From Supremacy to a Spectrum of Responses: A Brief History of Christianity and Indigenous Peoples in Canada

From Supremacy to a Spectrum of Responses: A Brief History of Christianity and Indigenous People in Canada
Tolly Bradford
Concordia University of Edmonton

Jessica Joannou
Independent Scholar

Abstract: This article draws on a few historical moments to give a broad thematic overview of the role of Christianity in the history of European-Indigenous relations in what is now western Canada. The article argues that this history comprises two broad themes. On the one hand, Christianity was often presented to Indigenous peoples in “supremacist” terms, backed by an assumption that it was a superior way to view the world. On the other hand, this history is animated by a spectrum of responses to Christianity on the part of Indigenous people. This spectrum of responses stretched from resistance to Christianity, to partial affiliation, to full conversion. Highlighting these two patterns of supremacy and the spectrum of responses, we suggest, offers a way to view this history in a brief but also holistic and complex way. In our conclusion we highlight how this historical knowledge can offer some nuance to contemporary debates about reconciliation in Canada and the place of churches and Christianity in reconciliation.

Keywords: Christianity, Indigenous Peoples, History, Canada, Residential Schools, Reconciliation



The role of Christianity in the history of relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples is a complicated one. Contradictory and fraught with tensions that continue into the present day, an attempt to grasp the nuances of this role is nevertheless an essential tool for understanding current Indigenous-settler relationships in the country we now call Canada. While any sort of comprehension in terms of geographical and chronological coverage would require a much longer study, this brief paper instead highlights two patterns that seem to dominate this history of fraught relationship. The first pattern is the supremacist characteristic evident in Christian and Euro-Canadian interactions with Indigenous peoples in Canada’s history, whether those interactions were violent or sympathetic. The second is the spectrum of ways in which Indigenous peoples responded to Christian discourses and symbols. These responses ranged from outright resistance, to attempting to use the supremacist aspects of Christianity to gain some power or agency in the midst of colonialism, to apparently fully converting to Christianity. To illustrate these two patterns, we draw on material from two quite different moments in the history of Christian-Indigenous interactions: a history of interactions in the nineteenth-century Canadian Northwest (the area of western Canada now covered by Treaties 1-7), and testimonies gathered at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Northern events during 2011. Despite the differences between these moments, the two overarching patterns we identify persist, demonstrating how much nuance is required in attempting to understand Indigenous interactions with Christianity, and perhaps providing insight into the future of Indigenous-settler relationships in Canada.


The first common theme in looking at these relationships is that there was always what we would call a “supremacist characteristic” guiding the way that Christianity was used by Euro-Canadians and other Christians during their interactions with Indigenous peoples, regardless of the time period or the structural power relationship between Euro-Canadian and Indigenous communities in Canada at any given time. The most publicized example of this supremacist characteristic was in the operation of church-run residential schools between the late nineteenth and mid twentieth century. As much of the testimony given at the Truth and Reconciliation events emphasizes, in these schools, it was unquestioned that Christianity, as defined by missionaries, priests, or other staff, was the supreme and unquestionably true way of seeing the spiritual patterns and forces in the world. It was the “truth” that revealed the “falsehood” and “superstition” of Indigenous spirituality and ways of knowing.

