Catholic Encyclopedia (1913)/Saskatchewan and Alberta

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Catholic Encyclopedia (1913), Volume 13
Saskatchewan and Alberta

by Adrian Gabriel Morice

The twin provinces of the Canadian West, so called because they were formed on the same day (1 Sept., 1905), by an Act of the Dominion Parliament, which gave them an identical constitution. The former derives its name from the important river, Kissiskatchiwan, or Swift Current, now better known under the abbreviation of Saskatchewan, whose two branches drain it from west to east. The latter was called after the episcopal borough of St. Albert, nine miles from Edmonton, which itself had been named after its founder, Father Albert Lacombe, O.M.I., the veteran missionary of the Far West.

Boundaries and Area

Saskatchewan was made up of the unorganized districts of Assiniboia, Saskatchewan, and Eastern Athabasca, while the original Territory of Alberta and the remaining half of Athabasca contributed to form the second province. Both provinces have identical southern and northern boundaries (49 deg. and 60 deg. N. lat.). Saskatchewan lies between 102 deg. and 110 deg. W. long. while the western frontier of Alberta is the summit of the Rocky Mountains as far as 54 deg. N. lat. and the 120th meridian. The greatest length of both provinces is 760 miles. Saskatchewan is 393 miles wide in the south, and 277 in the north, thus forming an immense quadrangle of 250,650 sq. miles, of which 8318 are water. The breadth of Alberta varies from 200 miles in the south, to nearly 400 in its northern half. Its total area is estimated at 253,450 square miles.

Physical Characteristics

Saskatchewan may be described as a vast plain, quite treeless in the south, with an average elevation of 1500 feet above the sea-level. Its northernmost part is considerably lower, since Lake Athabasca, in the extreme north-east is only 690 feet above sea-level. The mean altitude of Alberta is 3000 feet, which likewise notably decreases in the north. The climate of both provinces is exceedingly healthful, though the cold is at times intense on the treeless prairies of Saskatchewan. A warm south-west wind, called Chinook, occasionally crosses the Rocky Mountains, and renders the winters of Alberta appreciably milder and shorter in spite of its great altitude. This immense region is traversed by the River Saskatchewan which has its source in the Rocky Mountains, and after winding its way for some 1200 miles, empties into Lake Winnipeg. There is also in the Province of Saskatchewan proper the Beaver River which, after passing through a long chain of more or less important lakes, becomes the Churchill, and pursues its course in an easterly direction until it empties itself into Hudson Bay, at the trading post of the same name. Northern Alberta is drained by still larger rivers, such as the Peace, which rises in Lake Thutage (Thutade), British Columbia. It is first called the Finlay, and after its confluence with the Parsnip, is known as the Peace, but north of Lake Athabasca it again changes its name to the Slave, only to course further on the great Canadian Northland as the Mackenzie River. South of the Peace is the Athabasca River, which flows into the lake of the same name. This fine sheet of water is common to both provinces. It has an area of 2842 square miles. Alberta can boast only one important lake, namely Lesser Slave Lake, which in spite of its name is almost 70 miles in length. Saskatchewan on the other hand, counts such bodies of water as Cree Lake, 407 square miles; Wollaston Lake, 906 square miles; Reindeer or Caribou Lake, 2437 square miles, and a host of smaller ones, which lie mostly in the north. There are in either province few mountains, none of which are important.


Saskatchewan is par excellence the wheat-growing region of Canada. Its plains are famous for their fertility. They extend from the international boundary, practically to Prince Albert, 53 deg. 15 min. N. lat., where the northern forest, which itself contains important stretches of agricultural land, commences. The total area under cultivation (1910) was 7,558,170 acres. The crops were then poorer than usual. The previous year (1909) the yield in the various cereals had been as follows: wheat, 90,215,000 bushels; oats, 105,465,000; barley, 7,833,000; and flax, 4,448,700. The acreage under cultivation this year (1911) is considerably larger. Alberta's best farming-lands are in the northern interior (the region of which Edmonton is the centre), and this extends much farther north than in Saskatchewan, while the southern portion of Alberta, being rather high and of lighter soil, is better adapted to stock-raising. In addition to the above cereals the province also grows alfalfa, and all classes of roots, notably the sugar-beet, whose cultivation constitutes one of its most important industries. Lumbering is carried on around the upper waters of the North Saskatchewan and Athabasca Rivers in Alberta, while in Saskatchewan large sawmills have been established at or near Prince Albert. Alberta is also rich in coal and oil. Its principal mining centres are Lethbridge, Coleman, Frank, Canmore, Edmonton, and Morinville. Oil is also found at the last-named place, as well as in the south of the province.


