Notes on 8th Text for Reading Field: Cottrell

Canadian History, Week One:

Michael Cottrell, “‘To be Useful to the Whiteman and the Indian and the Country at Large’: Constantine Scollen, Missionary-Priest, and Native-White Relations in the West, 1862-1885,” Historical Studies: Canadian Catholic Historical Association 66 (2000): 56-73. [online copy: http://bit.ly/RGtSM]

Cottrel examines the activities of ‘second wave’ Oblate missionary Constantine Scollen to demonstrate that engaging in a debate over whether evangelists were inspired primarily by an altruistic concern for Aboriginal peoples or by a supremacist ethos of assimilation overly simplifies a complex social and cultural relationship that existed in historical Western Canada. In his view it is important to recognize the ambiguities and ambivalence inherent in the missionary role and experience.

Cottrel notes that Scollen was present in the West during a period of heightened change: the political economic transition from Hudson’s Bay Company to Canadian control of the North West; the technological change from water to rail for commercial transportation; the demographic change from Aboriginal to Euroamerican predominance. In their capacity as representatives of civilized and civilizing institutions, missionaries such as Scollen where charged (by their institutional bodies working in conjunction with government officials) with effecting a transition among Aboriginal populations from practices of migratory provisioning to engaging in settled agricultural production. Scollen arrived in the West at a time when — due to declines in subsistence resources (such as bison), outbreaks of epidemic disease, and increased conflict over territorial boundaries — some Aboriginal communities were receptive to the idea of adopting new approaches to maintaining communities and ensuring future prospects.

Cottrell presents Scollen as in some respects fairly representative of missionaries of his period. He was an enthusiastic proponent of Canada’s treaty process. In keeping with his denominational affiliation, he harboured the belief that Catholicism was the sole avenue to salvation through the sacrament of baptism. Although avowedly wary of previous historiographical accounts which had verged on hagiography, Cottrell’s characterization of Scollen remains sympathetic. For example, Scollen appears vaguely heroic simply because he was able-bodied enough to travel and over-winter with Aboriginal people – an evaluation that to my mind underestimates the ease with which knowledgeable human beings can achieve comfort in outdoor, non-urban environments. Similarly, although Cottrell’s account of Scollen’s actions during1885 does suggest that the latter was capable of demonstrating intelligence under duress, the assertion that he was exhibiting “enormous personal courage” when interacting with Aboriginal people implies that they were inherently dangerous. As well, Scollen’s linguistic ability, and the level of ‘trust’ he inspired among First Nations people (both accomplishments evaluated according to Scollen’s own estimation), may be somewhat overstated.[1]

Cottrell is clear on the point that Scollen’s primary goal was to instill the tenets of Catholicism in Aboriginal people encountered during his stay in the West. Where this goal intersected with the interests of the newly established Canadian state apparatus he was supportive of its programs. Where state programs fell short of ensuring the welfare and survival of his potential converts and present adherents (and thus the success of his mission), he was decidedly critical. After adequate government assistance in making the transition to agricultural production failed to materialize as promised, and government policy and personnel grew progressively unsympathetic, it seems that Scollen, along with the Aboriginal people affected, had second thoughts about government intent regarding treaties. His support of Aboriginal-led attempts to have complaints heard, in my opinion, is the more courageous action on Scollen’s part, because by taking such action he set himself against the most powerful actors by far in this particular historical drama. And, as Cottrell outlines, Scollen suffered the consequences.[2]

The ambivalence that Cottrell asserts was part of the missionary experience is mirrored in his own estimation of Scollen. The former does not unequivocally present his subject as hero or martyr, naive or calculating. Rather, he convincingly demonstrates that the ambiguities of Scollen’s situation and those of Western populations during this period of pronounced change mitigate against such an interpretation.


[1] See for example, Treaty 7 Elders and Tribal Council, with Walter Hildebrandt, Sarah Carter, and Dorothy First Rider, True Spirit and Original Intent of Treaty 7: The first account of the Treaty 7 agreement from a Native perspective (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1995), 120, 124, 125, for an account from the perspective of First Nations people of the linguistic abilities and characters of interpreters and missionaries involved in the treaty process.

[2] See Raymond J.A. Huel, Archbishop A.A. Taché of St. Boniface: The ‘Good Fight’ an the Illusive Vision (Edmonton: University of Alberta Press and Western Canadian Publishers, 2003), for a description of an Oblate career outcome that, though different in scale, is similar in tone, in that deeply held convictions led to personal defeat in a manner little short of tragic.

Additional Resources:

Glenbow Museum, “Scollen Family Fonds,” Archives Finding Aid, Collections and Research, Glenbow Museum Archives Online website http://bit.ly/aus90, supplies scanned documents and a photo.

Treaty 7 Elders and Tribal Council, with Walter Hildebrandt, Dorothy First Rider, and Sarah Carter, The True Spirit and Original Intent of Treaty 7 (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1996), search result, online preview: http://bit.ly/nvuw7, lists 11 scrollable entries mentioning Scollen.

Bernice Vernini, “Father Constantine Scollen, Founder of the Calgary Mission,” CCHA Report, 10 (1942-1943), 75-86 [Canadian Catholic Historical Association, St. Paul’s College, University of Manitoba website, http://bit.ly/w6Ax8]

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About hallnjean

PhD in Canadian History
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