However, residential schools, and the government policies that created them, were only the most extreme instance of how the supremacist characteristic of Christianity guided most European and Euro-Canadian interactions with Indigenous peoples. Looking at the Canadian Northwest, we can see this very clearly in the journals of a little-known Canadian fur trader, George Nelson, who worked for the North-West Company and later for the Hudson’s Bay Company between 1803 and 1823. On the face of it, Nelson and the journals he left behind are remarkable for their time. Although his journals say little about the trade of furs, they are rich in detail about Ojibwa and Cree cultural customs and spiritual practices, as witnessed by Nelson in the early 1800s. Included in the journals are stories told to Nelson about “Cree myths;” Nelson’s own descriptions of events such as the Shaking Tent ceremony (or “conjuring,” as he called it); and his descriptions of major forces and factors in Algonquian spiritual lifeways, of which the most important for him was the “Pawakan,” or spirit guardians. As interesting and important as these stories and information are, what is maybe most significant about Nelson’s journals is the relative neutrality and objectivity with which he recorded this information. Present-day editors of some of these journals argue that they display a remarkable “willingness to listen seriously and with a relatively open mind to what his Ojibwa and Cree associates had to tell him…”[1] Moreover, they note that Nelson, quite in contrast to other Europeans at the time, and especially to those who operated the residential schools, displayed in his writing a notable sympathy towards the customs and practices which he witnessed and wrote about. He portrayed the various “conjuring practices” not as “ignorant superstition,” but as a “dramatic and even humorous means of communicating with and manipulating a harsh [physical and spiritual] environment.”[2] In marked contrast to most of his Euro-Canadian peers, Nelson seemed to see logic and truthfulness in the Indigenous practices about which he wrote.

This respect and sympathy for the stories and lifeways Nelson tried to record in his journals was partly the result of Nelson’s own strong relationship with the people he wrote about. The journals’ description of Cree and Ojibwa ceremonies were the result of twenty years in the Northwest and of the close kin-like relationships he had developed with several specific Indigenous communities across the Northwest, most especially the Ojibwa based around Lake Winnipeg (the community where his wife, recorded only as Mary Ann in later records, came from).[3] Rooted in these relationships, Nelson’s journal is truly remarkable, and certainly unlike many other fur trade journals that survive today.

Yet even in his openness and desire to understand the lifeways of his Indigenous relations, Nelson was blinded by at least one major issue: his own deep Christian faith and the supremacy of that spiritual framework. His journals are threaded through with a distinct and mostly unresolved tension. On one hand, he celebrated the value and truthfulness of the “conjuring,” and on the other hand, he denigrated these practices as antithetical to what he felt were the “right” (Christian) ways to communicate with the spiritual forces in the world. There is a sense in Nelson’s journals that while he wanted to fully accept the sacredness of the practices he witnessed, his own Christianity would not allow it. In his mind, Christianity remained superior to indigenous spiritual practice.

At points, Nelson tried to address this tension in a way that would satisfy his sense of Christian supremacy. In one passage, for instance, he suggested that the virtuous elements of the Indigenous cultural and spiritual practices he recorded were evidence that all peoples — even these apparently non-Christian peoples — carry Christian knowledge in their hearts. He implied that Christianity is so supreme that it is innate in the hearts and minds of all people, being performed and used even without the knowledge of the individual — an idea that does violence to the notion of Indigenous agency, as it asserts ownership of their religious practice without their consent.[4] At other times, Nelson simply dismissed the full integrity of the Indigenous spiritual and moral worldview, saying that while he agreed with many elements of Ojibwa lifeways, they all lacked the moral value that comes with Christianity, and were thus inferior and incomplete.[5]

In much of Nelson’s writing, this tension remained unresolved. For him, as for the missionary staff of residential schools, only Christianity offered a truly sacred explanation of the world. What set Nelson apart from the stereotypical Victorian missionary at the residential school, of course, was the context of his relationships with the Indigenous communities he was talking with and about. While the missionary or priest of the residential school had the power, at least in legislation, to try and enforce his Christianity into the lives of Indigenous students by way of attempting to replace Indigenous culture with Western Christian ways of living, Nelson did not. As a fur trader, he was neither interested in nor able to coerce Indigenous peoples to accept his vision of Christian supremacy. But his relationships with Indigenous peoples, however sympathetic, were always tinged with the idea that Christianity was still the only right way to view the world.

