouest canadien, text verified and annotated byJuliette Champagne, Septentrion, 1997, 268-269.

5. Mgr Provencher à Mgr Signay, Saint-Boniface de la Rivière-Rouge, 23 juillet, 1841, « Lettres de Mgr Joseph-Norbert Provencher, Premier évêque de Saint-Boniface »,  Bulletin de la Société de Saint-Boniface, vol. III, 1913, Saint-Boniface.

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