A Note on Father Lacombe
Father Albert Lacombe was a prominent figure in Western Canadian History. He was involved in the bringing of Christianity to the Indigenous peoples of the area, the coming of the railroads, the negotiation of treaties, and the opening of Indian Industrial Schools. Many of these things are now sources of debate and controversy, and plans that may have originally been intended to be beneficial to Western Canada’s Indigenous Peoples are now viewed very differently. The Lacombe & District Historical Society wishes to acknowledge these concerns and debates.
This exhibit is not a complete examination of Father Lacombe, but a sampling of some of his life and significant actions and contributions. Please also note that some of the language used in quotes in this exhibit is reflective of the time period in which they was written, not the current values of the Lacombe & District Historical Society. Furthermore, this exhibit focuses on Father Lacombe’s interactions with the Canadian Government and the Indeginous peoples, while his activities within the Oblate order or Catholic Church are not addressed. This is due to the fact that Father Lacombe communicated with the Canadian Government in English, while the language used by the Oblates and in Catholic Church communications was largely French and our researcher was unable to read these documents.
Early Life and Education
Father Albert Lacombe was born on the 28th of February, 1827, in Saint-Sulpice, Quebec. His parents were Albert Lacombe and Agathe Duhamel. Father Lacombe attended the Collège de L’Assomption and the bishop’s palace in Montreal, eventually becoming a Roman Catholic Priest. In 1848 Lacombe met Father George Bellecourt, a missionary from the West who’s stories appear to have inspired Lacombe to become a missionary. After he was ordained in 1849, Lacombe began his missionary life in North Dakota and started studying Indigenous languages and traveling with the Metis peoples.
Moving to Alberta and Early Activity
Lacombe came to Alberta in 1853. He was initially based out of Lac Ste Anne and traveled around what is now Alberta extensively. In 1856, he became an Oblate of Mary Immaculate and served as a missionary with them for most of his life. The Oblates of Mary Immaculate had two main goals. The first was to spread Catholic Christianity, accompanied by European civilization, among the Metis and the Indigenous peoples of Western Canada. They believed this to be in the best interests of the Metis and the Indigenous peoples, both in their present lives and in eternity. In January 1861 Lacombe helped choose a new location near Fort Edmonton for a Oblate mission. St Albert was Lacombe’s patron saint, and so the new settlement was named for St Albert. This new location provided better agricultural opportunities and more contact with the Cree, Blackfoot, and Metis peoples who came to Fort Edmonton to trade. Under Lacombe’s leadership as the superior, the mission grew and infrastructure such as a bridge over the Sturgeon River, a flour mill, a school, and cart trails were established.
The Oblates and French Settlement
The other main goal of the Oblates was to promote French Canadian settlement on the prairies. In his book Proclaiming the Gospel to the Indians and the Metis, historian Raymond Huel states that “[i]n establishing the Catholic Church in the West the Oblates were promoting a cultural and religious extension of Quebec.” Interestingly, this led the Oblates to support Indigenous languages as a defense against Protestantism and “Anglicization” according to Huel. The Oblates were extremely interested in Indigenous languages, and Father Lacombe learned Cree and Blackfoot. He was immensely impressed with the quality of these languages. As part of his efforts to move French Canadians into Western Canada, Father Lacombe considered the area around the present-day City of Lacombe for a French Canadian Settlement. In his work “The Trail to Strawberry Plain,” Percy Talbot, son of Peter Talbot relates the story:
“An interesting incident happened in the spring of 1893. My father was trying to plow a small piece of ground that was to be planted as a garden. . . . We were resting at the end of the furrow when two men in a buckboard drove up. The driver was a halfbreed [Metis]; the other a Catholic priest. The latter was Father Lacombe.
We sat on the grass and I saw my father watching this priest with great interest. Father Lacombe soon discovered that we were not Catholic, and he explained that it was his intention to bring in a large number of French Canadians from Quebec. He thought that as our family were Protestant we would not wish to be surrounded by those of another faith. My father told Father Lacombe that some of his best friends were Catholic and that he had always got along very well with them. He also said that as we were now getting pretty well established he could not start looking for a home elsewhere. Young as I was I could see that the two men were drawn to each other. It was, indeed, the start of a friendship which continued as long as they lived.