Spectrum of Responses

The second dominant theme we note in this history of Indigenous-settler relations is related to the first. There was a range of Indigenous responses to Christianity, ranging from outright resistance to Christianity, to passive resistance displayed through ignoring the Christian messages of people like George Nelson or running away from residential schools, to apparently full affiliation with Christian teachings. This last response – affiliation – is the focus of our second theme. By the late nineteenth century (and earlier in parts of what is now eastern Canada), many Indigenous peoples west of the Great Lakes had either fully “converted,” or as was more often the case, affiliated themselves with some elements or aspects of Christianity. These affiliations that developed between Indigenous peoples and Christianity can be placed on a spectrum, from partial to full affiliation.[6]

At one end of this spectrum of affiliation were those individuals who, following the patterns of the rest of their band and kin-group, practiced a limited or selective involvement with Christianity. We find critical but revealing remarks about this sort of affiliation throughout the writing of missionaries. For example, travelling in what is now southern Alberta in the mid-1800s, a Methodist missionary named Thomas Woolsey writes about meeting a Kainai man who showed Woolsey his sacred bundle. According to Woolsey, the bundle included, among other items, some “Catholic relics” (likely a crucifix), a copy of the French Catechism, and one entire issue of the Wesleyan Missionary Notices, a Methodist newsletter published in Toronto and distributed to the west through its missions. While Woolsey bluntly remarked that he thought Catholic and Methodist materials were “strange company” inside a Kainai medicine bag, we could assume that for this Kainai man, the relics and texts held some significant sacred power that could protect him or help him achieve balance.[7] Moreover, it was likely the case that the need to include these Christian symbols in the bundle had been communicated to the man during a dream.[8] While this Kainai man had not converted to Christianity, and likely never would, he seemed to be accessing an affiliation with the perceived spiritual powers associated with Christianity — those supposedly supremacist characteristics — implying that for him, Christianity held some kind of desirable power.

At another point on this spectrum, there are Indigenous persons like Arthur Wellington Clah, who found power in both worlds. Clah was a Tsimshian man who was also an itinerant preacher connected with Methodist missionaries on the Northwest Coast of British Columbia during the late nineteenth century. He combined spiritual ideas with orthodox Christian teachings, using familiar ideas from his own culture to inform his theology. Seeing his world being changed by the colonial powers associated with European Christianity, Clah also found opportunity to use the language, rhetoric, and narratives of Christianity to resist those changes and try to protect his people and their lands. On one occasion, he compared the taking of Indigenous land by Europeans to the biblical story of King Ahab stealing Naboth’s vineyard in I Kings 21, concluding, “I don’t think that God is pleased.”[9] Clah displayed a very evangelical understanding of Christianity, arguing that he could interpret scripture for himself and did not need a missionary to do it for him, which (ironically) tended to anger evangelical missionaries.[10] In embracing this approach, Clah challenged missionary authority, using a faith associated with colonialism to resist colonialism. Like the Kainai man with his medicine bundle, Arthur Wellington Clah used Christianity as a source of spiritual power in a specifically Indigenous way, resulting in a syncretistic faith that was both subversive and entirely sincere. For Clah, resistance accompanied affiliation.[11]

Still further along the spectrum from Clah were those Indigenous individuals who seemed to fully adhere to the doctrinal messages and lifestyle promoted by the Christian church. In the nineteenth century, the best examples of what we might call these fully adhering converts were a handful of ordained Indigenous missionaries. Always accompanied by like-minded Indigenous wives and extended family, they became active missionaries seeking to spread the message of Christianity’s superiority to their people. Henry Budd, a Muskego Cree, was one of the earliest of these missionaries.[12] Born near the Hudson’s Bay coast in the early 1800s and ordained at Red River in 1850, he spent at least half his life working to try and create what European church leaders at the time envisioned as an Independent Native Church, led by an Indigenous clergy, preaching in an Indigenous language, and supported and governed by an Indigenous congregation.[13]

While historians should, and do, debate the reasons why people like Henry Budd grew to hold such a deep attachment to the missionary ethos, Budd’s large body of writings show how he reconciled his two positions and identities as a Christian missionary spearheading the advance of Christianity (and even at one point calling for residential-style schooling) and as an Indigenous man who, by emphasizing his sense of connection to the land and the language of the northern Cree he spent his life trying to convert. In one telling passage from his own writing, Budd reflects very openly on this somewhat contradictory position as a “Native Missionary.” He wrote in 1852, “I am placed in very Special circumstances wherein I can glorify God by preaching the Gospel of His dear Son [to the natives], possessing as I do the native language and thereby able to address the Native with ease; acquainted with their habits and superstitions, and can enter into all their feelings, answer all their objections. I say this is a great talent that I have to occupy till my Lord’s coming.”[14] It seems that for Budd, having come to a belief that Christianity was superior to the beliefs of his own people (something he explicitly states throughout his writing), he felt uniquely situated to pass that message on to them.


