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Descendant of Morley settlers sees church reconstruction as act of reconciliation

Brenda McQueen, president of the McDougall Stoney Mission Society and great-great-great granddaughter of George McDougall, who helped establish the Morleyville Mission near Stoney Nakoda territory in what is now Morley, Alta., has been working to rebuild the McDougall Memorial United Church after it was destroyed by a suspicious fire in 2017.

This is the third of three articles on the McDougall Stoney Mission Society's efforts to have the McDougall Memorial United Church restored, and what those efforts mean for reconciliation with the Stoney Nakoda First Nations.

READ MORE: Question of reconciliation looms over resurrection of burned church in Morley, Alta.

READ MORE: Morley residential school survivor says rebuilding controversial church will revive pain

In resurrecting the McDougall Memorial United Church, burned down under suspicious circumstances in 2017, the great-great-great granddaughter of the Methodist mission’s founder hopes to create a place where the settler and Indigenous history of Morley, Alta., can meet on equal ground. 

“I've had many Stoney elders tell me the church needs to be restored first for healing to begin, and then the story can be told," said McQueen, speaking in defense of the McDougall Stoney Mission Society’s development permit to rebuild the church at a Municipal District of Bighorn meeting on Feb. 18. 

The relationship between the Stoney Nakoda people and the missionaries who settled in the area in the 1870s is complex. 

While some see the church as a symbol of oppression, others, like McQueen, see it as an opportunity to share the whole story of the Morleyville Settlement. 

“The Stoney Nakoda Nation will not find a greater advocate on reconciliation and truth telling than myself,” said McQueen, holding back tears. 

McQueen took over as president of the McDougall Stoney Mission Society after the McDougall Memorial United Church was destroyed, and says originally her only goal was to rebuild the church and preserve an important part of Alberta’s pioneer history, her family's history. 

“I have felt his presence in me more in the last three years than I have in my whole life, and I want to make a difference,” she said, speaking of her great-great-great grandfather Reverend George McDougall. 

Methodist missionaries had already brought Christianity to the Stoney Nakoda people in the 1840s, long before George McDougall, the superintendent of the Methodist Missions, travelled west with his son John to establish a mission and settlement near what is now Morley, Alta. 

According to the McDougall Stoney Mission Society, when the British North American Exploring Expedition came through the area in 1858, a member of the expedition, James Hector, remarked in his notes they were “awakened at an early hour by the hymns of our Stoney friends, joined in worship.” 

In 1873, the McDougalls made their way to southern Alberta with a caravan of 30 people and a herd of cattle to establish the Morleyville Methodist Mission along the Bow River near an area where the Stoney Nakoda people camped. 

In 1875, with $500 in funds from the Wesleyan Methodist Church of Canada, construction on the mission site began in earnest. By December 1875, the log walls of the McDougall Memorial United Church were standing. 

In 1877, Treaty 7 was signed, establishing a reserve for the Stoney Nakoda near the Morleyville mission. One promise made was that the government would pay for the education of the local Indigenous children  —  and local Indigenous families, recognizing their traditional way of life was in decline because of the decimation of bison populations, actively lobbied for day schools. 

The McDougalls had already built a day school on the Morley Mission site in 1873, and by 1880 John McDougall started boarding students in his home. 

The Stoney at first were said to be amenable to the arrangement as it allowed them to travel to hunt while their children continued their education. 

In 1883, the McDougall Orphanage and Training School officially opened under the administration of the Methodist Missionary Society, housing 15 children who attended the regular day school. 

In 1885, a second day school was built on the south side of the Bow River for children of the Bearspaw and Chiniki bands. 

However, missionaries saw the influence of Indigenous children’s families and culture as getting in the way of their Christian re-education. 

In 1886, the Methodist Society was given nearly 1,200 acres of land even closer to Stoney territory, where they built a live-in residence recruiting students from the local day schools. In 1890, a larger building that could house 40 students was built; in 1895, a separate school was built behind the residence. 

While the local Stoney Nakoda wanted to keep the day schools, the Methodist missionaries decided once the new larger residence was built the day schools would be closed. 

In the 1900s, the local Stoney Nakoda were at odds with Methodist Missionaries as to how their children should be educated, with the Stoney arguing for rights as outlined in the treaty to a day school in each of their communities.  

After decades of back and forth where parents began refusing to send their children to the missionary’s residential schools, leaders of the Wesley, Chiniki and Bearspaw bands agreed that if a modern residential school was built, they would send their children. 

In 1926, the Morley Indian Residential School and 60-student residence building opened, managed by the United Church. 

By 1962, the school grew to a size where all the nearby children could attend. 

At first the school day was split evenly between education and labour, girls performing domestic chores while boys farmed and ranched, but during the hardship of World War II children received less and less education. 

Not only were parents concerned over conditions in the school — concerned the schools were overcrowded, their children weren’t properly clothed for the harsh winter conditions and that they weren’t receiving much of an education at all — there were growing concerns of physical and sexual abuse at the school. 

In 1951, the Alberta Indian Association, with the approval of the Stoney Band Council, opened the David Bearspaw Indian Day School. As more families chose to send their children to the day school, less students attended the Morley Indian Residential School. 

The Morley Indian Residential School finally closed in 1969. 

The modern relationship between the people of the Stoney Nakoda First Nation and the Methodist settlers is not homogenous. 

Unlike many other residential schools, children in Morley, Alta., were allowed to retain their cultural practices alongside their Christian teachings. 

Some Stoney Nakoda congregants continue to attend services at the current Morley United Church while others, outraged that the local church — despite an official apology made by the United Church of Canada — has not apologized for the specific harm caused to children in their care at the Morley Indian residential School, have turned away. 

The mission itself was a product of colonization that destroyed Indigenous communities by design, but George McDougall was said to have been driven to help protect Indigenous people of Canada during this cultural transition, the settlement offering education and medical care to a people whose traditional way of life was already being exterminated. 

“We aim to create a healing place where all of us can move forward together,” McQueen said, adding: “We should be working together for the benefit of the Stoney Nakoda nation rather than being at odds over the restoration of a historic building.” 

Her vision for the reconstruction of the McDougall Memorial United Church includes the development of an interpretive walk, where members of the Stoney Nakoda First Nations with lived experience can share their stories in their Indigenous language. 

“We’re not hiding any of the stories, we both should be able to share both sides," McQueen said.  

By losing the McDougall Memorial United Church as a landmark, McQueen fears they will also lose an opportunity to share the whole history of the settlement of Morleyville. 

“I truly hope that in another 140 years people will look back on what we are doing now and say the descendants of both the Stoney chiefs and the McDougall missionaries were able to work together and create a positive ending for this long, complex story." 

Claire Theobald,  Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

About the Author: Claire Theobald, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Claire Theobald is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter for Great West Newspapers based in St. Albert, Alta.
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