The following year Father Lacombe came again to our place. We were by this time living on the farm. . . . Father Lacombe said his plans had been changed and that the families he had intended bringing to Lacombe were bring transferred to the vicinity of St. Albert.”
Percy Talbot, “The Trail to Strawberry Plain,” unpublished source, Michener House Museum & Archives, 18. LDHS 2003.37.4
Christian Missionary to the Indigenous Peoples
Father Albert Lacombe was a very successful missionary who was able to adapt to a lifestyle among the Indigenous peoples and he was well liked in many cases. He became known to the Cree peoples as “The Man of the Beautiful Soul” and to the Blackfoot tribes as “The Man of the Good heart.”
Having been introduced to both the Blackfoot and the Plains Cree while at Lac Ste. Anne, Lacombe began traveling with them and living among them in 1865. The Oblates had believed that the only way to minster to the Indigenous people was to meet them at fur trading posts, but Lacombe showed that an “itinerant ministry” among them was both possible and effective. In 1869 Lacombe spent three weeks in a Blackfoot camp near Rocky Mountain House, where he instructed the people and learned their language.
Working with the Metis
Lacombe began his work as a missionary among the Metis in Pembina and continued to interact with them when he came to Fort Edmonton in 1852. Lacombe attempted to teach them how to make a living via agriculture since he knew that the buffalo were not going to last forever. In 1896, Lacombe led the establishment of an agricultural mission called St. Paul de Metis located near the Saddle Lake reserve.
In an undated pamphlet signed by Father Lacombe advertising a new Metis settlement, the missionary stated that while the Metis had been a happy people in the past, “[e]verything is changed to day. Misery and poverty, among a great many of you have replaced that easy life of old. Far from bettering your condition, the new civilization has done nothing but render it worse.” The Metis, according to Lacombe, had been scattered and were without the guidance formerly provided by their priests. Consequently, he had worked to set up a reserve specifically for the Metis. The land was to be theirs as long as it was needed and would be administered by “the Bishops and missionaries, who alone shall have the right to distribute and turn it to use, at their own will for the greatest good of the new colony.”
Schools and churches were to be established. Certain rules also applied, such as a prohibition on the consumption or sale of any alcohol on the reserve. Lacombe claimed that “[i]f, once more, you listen to the priest who is your true friend, I promise you in advance that you will again live happy and that you shall not be exposed to be at the mercy of the white people. . . . In a short time, you will have made an establishment which will afford you an easy living and you will have the consolation to be at home, near your church, your school and your pastors.”
Lacombe’s hopes, however, were not realized as the reserve struggled with financial issues and a lack of farming expertise among the Metis. The project was finally ended in 1908 when the four townships that made up the reserve were opened to settlers, many of whom were French Canadian.
Lacombe was occasionally involved in providing care for the sick. In 1857, Lacombe came south to care for members of the Blackfoot Tribe who had scarlet fever. Lacombe himself got ill and nearly died in 1865 and Jean L’Heureux found him and looked after him. Father Lacombe was named to the Board of Health of the North-West Territories during the smallpox epidemic of 1871. In December of 1892, Lacombe traveled to locate Sisters who would be willing to run a hospital on the Blood Reserve. This hospital was opened by August of 1893. When Mrs. Burris set out to raise funds for a hospital in the Town of Lacombe, Father Lacombe contributed $5 in 1907.
The Oblates and Education
The Oblates were interested in education before the Treaties were signed and had been teaching students on their own since there were no other schools or orphanages available at the time. These appear to have been entirely voluntary and seem to have been fairly well attended.
“Through education the Oblates sought to bring about a moral, social and economic regeneration of Native society and traditions. This radical transformation was deemed to be a prerequisite to Indians becoming self-supporting citizens in the new order that was emerging on the prairies. The attempts of the Oblates to transform the society of the First Nations was motivated by a sincere conviction that Catholicism was the only valid expression of religious spirituality and that the adoption of a sedentary lifestyle would reinforce Christian values as well as provide a superior material status for those who made the transition.”
Huel, Proclaiming the Gospel to the Indians and the Metis, 123.
The Treaties included an obligation on the part of the Canadian Government to provide education for the Indigenous children, and the Oblates sought to partner with the Government to provide this education. The Oblates did not have enough money to run these schools on their own, and were consequently financially dependent on the Government for these ventures. As the Indigenous people began to settle on their reserves, the Federal Government tested day schools run by religious groups on the reserves, but these were not particularly successful due to a lack of regular attendance.