Supremacy and Spectrum of Responses at the Northern National Event, 2011

In the testimony collected at the Northern Event of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings in 2011, versions of these same two patterns are persistent. Testimonies from survivors contained sometimes horrific, sometimes painful, and sometimes humorous stories about life at a residential school and the supremacist characteristic of Christianity they were exposed to    — and then would add, almost without thought, a comment about their Christian faith or their affiliation with the churches that ran the school.

Of these sorts of statements, one is particularly illuminating. Paul Voudrach, in a statement given at the National Event, spoke first about being separated from his parents and transported to Grollier Hall as a young boy, then about the trauma of being raped by a male staff member, and finally of the lifelong effects of the residential school experience on his life, including spending time in jail, being estranged from his family, and attempting suicide. Towards the end of his testimony, surprisingly, Voudrach remarked that while he was incarcerated, he was, in his own words, “touched by Jesus himself,” and that this spiritual experience had made him realize that he “had a life” and a purpose.[15] In Voudrach’s experience, the faith that was the cause of so much trauma was also a source of recovery.

In a similar vein, the testimony at the Baker Lake hearings of David Simailik, an Inuit survivor of residential schooling, suggested that a blend of Christian and traditional Inuit spirituality and knowledge was the best way for him and other survivors to seek healing. He felt that his ongoing healing and that of his community requires the “coupling” of Inuit wisdom and “Bible-based teachings.” Simailik contrasted these spiritual tools with what he called the “secular counselling” of psychology and psychiatry which, in his words, simply “seek to sedate us… through counselling, through drugs or temporary measures,” without helping people to reconcile, forgive, and heal.[16] While Voudrach and Simailik’s comments, promoting the inclusion of both Inuit knowledge and Christian spirituality as part of a healing process, were certainly not unanimous among survivors, they do represent a real pattern in the testimony collected by the Truth and Reconciliation Committee, and certainly reflect a longer history of Indigenous peoples seeing and seizing meaning — though not always the meaning Europeans wanted them to see — in Christianity.

Christianity and Reconciliation

Our hope for this historical sketch is that it has emphasized the complexity and contradictory nature of the history of Christianity in colonial interactions in Canada. Christianity was central in the making of the colonial order in Canada, but it was never completely controlled by any one figure or group. So while it would be convenient to reduce the history of Christianity and Indigenous encounter to a simplistic narrative of “Christianity and missionaries as villain,” or “missionary as hero” (as was sometimes the case in the 1950s among historians), the story is more complex. This is not a complexity that should dampen the harsh realities of colonialism and the supremacist aspects associated with Christianity, but it is a complexity that should be acknowledged and used to feed our present discussion of our past and our future. The task of historians is to be honest to the people we study, whether they are George Nelson or Henry Budd, survivors of the northern residential schools or even the staff of those schools. In trying to achieve honesty, we often reach complexity.

This historical sketch may also offer a more applied lesson about the place of Christianity in the formal and informal work of reconciliation. While a case can certainly be made — and has been made by at least one scholar[17]— that Christian churches should not be involved in reconciliation, it can be countered that Christianity, and even the churches, cannot help but be involved. Wanted or unwanted, historically justifiable or not, Christianity — its institutions, its spirituality — is part of the lives of many Indigenous communities, and is also a core element, although a problematic one, that has animated and continues to animate the relationship between settler and Indigenous peoples in Canada today. If reconciliation is, in part, about these relationships, the problematic and influential role of Christianity in the past, and perhaps the future, of these relationships should be carefully considered.



Bastien, Betty. 2004. Blackfoot Ways of Knowing: The Worldview of the

Siksikaitsitapi. Calgary: University of Calgary Press.

Bradford, Tolly. 2012. Prophetic Identities: Indigenous Missionaries on British

Colonial Frontiers, 1850-75. Vancouver: UBC Press.

