The Red River Parish

by Douglas Kemp

Manitoba Pageant, September 1962, Volume 8, Number 1

This article was published originally in Manitoba Pageant by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Among the older institutions of Manitoba that were transmitted from the original Red River Settlement are the parishes. Everyone is familiar with their names but their significance in the long history of church, social and political organization is not so well known. Their importance as the focal point of the social aspects of life in the Red River valley has diminished but they endure to this day as civic as well as ecclesiastical units.

In Settlement days, the parish was basically a settlement which had grown up around a mission, or in which a mission had been established. The parishes were the natural units of the Settlement, each with its church and school and its own communal life. That they should have formed the centres around which the administrative divisions of the new province were formed was, therefore, inevitable.

Photo: St. Boniface Cathedral - 1840s. Courtesy of Provincial Archives.

The first of the parishes to be established was St. Boniface named in honour of the patron saint of the Germanic people. It grew around the first mission in the West begun in 1818 by the Roman Catholic fathers, Provencher and Dumoulin, on land assigned to them by Lord Selkirk on the east bank of the Red River opposite the Forks. The first to settle there were the French-Canadian and half-breed servants of the North West Company and the Swiss and German colonists of the disbanded de Meurons Regiment. In 1848, it became the seat of the Bishopric of St. Boniface and later Roman Catholic missions had their origins from this parent church.

On land granted by Selkirk to his settlers for religious and educational purposes the Reverend John West of the Church of England founded in 1820 the church of St. John. This was located about two miles below the Forks on the west bank of the Red. The mission gave rise to the Red River Academy, later St. John's College. It was established for the training of a native ministry and for the education of the sons of Hudson's Bay Company employees. Many of the congregation of the church were Selkirk settlers from Kildonan to the north, who lacked the services of a Presbyterian minister. The Church of England in the West began in this parish of St. John's and in 1849 it became the seat of the Bishopric of Rupert's Land.

The buffalo hunting post at Pembina, some seventy miles up the Red River, had its Roman Catholic mission. By the boundary settlement of 1818 this was found to lie within the United States. Under persuasion the majority of the settlers moved back into British territory and settled on the Assiniboine about twenty miles west of St. Boniface at Prairie du Cheval Blanc, White Horse Plain. A mission begun here by Father Destroismaisons in 1824 developed into the large half-breed parish of St. Francois Xavier. Many servants of the North West and Hudson's Bay Companies, released at the time of the companies' uniting in 1821, settled in the parish and it became a rendezvous of the buffalo hunt, the chief occupation of a majority of the French half-breeds.

Image Plain, six miles down river from St. John's and just north of Kildonan, was the locale of the second English parish. It was founded by the Reverend David Jones of the Church of England in 1825. This was St. Paul's, but on the establishment of St. Andrew's near the Grand Rapids on the Red in 1829, it became known as the Middle Church.

Photo: Archbishop J. N. Provencher Courtesy of Provincial Archives.

Photo: Archdeacon William Cochrane Courtesy of Provincial Archives.

The Lower Church, St. Andrew's, was founded by William Cochrane of the Church Missionary Society and it was to flourish beyond all the other English parishes. The settlement here was composed of retired servants of the Hudson's Bay Company and their native wives and half-breed children. Cochrane formed the Indian mission of St. Peter's where Cook's Creek meets the Red. Followers of the famous chief, Peguis, made up this purely Indian parish. It had its Catholic counterpart in the mission of Father Belcourt at Baie St. Paul on the Assiniboine above St. Francois Xavier.

These, then, were the seven original parishes of Red River. All were essentially missions and, in the more primitive, to christianize and to civilize were complementary endeavours. The church, with its twin the school, formed the spiritual and actual focus of the houses and clearings. The parish promoted the communal life of the settlement and served the educational and religious needs of the inhabitants.