Along with Vital Grandin, Lacombe was involved in developing a plan for industrial residential schools that would be funded by the Government and run by the Oblates. These schools were to admit young children who would be given and education that included academics, vocational training, and Christianity. The schools were intended to give the Indigenous people the ability to survive and eventually thrive in the massive social and economic changes that were coming to the prairies.
Lacombe and St. Joseph’s Industrial School
St. Joseph’s Industrial School, also referred to as the High River School or the Dunbow Industrial School, was opened in the fall of 1884 for the Blackfoot children. Father Lacombe was its first principal. The letterbook from the school, which contains copies of outgoing letters, provides information about the school, Lacombe’s activities at it, and his views on how it needed to be improved.
Based on the information found in the letterbook, the school struggled with getting adequate financing from the Government of Canada on a regular basis. For example, Father Lacombe never appears to have been satisfied with the buildings built for the school and dormitories. Several letters record his frustration with the poor workmanship that was put into the facilities and the number of additions that were still needed. When a problem was discovered with dirty water leaking back into the well, Lacombe used his own funds to attempt to repair the problem. Insufficient funds from the Federal Government appear to have been at the root of many of these problems in Lacombe’s estimation.
Food was another contentious issue, especially when the Government wanted to reduce costs and Lacombe protested that they already had too little food to properly feed the staff and the students. Lacombe’s letters became heated at times, as can be seen from the excerpt below:
“I received your letter of the 13th inst. in which you advise me to alter the sugar ration. All right! I will arrange it this way vis: Sundays and Thursdays I will give the pupils the full ration of sugar; and the other days will serve the tea without it. Because the small quantity of one ounce for the whole day gives no taste at all.”
Letter to Hater Reed, January 26, 1885, Letterbook, 19.
Attracting and retaining pupils for St. Joseph’s Industrial School was another issue that Lacombe struggled with continuously during his time as principal of the school. Initially, St. Joseph’s School was not able to take all the children who were sent by Chief Crowfoot because the buildings were completed behind schedule. As time went on, many children, particularly the boys, left the school or were sent away because the staff could not manage them.
As a result of this experience, Lacombe eventually concluded that the government would need to step in and “bring pressure in some way to bear upon those Indians who refuse their children, as by threatening to deprive them of their rations, & c.” Father Lacombe believed that the government should find children who left the school and bring them back while parents who cooperated and sent their children should be rewarded. These sorts of ideas were not new, as Dewdney had expressed the belief that education needed to be either required or rewarded to ensure high attendance in 1884. Repeated attempts had been made to recruit children without the use of force.
Father Lacombe attempted to make the school a place that the students would enjoy. These attempts included purchasing one hundred dollars’ worth of “toys” and “sweets” for the children out of his own money. When such attempts failed to provide sufficient encouragement for students to behave in an orderly fashion, Lacombe began advocating for the use of punishment of some kind, but he did not provide details in the sources examined.
It would seem that some children felt that they benefited from their time at St. Joseph’s Industrial School. According to Canada’s Residential Schools: The History, Part 1, Origins to 1939, Father Lacombe was credited by former student, Daniel Kennedy, “with making it possible for him and a number of other students to pursue their education after leaving residential school.”
The Oblates assigned a different principal to the school in 1886. The fact that Father Lacombe was not always present at the school was causing additional difficulties and some questions were raises about how the school was being administrated.
Working With and Confronting the Government
Father Lacombe’s relationships between the Government of Canada and the Indigenous peoples were rather complex. Father Lacombe advocated for the development of “civilization” among the Metis and Indigenous people and at times worked for the Government of Canada to promote Government goals among these people. However, Lacombe was also willing to confront the Government when he felt that it was treating the Indigenous people unfairly or when he believed that the Government of Canada needed to do more to protect the Indigenous people. The Oblates in general often advocated for the Indigenous peoples when the Government of Canada and the larger Canadian society seemed indifferent or unaware of their needs.
For example, starting in 1875, Lacombe began advocating for laws to protect the buffalo so that the Metis and the Indigenous people would be able to continue to live off of the herds. When the government did not act, Lacombe continued pressing for such a law, claiming that European settlement and trade was going to lead to the total disappearance of the buffalo herds within a decade. In a letter written in 1876, Lacombe expressed the belief that the protection of the buffalo was necessary to “preserve, at least for a time, the future of those people.”
