<%@LANGUAGE="JAVASCRIPT" CODEPAGE="65001"%> Home page, Indigenous and settler Christianities

Indigenous and Settler Christianities in Canada

Professor Alan L. Hayes, Wycliffe College, University of Toronto

#1. Home Page; and an Introduction

Some general references

The Assembly of First Nations (AFN) is a national advocacy organization representing First Nation citizens in Canada, which includes more than 900,000 people living in 634 First Nation communities and in cities and towns across the country.
The Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami represents 60,000 Inuit and works to improve their health and well-being through research, advocacy, public outreach, and education.
The Métis Council represents the Métis, from Ontario westward, nationally and internationally. .
Crown Indigenous Relations l and Northern Affairs Canada has a great deal of historical and descriptive material.
The government of Canada has profiles of First Nations across Canada.
Wikipedia has entries on Canada's three Aboriginal groups: First Nations, Inuit, Métis.
Statistics Canada has demographic information.
The Canadian Studies Program of the government of Canada's Department of Heritage has considerable study materials.
The Indigenous Studies Portal at the University of Saskatchewan is a treasure trove of resources.
A freelancer named Bryan Strome has developed this First Nation / Native American / Inuit Directory gives links to the web portals of Indigenous groups.
UBC has several webpages on Indigenous Foundations.
The Royal Commission Report on Aboriginal Peoples (RCAP), 1996.
The Anglican Church of Canada has a website for Indigenous ministries with links to historical and other resources.
The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops has a historical overview of its Indigenous missions.
Here's another story, from CBC news in 2017, on the theme that Indigenous Christians have to wrestle within themselves with some spiritual and historical conflict.
James Treat, in Native and Christian: Indigenous voices on religious identity in the United States and Canada (Routledge, 1996), has assembled a couple of dozen essays by Indigenous Christian writers representing different nations and different Christianities. Their common topic is connecting their Indigenous and Christian identities.
This seriously researched essay in "The Walrus" by Joel Barde, a 2014 graduate of UBC in journalism, focuses on US evangelicals who target Indigenous people in Canada for proselytism, and discourage them from bringing their culture into their worship.
William H.U. Anderson and Charles Muskego, Indigenous People and the Christian Faith: A New Way Forward (Wilmington: Vernon Press, 2020) is a pot-pourri of thirteen chapters on various topics, some broad and some narrow.

What this website is intended to do

This website reflects my interest in how Indigenous and settler peoples in Canada have engaged with one another around Christianity, especially (though not exclusively) those among them who have espoused Christianity themselves. This history is complicated. Much of it is shameful, and makes me very angry. Some of it is surprisingly positive. Most of it is quite mixed. What I know of this past, which is not really past, moves me, as a settler person, to repent of my unearned privilege at the expense of Indigenous peoples, and to ally myself with movements to repair our legacy of damaged communities and to dismantle our continuing structures of colonialism.

That's my personal motivation, but my intention for this website is that it should be a useful historical resource for anyone who is interested in this topic, whatever their situation. It's a topic that is inextricably connected to questions of Canadian identity and policy. Although the Christian churches have lost much of their social influence in Canada, Christianities of various kinds have been a significant force in our history. Indeed, they remain an important element in many of our social contexts, both Indigenous and settler, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse. (Image: from Scarboro Missions.)


"Christianity" is a singular thing for most theologians, since there is just "one Lord, one faith, one baptism." Historians, however, who deal with particularities, often find it useful to think of it as a plural set. In adopting the usage of "Christianities" I'm acknowledging that Christian styles of thought and practice have varied considerably both between and within Indigenous and settler communities. They still do. Indeed, Christianities have very frequently worked in competition and disagreement. The historical picture of these diverse Christianities, helping to shape or to hurt an uncountable number of communities and situations in Canada over hundreds of years, is therefore quite complex.

This complex picture is fascinating to me. It's full of life, energy, and variety. So I prefer the complexity to generalizations, which can't capture the diversities of human experience, and which are inevitably misleading. A lot of researchers feel the same way, and focus on specific situations and people and events and themes, because reality comes to us in minute particulars.

But the downside of all this diversity and complexity is that it can be difficult to know how to start the journey of discovery.

