French Missionaries in Western Canada, 1845–1940: Migration, Flows and Experiences
Simon Balloud (Université de Montréal)
As a postdoctoral fellow at the Université de Saint-Boniface in 2020 and 2021, Simon Balloud has undertaken a comprehensive study of the members of more than twenty-five French religious congregations who travelled to Western Canada (Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta, and British Columbia) between 1845 and 1940. The study, which intersects with multiple historiographical fields, explores this specific migratory phenomenon from the perspective of both individuals and groups. The aim is to understand the significance of Western Canada with respect to migration involving French religious congregations in North America, as well as the impact of these migration movements on the areas where they occurred. This involves pursuing three main lines of research.
Migration Patterns and Processes
The purpose of this study is to take stock of the members of French religious congregations who travelled to Western Canada, identify the different types of migration processes that drew them to the region and explore their characteristics as well as the ecclesiastical and/or secular networks that shaped their outlooks. Although little is known about the role played by missionary priests in facilitating chain migration from various parts of Metropolitan France (Brittany, the Vendée, Jura) and Canada, the question of these religious figures’ influence on their family members and communities also remains to be addressed. By comparing the geographic origins of French religious figures and laypeople, the study can identify correlations and map out the corresponding transatlantic and North American connections. The movements of French missionaries spurred the development of connections on a continental scale, connections that are rarely discussed in a historiography that remains structured largely along national lines. Analyzing these connections may foster the emergence of a North American historical narrative that recognizes the central role played by missionary activity in the colonial process.
Migrating missionaries served as key vectors of both material (objects, books) and immaterial (knowledge, practices, representations—especially through correspondence) cultural flows. In some cases, these flows reflected the activities of the religious congregations to which the missionaries belonged: evangelization efforts, liturgical objects, teaching methods, etc. In other cases, they related to the missionaries’ lives as individuals and therefore the private sphere. In the context of migration, members of religious congregations not only corresponded with family members through letters but also exchanged objects and books whose influence sometimes extended beyond the original recipient. But whatever form they took or how far they reached, these communications ensured that representations were shared, potentially inspiring new departures, especially among other members of the same community. The study aims to fully appreciate the richness of these exchanges and the extent of their impact, not only on French missionaries but also on the people to whom they ministered and among whom they lived.
The presence of French missionaries in Western Canada produced a diverse range of experiences stemming from encounters and contacts with the various local populations (Indigenous, Métis, migrant), including French-speaking groups of both French Canadian and Franco-European origin. Considering the broader colonial context, the study analyzes the impact of these frontier experiences on the identity of newcomers whose outlook was shaped by their religious training and European cultural baggage. Looking beyond the religious vocation of missionaries make it possible to better appreciate the historical context of their experiences, including the role played by various identities (man/woman, migrant, foreigner, and sometimes exile). Through a comparison of their correspondence, the study seeks to answer the following question: Was there a gendered dimension to the migration experience of missionaries? Having long been subsumed to their institution or community, missionaries are starting to be seen and studied as individuals—albeit without disregarding the ongoing tension between “individual identities and collective loyalties” that existed within any congregation.