The Oblates in general believed that while less than ideal, treaties were the only way to secure stability in the North-West and consequently supported the establishment of the Treaties. The Oblates thought that the treaties were the lesser evil for the Indigenous people since they included land that would be safely set aside for them. At various points, Lacombe expressed his views on the Government, the Indigenous peoples, and the relationship between them. Lacombe believed that the Government needed to adopt a paternal role in relationship to Canada’s first peoples, but he also pointed out that some of the issues were caused by dishonestly and trickery on the part of Government representatives. He thought that the Government was not providing adequate compensation to the Indigenous peoples for all that they were losing.
Thus, while Father Lacombe appears to have viewed the Indigenous peoples as being in need of the Government’s guidance and civilizing influences, he also believed that the Government was not always being fair or providing adequate compensation. Furthermore, Lacombe wanted the Government to work through the existing Catholic and Protestant missionaries to administer the payments for the land “because, through their efforts to Christianize, they also advanced the cause of civilization” according to Huel.
Father Lacombe was unable to help with the Treaty 7 negotiations in 1877 because of health issues, but he did serve as an adviser for the Government during the negotiations for Treaty 8 in 1899. He believed that he had been helping the Indigenous peoples and Metis, although many Oblates later felt that the Government had not adhered to their promises to the First Nations Peoples.
Lacombe and the North-West Rebellion of 1885
The North-West Rebellion of 1885 provides another example of Lacombe’s relationship with both the Indigenous peoples and the Government of Canada. At the request of various officials, Lacombe traveled through what is now Alberta, attempting to convince the Blackfoot and the Cree not to support Louis Riel in his rebellion. When the hostilities were over, Lacombe made recommendations to remedy the grievances of Indigenous peoples while also recommending that Indigenous people’ guns and horses be taken away and that they not be allowed to camp near cities.
Lacombe also attempted to get amnesty for participants in the Rebellion. In a letter dated February 20th, 1886, Lacombe asked that Macdonald and the rest of the government “exercise . . . clemency and pardon those, our children, who have broken the law by reason of bad advice and not through malignity; and we trust you will pardon them.” Lacombe argued that “those poor wretched creatures have already suffered so much for their crimes” and asked that they be pardoned “in the names of our two faithful missionaries who were massacred at Frog Lake.”
While Lacombe worked for the Government and attempted to suppress the North-West Rebellion of 1885, he also advocated for some of the rebels. This incident demonstrates Lacombe’s complex relationship between the Indigenous peoples and the Government of Canada.
1899 Report on Improving the Conditions of the Indigenous Peoples of Treaty 7
In November of 1899, Albert Lacombe wrote a seven-page report in which he made recommendations for improving the lives of the Indigenous people. Lacombe laid out what he believed would be an effective plan “to make our Indians civilized and self-supporting.” Lacombe believed that an industry of some sort should be established on the reserves in order to provide employment and skills for the Indigenous people. He believed that farming was largely failing to gain popularity among these people because of their “laziness and indifference” which led them to “do as little as possible to ameliorate their new condition.”
Old customs, particularly the Sun dance, were labeled by Lacombe as the greatest evil that was preventing the Indigenous people from being “christianized and civilized.” This was because of the great amount of time spent preparing for and engaging in the Sun dance instead of tending to their farms. As a result, Lacombe wanted the Government to end the Sun dances.
Additionally, Lacombe wanted the Indigenous people to be prevented from leaving their reserves and farming to be incentivized. Skills such as baking with flour should also be taught on the reserves in Lacombe’s opinion. A government run store should be provided on the reserves that would sell goods “at cost price.” Lacombe also advocated for the more Indigenous people to be employed by the Mounted Police as it had been demonstrated that they did good work as auxiliaries.
Lacombe continued to advocate for Industrial schools run by missionaries. He believed that the day schools on the reserves were failing because the Indigenous children either did not attend or only attended irregularly. Consequently, the goal of educating the children was not being accomplished while a great deal of government money was being spent. To rectify this situation, Lacombe continued to recommend compulsory attendance enforced by the threat of deprivation of rations as well as giving the Indian Agents more authority to enforce attendance. Graduates from these schools were to be provided with farming supplies and livestock or tools for some trade to enable them to prosper upon their return to the reserves. In closing, Lacombe stated he was “pretty sure it would meet with the approval and consent of those philanthropists who have at heart the future good of our indians, on this Treaty 7.”
