Although the current picture of Indigenous ministry in Alberta may be what is particularly interesting to us now, it is important to understand it within its historical context. The current vibrancy of Christian faith among the Indigenous people of what we now call Alberta is a result of many different movements, mistakes, and triumphs in history. Listening to this story helps us understand what it took to get where we are, what lessons we learned on the way, and what mistakes we know we must not repeat.
Due to Alberta’s far distance from the European settlements in the East and the South, it was one of the last areas to be reached by European explorers, with first contact occurring in 1754 (Berry & Brink, 2004, p. 26). In the early period of contact, the settlers had a commercial relationship with the First Nations, and they saw Indigenous peoples as potential allies or trading partners (Government of Canada, 2017, Part 3). However, once the settler population grew enough to outnumber the Indigenous peoples and began demanding more land, the settlers’ regard of the Indigenous peoples began to change (Government of Canada, 2017, Part 3). The settlers viewed the First Nations people as dependants, and as inferior to the more “civilized” and Christian European society (Government of Canada, 2017, Part 4). They eventually made this attitude into policy, and began a program of assimilation that would be the central tenet of Indian legislation for the next 150 years (Government of Canada, 2017, Part 4).
Unfortunately, the church was a driving force in this assimilation program, as they desired to see the First Nations people assimilated into their Christian Kingdom (Government of Canada, 2017, Part 4). The first Christian missionaries arrived in Alberta in the 1840s (Palmer, 1990, p. 3), and ministry by the Anglican, Presbyterian, Methodist, and Catholic missionaries began. In keeping with the attitudes of the time, the main mission activity was the residential school program, which sought to assimilate Indigenous children into European society. In the late 1800s, Treaties 6, 7, and 8, comprising most of the territory of Alberta, were signed between the First Nations and the Crown. Around the same time, the buffalo died out, and the Plains First Nations were left disenfranchised of their livelihood. According to Ray Aldred, a leader in the Indigenous church, efforts at forced assimilation began to increase in the early 1900s when the residential school system came into full swing. By the end of the century, the abuses of the residential school system, the forced assimilation at the hands of the church, and other adversity the First Nations were experiencing led to Indigenous Christians who had come to faith in the 1800s stepping away from the church.
In the early 1900s, while the mainline Protestant denominations continued on with their work in the Residential schools, a new player entered the field: evangelicalism. These denominations arrived too late to participate in running the Residential schools, so their ministry took a different form - primarily that of missionary sending organizations. In fact, the height of Indigenous ministry operations in the evangelical church seems to have taken place between 1950 and 1990 through these missionary organizations. During this period, Euro-Canadian evangelical Christians “had a heart for the Indians,” seeing them as a needy people group who needed to be saved. The goal of these organizations was to plant and establish European-style churches, and they often viewed Indigenous culture as demonic, something that Indigenous people needed to be delivered out of.
After the second world war, the Canadian government began reevaluating their residential school system. In 1946, a special parliamentary committee first examined the impacts of the government’s policies of assimilation and their negative effects on First Nations people (Government of Canada, 2017, Part 5). Although changes were slow coming, the government of Canada began changing their Indian legislation throughout the latter half of the century, including changes to the educational system that saw the residential schools shut down by the end of the century (Government of Canada, 2017, Part 6). In the early 2000s, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) was launched, which investigated the impacts of the Residential School system, and proposed a way forward of reconciliation between the Indigenous peoples of Canada and the groups that had oppressed them, including both the government and the church. In addition, in the 80’s and 90’s Indigenous Christians began questioning the prevailing assumption that adopting Christian faith required Indigenous believers to reject their own culture, which was understood to be inherently demonic, and fit into Euro-Canadian culture, which was understood to be inherently righteous (Leblanc & Leblanc, 2011, p. 88). This led to the development of the modern day “contextualization movement,” which pushes churches to foster culturally Indigenous expressions of Christianity, and to commit to the decolonization of Christianity.
As the Catholic church and the mainline Protestant denominations were the ones specifically addressed by the TRC, they are the denominations that have most actively participated in the TRC’s Calls to Action. As a result, their methods and philosophies of ministry have changed from that of the 1800s and 1900s. Now, most of these denominations have denounced their past actions, and created specialized initiatives meant to foster reconciliation and empower Indigenous peoples to fully participate in the church as equals.
Because they were not involved in running the residential schools and were not party to the Residential Schools Settlement Agreement, the evangelical denominations have not largely been active participants with the Calls to Action. However, their methods and approaches to ministry are changing as well, influenced by the ripples the TRC has created in society. Although evangelical denominations experienced a height of Indigenous ministry in the late 1900s, this fervour waned as the century came to a close. In the last 50 years, we have seen an encouraging number of evangelical ministry organizations and initiatives led by Indigenous people themselves, in tandem with the growth of the contextualization movement. Unfortunately, the issue of contextualization and the task of responding to the TRC are highly controversial in evangelical circles, and have led to hesitancy and disunity within the Euro-Canadian evangelical Indigenous ministry community.
Increasingly, “Indigenous ministry” is becoming something not done “to” Indigenous peoples, but “by” Indigenous peoples. Ray Aldred explained that in the early 1900s, oppression and efforts at forced assimilation increased and led to Indigenous Christians stepping away from the traditional Euro-Canadian church. However, he continues that in the 70’s, Indigenous Christians themselves then began founding churches and leading their own Christian communities. According to Aldred, “this Indigenous-led ministry had always been in the background, but now it came into the foreground.” With the realization of the contextualism movement in the 80s and its current flourishing today, it is increasingly being seen that Indigenous peoples are able, willing, and eager to make their Christian faith their own through an expression that is distinct - thought not entirely unattached - from that of the Euro-Canadian church.
As this understanding comes more into acceptance, the evangelical Indigenous ministries that still remain find themselves reevaluating their models of ministry, and moving towards an understanding that emphasizes the value of Indigenous perspectives and Indigenous leadership. With this comes a contentious debate that revolves around the issues of contextualization, syncretism, and the decolonization of Christianity. However, more than ever, this debate and other conversations in Indigenous ministry are being led by Indigenous people themselves, as equal brothers and sisters in Christ who have valuable contributions to make to the body of ministry being offered by the church.
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