During the first weekend of April on Opaskwayak Cree Nation (OCN), Anglicans and others from across the country gathered to celebrate God’s faithfulness with the 175th anniversary of the Devon Mission. A colourful procession of Cree dancers, led by a crucifer and a pole covered with eagle feathers, marked the importance of the area as a gathering place for Cree and settler peoples alike. In many ways, the land – now divided between the town of The Pas and OCN – exemplifies the breadth of indigenous-settler relations in Canada.
Located some 600 km northwest of the Red River Settlement (now Winnipeg), the Devon Mission began when explorer Sir John Franklin sent word to England in 1819 that the trading post there would make an excellent place for a mission. The following year, Rev. John West was sent by the Church Missionary Society as the Hudson’s Bay Company chaplain to the area. Finding life in the northern outpost too difficult, West took two young Cree boys back to the Red River Settlement. There, he educated them in English, bible, and theology, that they might return to minster to their own people.
One of these boys was 8-year-old Sakachuwes’cum, whose father had recently died and whose mother accompanied him south. Given the English name “Henry Budd,” the young man returned north in 1840 to open the Mission, where he spent his life teaching the Gospel to his people in their native Cree. Several years later, the first Bishop of Rupert’s Land, David Anderson, ordained Henry Budd at the Red River Settlement, making him the first indigenous cleric in what is now Canada. The Henry Budd School of Ministry, opened in his honour in 1960, trains indigenous catechists and spiritual leaders to this day.
The anniversary speakers, however, did not shy away from acknowledging the painful parts of indigenous and settler relations over the past 175 years. As a Cree priest, Henry Budd was paid just half of the stipend the white clergy received. “I can never tire of apologizing for the wrong done,” Primate Fred Hiltz told the crowd. “In many ways, this event is about looking back. But this is also about looking forward. The elders here have said that they believe there is a way forward.”
Five Anglican bishops participated in the gathering, which comes on the heels of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s final report in December. Welcomed as honoured guests in the community, they were invited to see and experience what God is doing in northern Manitoba. “I was deeply humbled and will never forget (being invited to pray with the elders),” remarked the Primate.
For some, the celebration of indigenous expressions of Christianity marked a return to the days of their ancestors, when God was at work in new and exciting ways as the Gospel was expressed through Cree culture and language. Rev. Barbara Shoomski and Nellie Morrisseau, great-great granddaughters of John Sinclair, explained how their grandfather worked alongside Henry Budd to translate scripture into Cree and take the message of Jesus to more remote communities in the area.
In a mixture of pride and pain, the women spoke of Sinclair being one of the first to attend St. John’s College, getting ordained, and then having to leave the Red River Settlement because the settlers wanted him replaced with a white priest. The sisters remember the tears of their community when, in1960, his grave was flooded by Manitoba Hydro. Still, they were filled with hope as they watched their bishops and elders pray side-by-side, thanking the Creator for caring for their people. “I was so happy when I saw the cross and the eagle feathers side by side,” one elderly woman explained, “My grandmother said that one day this will come, and now it’s here.”
Participants left the gathering with equally mixed feelings. While it is undeniable that there is much to celebrate from the past 175 years, it is equally clear that there is much work to be done. The river running between the reserve and the town is a stark reminder of that which remains to be overcome on the journey toward reconciliation. Yet both the elders and the bishops affirm a sense of hope for the future. “We do not have two cultures,” said National Indigenous Bishop Mark MacDonald, “We are indigenous Christians.”