Few countries have such a cosmopolitan population as the twin provinces of the Canadian West. The British Isles, the United States, Austro-Hungary, and Germany, together with Eastern Canada are the great feeders of the stream of immigration, which is there so active that statistics, which are perfectly correct one day are far below the mark a few months afterwards. The total population of Saskatchewan is now estimated at over 453,508 though five years ago it was barely 255,211. Of the present inhabitants almost one-fourth, or 104,000, are Catholics. Among the latter some 31,000 are of French origin; 28,000 came from Galicia, and follow the Ruthenian rite; 26,900 are Germans; and 8000 have English for their mother-tongue. In Alberta the present (1911) population is given as 372,919, its two chief cities, Calgary and Edmonton (the capital), having of late grown rapidly. The former has 43,736 inhabitants, and the latter 41,000. Regina, the capital of Saskatchewan to-day counts about 30,210 inhabitants. The Catholics of Alberta number about 70,000, of whom perhaps 6,000 are Indians. The total native population of Saskatchewan is officially put down at 7971 by the Blue Book of the Ottawa Indian Department, which gives the number of Catholics among them as 2939. The aboriginal races within the two provinces are the Blackfeet and cognate tribes, in the south of Alberta; the Sarcees, a small Dene division adopted by the Blackfoot confederacy; the Assiniboines, or Stone Indians, a branch of the Sioux family; the Sioux proper, groups of whom have remained in Saskatchewan ever since Custer's Massacre (1876); the Saulteux, an Algonquin tribe formerly stationed considerably to the east of its present haunts, and the Crees, who can claim as their own the great Saskatchewan plains, the muskegs of the north-east, and the southern fringe of the great northern forest. To these may be added a few Dene tribes, who are to be found near the northern boundaries of both provinces at Ile à la Crosse on Lake Athabasca near Caribou Lake, etc. The French and the French half-breed population of Alberta is estimated at 23,000, who have at least a score of parishes, mostly around and north of Edmonton.

Ecclesiastical Organization

The two provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta comprise to-day five ecclesiastical divisions, viz.: The Diocese of St. Albert, in Alberta; those of Prince Albert and Regina, in Saskatchewan, and the two Vicariates Apostolic of Athabasca, mostly in Northern Alberta, and of Keewatin, partly in Northern Saskatchewan (separate articles are devoted to those dioceses and to the Vicariate Apostolic of Athabasca). The Vicariate Apostolic of Keewatin was erected on 4 March, 1910, the Right Rev. Ovide Charlebois, O.M.I., being appointed vicar Apostolic 8 August following, and consecrated Bishop of Berenice by Msgr. Langevin, Archbishop of St. Boniface on 30 Nov. of the same year. The limits of the new vicariate are very complicated. They run from the North Pole along 100 deg. W. long. as far as 60 deg. N. lat. then follow the watershed 56 deg. N. lat., where they coincide with the eastern boundaries of the Athabasca vicariate, and the northern limits of the Dioceses of Prince Albert and St. Boniface as far as 91 deg. W. long., which they then follow to Hudson Bay. The territory included is of the most desolate character; marshes and dreary wastes, which afford meager support to a native population of 10,000 or 12,000 souls, almost all of whom are Crees, Denes, or Eskimos. Among these there are about 6000 Catholic converts. The most prosperous group is that which has settled at the pioneer mission of Ile a la Crosse, established in 1844.


In the west as in the east of Canada the education of youth has long been a bone of contention between the secular and the religious authorities. What is now Saskatchewan and Alberta had been for five years governed from Ottawa, under the name of North-West Territories, when, in 1875, some sort of autonomy was granted them, and the Catholics settled therein were accorded the right of having their own schools without contributing to the maintenance of any others. This equitable arrangement coming from a higher or constitutive authority, should have been considered beyond the reach of a lower legislature. Yet in 1892 it was abrogated by an ordinance of the territories, which decreed the absolute neutrality, from a denominational standpoint, of all the schools of the Far West. This act was afterwards admitted by some lawyers of note to be unconstitutional. Therefore when the new provinces were created in 1905 Sir Wilfrid Laurier, then Premier of Canada, made an effort to insert in their constitution a proviso (clause xvi) whereby the school system of 1875 was reintroduced. Unfortunately he did not succeed in overcoming the opposition of one of his co-ministers supported by the clamours of the anti-Catholic element in the east. The result was a sort of compromise, which does not satisfy the Catholic minority, though it certainly gives it some appreciable advantages.

The present educational situation is this: conformably to the Act of 1905 there are in Saskatchewan and Alberta public and separate schools. The former are established by the majority of the rate-payers of a place, the latter may be set up by the minority of the same. Either kind is supported by the taxes levied on that part of the population for which it is intended, to which is added a Government grant based on the quality of the teaching and the number of days the school is open. On the petition of three resident rate-payers, a separate school district may be erected, which will thenceforth be governed by commissioners, elected by the rate-payers interested therein, and will enjoy the same rights and privileges as those of a public school district. One of these consists in the right to choose the teacher who, whether in separate or public schools, must hold a certificate of qualification. No religious instruction is allowed except during the last half-hour of the afternoon class. All the schools must be taught in English, though it is permissible for the board of any district to cause a primary course to be taught in French. This is the only concession made to the spirit of the Federal Constitution, such as is represented by the North America Act of 1867, which practically declares both English and French to be the official languages of the Dominion.