Brown, Jennifer S. H., and Robert Brightman. 1988. “Introduction.” In “The

Orders of the Dreamed”: George Nelson on Cree and Northern Ojibwa Religion and Myth, 1823, edited by Jennifer S. H Brown and Robert Brightman. Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press.

Comaroff, John L, and Jean Comaroff. 1992. Ethnography and the Historical

Imagination. Boulder: Westview Press.

Dube, Siphiwe. 2016. “Aporia, Atrocity, and Religion in the Truth and

Reconciliation Commission of Canada.” In Mixed Blessings: Indigenous Encounters with Christianity in Canada, 145–63. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press.

Ikenga-Metuh, Emefie. 1987. “The Shattered Microcosm: A Critical Survey of

Explanations of Conversion in Africa.” In Religion, Development and African Identity, edited by K. Holst Petersen, 11–27. Uppsala, Sweden: Scandinavian Institute of African Studies.

Mandelbaum, David G. 1979. The Plains Cree: An Ethnographic, Historical and

Comparative Study. Canadian Plains Studies 9. Regina: Canadian Plains Research Center, University of Regina.

Neylan, Susan. 2005. “‘Eating the Angels’ Food’: Arthur Wellington Clah – An

Aboriginal Perspective on Being Christian, 1857-1909.” In Canadian Missionaries, Indigenous Peoples: Representing Religion at Home and Abroad, edited by Alvyn Austin and James S. Scott, 88–108. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Simailik, David. 2011. Statement to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of

Canada. Baker Lake.

Voudrach, Paul. 2011. Statement to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of

Canada. Inuvik.

[1] Jennifer S. H. Brown and Robert Brightman, “Introduction,” in “The Orders of the Dreamed”: George Nelson on Cree and Northern Ojibwa Religion and Myth, 1823, ed. Jennifer S. H Brown and Robert Brightman (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1988), 3.

[2] Brown and Brightman, 21.

[3] Brown and Brightman, 13.

[4] Brown and Brightman, 23.

[5] Brown and Brightman, 23.

[6] For discussion of conversion as “affiliation,” see, Emefie Ikenga-Metuh, “The Shattered Microcosm: A Critical Survey of Explanations of Conversion in Africa,” in Religion, Development and African Identity, ed. K. Holst Petersen (Uppsala, Sweden: Scandinavian Institute of African Studies, 1987), 11–27.

[7] For an insightful discussion of the way non-Christians “redeployed” symbols of Christianity as a pathway to empowerment, see, John L Comaroff and Jean Comaroff, Ethnography and the Historical Imagination (Boulder: Westview Press, 1992), 5.

[8] For discussion of the sacred bundles among plains peoples see, David G. Mandelbaum, The Plains Cree: An Ethnographic, Historical and Comparative Study, Canadian Plains Studies 9 (Regina: Canadian Plains Research Center, University of Regina, 1979), 170–71; Betty Bastien, Blackfoot Ways of Knowing: The Worldview of the Siksikaitsitapi (Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2004), 11.

[9] Susan Neylan, “‘Eating the Angels’ Food’: Arthur Wellington Clah – An Aboriginal Perspective on Being Christian, 1857-1909,” in Canadian Missionaries, Indigenous Peoples: Representing Religion at Home and Abroad, ed. Alvyn Austin and James S. Scott (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005), 100.

[10] Neylan, 96.

[11] Neylan, 98.

[12] Tolly Bradford, Prophetic Identities: Indigenous Missionaries on British Colonial Frontiers, 1850-75 (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2012), 15–20.

[13] Bradford, chap. 1.

[14] Henry Budd to Major Straith, 6 August 1852, quoted in, Bradford, 81.

[15] Paul Voudrach, Statement to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, Inuvik, 30 June 2011.

[16] David Simailik, Statement to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, Baker Lake, November 15, 2011.

[17] Siphiwe Dube, “Aporia, Atrocity, and Religion in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada,” in Mixed Blessings: Indigenous Encounters with Christianity in Canada (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2016), 145–63.