In response to these recommendations made by Father Lacombe, the Department of Indians affairs agreed with many of his recommendation, at least in theory. However, the store was viewed as too expensive and forcing children to attend schools was also viewed as problematic. Creating more boarding schools was viewed favorably. Some reservations were expressed, however, about having the schools run by priest as “[t]he Superintendent General is, however, aware of the strong prejudices existing in the minds of very many of the above named Indians, as well as of the Blackfeet proper, in respect to the management by Priests of such institutions.”
Lacombe began work on his last major achievement in 1908. This project was to be a home for vulnerable persons, such as the handicapped, elderly, and orphaned. In 1910, the Lacombe Home opened. It was here that, on the 12th of December, 1916, Father Lacombe passed away at the age of 89. He was buried in St. Albert.
While the legacy of many of the efforts that Father Lacombe was involved in is often controversial, Lacombe appears to have genuinely sought to promote the well-being of the Indigenous and Metis people and to help them through the difficult and sweeping changes brought European settlement in the West and Government policies. While his views often reflected those common at the time, and included a sometimes demeaning view of Indigenous people, he was also not blind to the many of the negative impacts European settlement and the Government’s actions.
The following sources were used during the course of the research for this exhibit. For a general overview of Father Lacombe’s life that includes aspects not covered by this exhibit, the Dictionary of Canadian Biography is particularly helpful, and was used extensively in this exhibit, particularly in composing the timeline.
Research and Exhibit by Paige Mansell
Huel, Raymond J. A. Proclaiming the Gospel to the Indians and the Metis. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 1996.
Lacombe: The First Century. Lacombe: Lacombe and District Chamber of Commerce, 1982.
Leighton, Douglas. “A Victorian Civil Servant at Work: Lawrence Vankoughnet and the Canadian Indian Department,” in As Long as the Sun Shines and Water Flows: a Reader in Canadian Native Studies, ed. by Ian A. L. Getty and Antonine S. Lussier. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 1983.
MacEwan, Grant. Fifty Mighty Men. 1958 Reprint. Saskatoon: Modern Press, 1967.
MacGregor, James G. Father Lacombe. Edmonton: Hurtig Publishers, 1975.
Palmer, Howard with Tamara Palmer. Alberta: A New History. Edmonton: Hurtig Publishers, 1990.
Stanly, George F. G. The Birth of Western Canada: a History of the Riel Rebellions. 1963. Reprint. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1992.
Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Canada’s Residential Schools: The History, Part 1, Origins to 1939, vol. 1 of The Final Report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada. London: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2015.
“Correspondence Regarding the Appointment of Reverend Father Lacombe to Assist in Treaty Negotiations.” Library and Archives Canada, RG10. Volume/box number: 3651. File number: 8506. Copied container number: C-10114.
Deputy Supt. General of Indian Affairs, “Memorandum,” Glenbow Museum, Dewdney Fonds M-320-p. 2193-2197.
Eggermont-Molenaar, Mary and Paul Callens, ed. Missionaries Among Miners, Migrants and Blackfoot: The Van Tighem Brothers Dairies, Alberta 1875-1917. Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2007.
Fumoleau, Rene. As Long as This Land Shall Last: a History of Treaty 8 and Treaty 11. Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2004.
Lacombe, Albert. “Father Albert Lacombe Suggest a Law for the Preservation of the Buffalo in the Northwest Territories,” Library and Archives Canada, RG10. Volume/box number: 3627. File number: 6157. Copied container number: C-11063.
Lacombe, Albert. “To My Dear Children and Friends: The Half-Breeds of Manitoba and the North-West.” Glenbow Museum, Marie Rose Smith fonds, Series1: M-1154, S655 oversize.
Lacombe, Albert. “Report of Rev. Father A. Lacombe to The Honorable Ed. Dewdney Minister of the Interior,” Glenbow Museum, Dewdney Fonds, M-320-p. 2186-2192.
Talbot, Percy. “The Trail to Strawberry Plain.” Unpublished Source. Michener House Museum and Archives, Reference File.