Though fur traders were the earliest non-aboriginal people to inhabit the farthest reaches of Saskatchewan, missionaries were never more than a half-step behind, often travelling alone through uncharted lands, at great personal risk. Lebret was – and perhaps still is – the beleaguered heart of French Catholic missionary efforts in southern Saskatchewan.
Up the hill from Sacred Heart (below, right), the Stations of the Cross (below, left) leading to the valley rim are hiked by faithful and casual alike. The walk provides an opportunity to ponder the very complex role Christianity has played in the West, especially for aboriginal people. Founded by Oblates in 1866, the Lebret mission carried out fine work in the valley under the long leadership of Father Joseph Hugonard. But Lebret was also the site of one of the first Indian residential schools, the Qu’Appelle Indian Industrial School, founded in 1884, and thus became associated with a shameful chapter in Canadian history.
The early church missions were co-opted by the federal government to implement its policy of assimilating the First Nations, which would be seen, a few decades later, as having done little short of extirpation. The federally funded, church-run schools attempted to “civilize” and Christianize the children, who were often shorn of their braids and forbidden to use their parents’ language. Industrial schools taught useful skills like carpentry and sewing and many aboriginal people welcomed the chance to join the mainstream – even the granddaughter of Chief Piapot, one of the signatories to Treaty Four, attended an industrial school – but graduates were never welcomed by the mainstream.
Tragically, Indian schools became infamous as tools of cultural imperialism at best, and institutions of abuse, torture and suicide at worst. In recent years, Oblates, Anglicans and other denominations have apologized for their institutional failings during the period, and aboriginal culture continues to gain ground. Despite past injustices, many aboriginal people still regard themselves as Christians, and missionaries continue to do good community work, especially in remote northern Saskatchewan.
From Lebret, Highway 56 continues south and joins the TCH at Indian Head (Ecopoint 10).