The seven had become twenty by 1870; the natural increase of the population brought this about. Most of the additional French parishes were south of the Forks. In 1815, the settlement on the Riviere Sale became the parish of St. Norbert. Although Ste. Agathe was not properly a parish until 1872, it was regarded as one since it was a settlement with more or less regular religious services. Around a convent founded in 1860 at St. Vital grew a parish. To the southeast, religious services began in 1864 at what was to become Ste. Anne-des-Chenes. Ten years earlier, St. Charles had been founded on the Assiniboine below St. Francois Xavier. Meanwhile, a wandering mission begun at Duck Bay on Lake Winnipegosis in 1842, settled in 1858 at St. Laurent on the southeastern shore of Lake Manitoba where the flood of 1826 had driven some settlers from St. Francois Xaxier. This, with the exception of an Anglican mission at Westbourne, was the only parish of the original province of Manitoba not on the river system of the Red and Assiniboine.

Most of the later English parishes were located on the Assiniboine. The indefatigable Cochrane, in spite of Hudson's Bay Company opposition, established the parish of St. Mary's at the old trading post of Portage la Prairie. The parish later gave rise to the parish of St. Margaret's and St. Anne's at High Bluff and Poplar Point down the Assiniboine. Between the Catholic parishes of St. Charles and St. Francois Xavier, the Reverend G. O. Corbett established Trinity Church, Headingly in 1853. In the same year, the parish of St. James was founded about two miles above Fort Garry by the Reverend W. H. Taylor.

In 1851, the Presbyterian settlers of Kildonan obtained t h e long - promised minister of their own creed, the Reverend John Black. They withdrew from St. John's and between it and Middle Church set up their parish of Kildonan. St. Clements, the last of t h e pre-confederation parishes w a s formed on the north-ern part of St. Andrew's in 1861.

Photo: Old Kildonan Church. Courtesy Provincial Archives.

Prior to 1869, the parishes were not political units. The territory within a radius of fifty miles of Fort Garry was governed by the Hudson's Bay Company after 1835 through the Governor and Council of Assiniboia. While representative men were selected for the Council, no account was taken of the parishes as such. They were, however, in the habit of sending petitions to the Council.

The political role of the parishes after 1869 had its origin in two things. First, the parish organization gave the dispersed settlement foci that made possible discussion and concerted action and second, the part played by the people of mixed blood in the events which replaced the rule of the Hudson's Bay Company by self-government within Con-federation. Frontier conditions had blunted the cleavage between the two major sections and the Settlement was divided linguistically rather than racially, into French and English. The tie of Indian blood was strong and the degree of unity was sufficient to give Louis Riel good ground for attempting to form a united front in presenting terms to Canada.

Riel, in order to do this, invited the English parishes to elect twelve delegates to meet with the twelve members of his Committee and to form a convention to discuss the terms to be submitted to Ottawa. Although the invitation had a mixed reception, the Anglican clergy advised co-operation to avoid bloodshed and the ties of blood were strong. The parishes elected ten delegates and the village of Winnipeg two. This was the first formal political act of the English parishes. The convention set up a new executive and agreed to the establishment of a Provisional Government. Before it became a part of Canada, the Red River Settlement of its own resources had mustered a militia and created representative institutions. The native origins of these were the buffalo hunt and the Red River parish.

Concerted action, as is known, resulted in Ottawa granting generous terms which were embodied in the Manitoba Act of 1870. There were to be twenty-four members of a Legislative Assembly representing a like number of electoral districts established with "due regard being had to existing local divisions and population". The twenty-four districts formed were essentially the twenty parishes, the four largest being divided in two, that sent representatives to the Council of the Provisional Government. The composition of the Legislative Assembly followed predetermined lines. An influx of settlers, adding new settlements to the old, later necessitated a change of electoral districts. Until that time, Manitoba was the Red River Settlement in a new guise.

For like reasons the judicial districts, the school districts and the early municipalities followed the old parish lines, either individually or in groups. Its past had created the province and the Manitoba Act had given it a legal existence. The development of the parishes suggests that Manitoba was not merely the creation of the Dominion Parliament. In many respects it was the offspring of the fur trade, the missions and the deep soil of the Red River Valley. The Dominion recognized rather than created. The parish which had moulded Red River Society, shaped also the outlines of the political organization of the new order.

Author's note: This article is a condensation of a monograph, "The Red River Parish" by W. L. Morton, published in Manitoba Essays; Toronto, 1937.

Page revised: 1 July 2009