By the side of real advantages the school laws in force in Saskatchewan and Alberta have regrettable drawbacks. The advantages consist in the fact that, wherever they are, Catholics can have schools of their own. If they form the majority of a place, their school is termed public. They elect the commissioners best suited to their wants and aspirations, and through them the teachers. If they are in the minority, they can, with the consent of the proper authority, erect a separate school district with exactly the same privileges. The drawbacks consequent on present conditions lie mostly in the text-books used, since some of the histories prescribed unfortunately contain assertions and omissions that are quite objectionable from a Catholic standpoint. A short time ago the Government of Saskatchewan authorized the use of Catholic readers for the Catholic separate schools of that province. It happens also that both in Saskatchewan and in Alberta there is a council of public instruction composed of five members, two of whom are Catholics. But neither of these advantages is guaranteed by the constitution. Furthermore, Catholic normal schools are a boon which is beyond the reach of the Catholic population of either province. As exemplifying the educational activities of that part of Canada, it may be stated that (1905) there were in Saskatchewan 716 schools; 873 (1906); 1101 (1907), and 1422 in 1908. Between 1 Sept., 1905, and the close of 1909, the number of school districts increased from 942 to 2001. There are in each province a number of non-denominational collegiate schools, as well as two State Universities, whose seats are at Saskatoon, and at Strathcona (Edmonton) respectively. In this connection it may be worth while to remark that the first unofficial lecturer appointed by the University of Saskatchewan was a Catholic priest, who was also its first graduate, though his degree was conferred ad honorem.


The first white man to set foot in what is now the Province of Saskatchewan, was Henry Kelsey, a boy in the employ of the Hudson Bay Company traders. He started from Fort Nelson, and reached a point between the valley of the Saskatchewan and Lake Athabasca. This was in the summer of 1691. In the autumn of 1748, the sons of De Lavérendrye, the real discoverer of the Canadian West, navigated the Saskatchewan to its forks, where they established Fort Poskoyac. In the course of 1751 Boucher de Niverville sent ten Frenchmen from that post up the river, who erected a fort (La Jonquière) on the Bow River, where Calgary now stands. Two years later St-Lue de la Corne, one of the successors of De Laverendrye, explored the valley of the Carrot River, where he established (1754) Fort Pasquia, and made the first attempt on record to cultivate land within the limits of the present Saskatchewan province. Fort Pasquia was visited the same year by an English adventurer, Anthony Hendry, who crossed the whole north-west, and went as far as the country of the Blackfeet, in Alberta. Then follows the founding of Cumberland House, in 1742, and owing to the rivalry between the North-West Company (founded 1784), and the older Hudson Bay Company, various other trading posts were soon after established, such as Forts Ile à la Crosse (1791), Carlton (1793), Augustus (or Edmonton) (1798), and a few others. Until the arrival of the first missionaries, Father F. N. Blanchet and Father M. Demers in 1838, revelry and lawlessness prevailed in the north-west, which were due to intoxicants furnished by the rival traders.

The religious history of the two provinces will be found under the heads of the various dioceses within their boundaries. Further events of a secular character are the explorations of Captain Palliser (1857); the Hind-Daws on surveys (1858); the journey of the Earl of Southesk to the sources of the Saskatchewan (1859); that of Lord Milton and Dr. Cheadle in 1862; and the surveying expedition of Sandford Fleming ten years later.

The Louis Riel Rebellion

To understand the event which took place in 1885 we must go back to the troubles which agitated Manitoba in 1869-70. Half the population of that country was then made up of French half-breeds, whose native land was sold, without their consent, to the newly-formed Dominion of Canada. Prompted by the arrogance of the agents of Ottawa, and by their interference with the rights of the original settlers, now threatened with being dispossessed of their farms by parties who had at the time no jurisdiction over them, the French and some of the English rose against the intruders under the lead of Louis Riel (b. at St. Boniface, 22 Oct., 1844), a young man with a college education, and for about ten months held possession of the country, sending demands to Ottawa, the reasonableness of which was so far recognized that corresponding clauses were inserted in what was called the Manitoba Act. Sore at the thought that they had been outdone by mere Métis, the anti-Catholic and anti-French strangers from the East wreaked vengeance, after the arrival of Wolseley's troops, on the leaders and partisans of the insurrection which had been perfectly legitimate. To escape the petty persecution that ensued numbers of half-breeds headed for the north and settled in the valley of the Saskatchewan, between Saskatoon and the forks of that river, just below Prince Albert. Unfortunately with the increase of white immigration to the prairies, difficulties similar to those which had resulted in trouble on the Red River soon arose among them. They vainly petitioned for the titles to their lands, which were threatened with being surveyed in such a way as to render useless the improvements they had made on them, and even jeopardized their rights to the same. They also repeatedly asked for the redress of several other grievances in which claims they had the sympathy of their clergy and the respectable part of the white population. Tired of being ignored by the Federal authorities, they next called to their assistance Louis Riel. He was then teaching school in Montana, after having been in various asylums as a result of the persecution of those who tracked him for the sake of the money put on his head by the Ontario Government.

