Exhuming an intrepid pioneer

(Edmonton) He was an Oblate missionary, writer and painter and a zealot. But Émile Grouard was also the first to bring a printing press to the Northwest, to sow the first wheat in Athabasca Country and to leave a novel literary legacy.  Grouard also represents a religious culture that University of Alberta English and Films Studies researcher Patricia Demers says is surrounded by suspicions today.

This year’s Salter lecture presented the life and works of a Frenchman Demers calls a pioneer but whose legacy is now mostly forgotten.  “It’s important to exhume this man from the past, because he accomplished a lot,” Demers says.

Grouard was in France when he received a bursary to study painting, but instead he took the money and bought a printing press with fonts that he brought to the northwest in 1876. He used the press, currently at the Royal Alberta Museum, to start a tradition that Demers says no other missionary at his time matched.

“The Oblate missions in the great Northwest were new in the 1870s, so he was in a sense starting a tradition by bringing the first printing press to Athabasca Country,” she says. “At the time, there were other missionaries who tried to create work in the languages of the people, but all of those works were not printed in the great northwest.  Grouard taught himself the languages, printed in them, and every time he set a text, he asked the elders of the people to edit and correct his work.” 

Demer says Grouard’s practical nature led him to make the decision which later saw him printing in five distinct First Nations languages. “He’s the remarkable example of a man who not only devoted his whole life to this work but who saw his printing activity as an overarching principle of his ministry;  he was convinced that you had to speak to the people in their own language.

“How else can you talk about religion to people whom you’re hoping to engage if you cannot speak in their language? He believed in the language of the people, not in silencing it, but giving it voice. I don’t know of another Oblate who produced as much literature in these languages as Grouard.”

Only two of the three altar triptychs which Grouard painted exist today—at Grouard (a small hamlet in Alberta’s Big Lakes district named after the missionary) and Dunvegan.  Demers says both reduced people to tears in their day, and on them his use of First Nations languages came alive. The central panel was always the Crucifixion, with Mary and John on either side. At the top was a spiritual, biblical passage in Cree Syllabics, an uncommon practice in the 19th century.

“Unusual is too small a word to explain these paintings at the time; they were unique and quite staggering as a piece of work. When I first saw one of the triptychs, it was as much an eye-opener as discovering a text. You realize that this man was really multi-talented.”

But Demers says Grouard’s practical approach to missionary work went beyond finding innovative ways to communicate with those he tried to evangelize.  “He established a warehouse, and he introduced the first grinding mill in the great Northwest. So he was a practical man who realized that people needed assistance in continuing to live fairly and productively on the land,” she said.

Demers says Grouard responded to a great many problems of his followers, among them smallpox and flu epidemics, a changing landscape as engineers and surveyors plotted land for development and a war for furs that left many First Nations peoples destitute. She said Grouard “continued to minister to the people and never abandoned them to return to the comfort of France. He continued to serve.”

“His influence in his day was remarkable, but his influence today is entirely forgotten. I’ve asked people about Emile, and I’ve always drawn a blank. He was actually inducted into the French Legion of Honour in 1925 and he’s called the most intrepid pioneer of the great Northwest. I called him a zealot, but in a very positive sense, because he spent almost his whole life, seventy years, devoted to this ministry. He was certainly fired by more than personal ambition. It has to be the fuel of an internal calling and that’s why I would call him, in a very positive sense, a zealot.”

Demers says Grouard draws attention to a very positive time in the evangelizing of the Northwest. “We tend now to dismiss the Oblate mission and subject it to such suspicious criticism today, but Grouard showed “the absolute essence of integrity of the Oblate mission, which was to evangelize the poor. And it was not done in an abusive, coercive or silencing fashion,” she said.