Unfortunately his mind proved unequal to the task of leading a second agitation successfully. He gradually broke away from the control of the clergy who, conscious of the fact that the case was now quite different from that of 1869, when the proper authority had abdicated its rights, were striving to keep him within legal bounds. As the priests refused their ministrations to him and his abettors, he tried to replace them by his own, and proclaimed himself a prophet. At the same time he raised the standard of revolt against the Canadian Government, and, 26 March, 1885, was present at the engagement of Duck Lake in which the troops were defeated. Then followed the battles of Fish Creek (24 April), Cut Knife (2 May), and Batoche, where the Metis were finally routed (12 May) after four days' fighting with troops vastly superior in number and equipment. Perhaps the most regrettable incident of this ill-advised insurrection was the massacre of Fathers Fafard and Marchand, O.M.I., with a number of white settlers of Frog Lake, at the hands of pagan Crees. The country was laid waste and numerous missions were ruined by the same tribe of natives. Despite the testimony of the physicians, who declared his irresponsibility, Louis Riel was sentenced to death and executed at Regina, dying in the profession of the most Christian-like sentiments (16 Nov., 1885). Then the Government of Canada did what it had so long neglected. It examined the claims of the half-breeds and redressed their grievances.

Later History

The one good result of the Saskatchewan Rebellion, apart from the necessity to which the Ottawa Government was put of recognizing the rights of the northern Metis, consisted in the fact that it drew the attention of the civilized world to the fertile plains of the Canadian West. The first transcontinental railway was completed (7 Nov., 1885). It served to bring thither large numbers of colonists of all nationalities, some of whom (the Doukhobors of Saskatchewan and the Mormons of Alberta) were scarcely of a desirable class. The new inhabitants soon clamoured for a larger share of influence in the territorial government than had previously been enjoyed by the people, and their agitation resulted in the Federal Parliament granting the territories, in the course of 1888, a legislative assembly with a correspondingly larger degree of autonomy. On 4 July of that year, a French Catholic, in the person of Joseph Royal, was appointed lieutenant-governor. The territories had then a common capital in Regina, previous to 27 March, 1882 this had been at Battleford (at the confluence of the Battle and Saskatchewan Rivers). The total white population was (1888) 69,500.

Then, following a long agitation for still fuller provincial rights, there came (1905), the formation of the territories into the two provinces of Saskatchewan and Alberta, each with a lieutenant-governor and a legislative assembly, together with a constitution which among other things, determined the nature of the education which was to be imparted, as stated above. At the same time Edmonton, heretofore scarcely more than a Hudson's Bay Company trading-post by the Northern Saskatchewan, was made the capital of Alberta, while Regina continued to hold the same rank with regard to the Province of Saskatchewan. The first lieutenant-governor of the latter was A. E. Forget, a Catholic, who had long been employed in Governmental offices. Ever since, the two provinces have smoothly pursued identical lines of self- development, and the few events worth recording have been of a purely political character.

ROBSON, An Account of Six Years' Residence in Hudson's Bay (London, 1752); KANE, Wanderings of an Artist (London, 1859); DAWSON, Report of the Exploration of the Country (Toronto, 1859); HIND, Northwest Territory: Report of Progress (Toronto, 1859); IDEM, Narrative of the Canadian Red River Expedition (2 vols., London, 1860); PALLISER, Further Papers Relative to the Expedition (London, 1860); BUTLER, The Great Lone Land (London, 1873); MILTON AND CHEADLE, North-West Passage by Land (London, 1865); GRANT, Ocean to Ocean (London, 1873); FLEMING, England and Canada (London, 1884); BEGG, History of the Northwest (3 vols., Toronto, 1894); WILLSON, The Great Company (Toronto, 1899); LAUT, The Conquest of the Great Northwest (2 vols., New York, s. d.); BURPEE, The Search for the Western Sea (Toronto. s. d.); MORICE, History of the Catholic Church in Western Canada (2 vols., Toronto, 1910); also other works. Also The School Act (Regina, 1911); Saskatchewan, Canada (Regina, s. d.); Land and Agriculture in Alberta (Edmonton, 1911).

A. G. Morice.