The purpose of this website, therefore, is to offer a (fallible) overview of this diverse landscape, and to summarize the findings of some of those who have had shared their insights into parts of it. The website doesn't look at settler Christianities apart from Indigenous, or Indigenous Christianities apart from settler, but at their places of engagement.

About the word "settler"

By "settler" I mean anyone who does not have Indigenous forebears. I know that "Indigenous" and "settler" are not pure and mutually exclusive categories. There are people who are bicultural through marriage, birth, other relationships, and various experiences. I also know that the word "settler" has its own problems. Many folks whose forebears may have come to Canada a couple of centuries ago, or even a generation ago, really don't think of themselves as "settlers." Some folks are descended from slaves who didn't "settle", but were kidnapped and brought against their will. There are immigrants and refugees to Canada who were colonized peoples in their own countries and may feel more marginalized than settled in their new country. Moreover, as a discerning discussion of this issue in a doctoral thesis in anthropology by Natalie Baloy (pp. 11–20) notes, "settler" is not "ethnographically resonant;" it does not describe "our people" or "our cultural legacy"; many people resist or resent it. Natalie herself, therefore, uses "non-Indigenous" as a descriptor of people, although she uses "settler colonialism" to describe a system. But she acknowledges problems with "non-Indigenous" as well.

So when I use "settler" here, I do so with these reservations. But the term has the advantage of being short and convenient, and it also reminds those of us who are not Indigenous to think about our relationship to the settler colonial project and the benefits we've derived from the displacement of Indigenous peoples.

About the word "Canada"

Expanding meaning. The Iroquoian word "kanata" means something like "village." When French explorers first met Haudenosaunee peoples at what's now Quebec City, they learned that the village was a "kanata." But then a map of 1543 shows that the French were applying the word "Canada" not just to a village but to a large area around it. With French colonization in the 1600s, the newcomers used "Canada" to refer to the lands that they were settling along and behind the St. Lawrence River in what's now the province of Quebec. Later, after the American Revolution, British and some other Europeans settled what's now Ontario, and at that point the areas of settlement became known to Europeans as "Upper Canada" and the former French colony became "Lower Canada" (since it was down-river). In 1867, when the Maritime colonies and the Canadas were confederated, "Canada" was applied to the new dominion.

"Canadiens / Canadiennes." Similarly, the French originally used this term to mean Indigenous peoples in Canada. Later it included French habitants/habitantes. When the colony became British, the term included all peoples living in Canada. Today some Indigenous people are a little uncomfortable being called "Canadians" because the term might imply their assimilation into the general population of the country, and the subordination of their own national identities. For a similar reason, in Quebec people's sense of being québecois/québecoises is in some tension with the sense of being canadiens/canadiennes.

On this website. In the title "Indigenous and settler Christianities in Canada," I'm using Canada to mean the area within the present-day borders of the country Canada. I recognize that the cultural and linguistic realities of Indigenous peoples in North America aren't abruptly differentiated at the international border. A rationale for focusing on Canada is that it has a different history of colonization from the U.S.A., which affects the political and social contexts of Indigenous peoples within its borders. I'd expect that the futures of Indigenous peoples in the two countries will be different as well.

Indigenous religions today

A majority of Indigenous people in Canada self-identify as Christian. In the 2011 National Household Survey of Statistics Canada, of 1,400,685 persons who self-identified as Aboriginal in private households, 889,315 (63%) identified as Christian. Of these, over 500,000 identified as Roman Catholic, and about 130,000 identified as Anglican.


There are numerous issues with the data, including the following:

    • Not all reserves participated in the census.
    • Some reserves reported specific data quality issues.
    • The census offered only one choice of religion. Many Indigenous people affiliate with both Christian and traditional religious gruops; forcing a single choice compromises the accuracy of the results.
    • How people self-identify in a census is not always a reliable indicator of their commitments, values, and interests.
    • "Other Christian" may have been intended to mean "other Christian denominations" but respondents may have chosen it if they didn't consistently affiliate with a particular denomination, or if they didn't understand their Christianity primarily in institutional terms. Indeed, some Indigenous people (like settler people) distinguish "follower of Jesus" from "church member."

Nevertheless, although the statistics are certainly imprecise, they are our best overall indicator of people's sense of religious attachment.

That so many Indigenous people feel connected to Christianity may be surprising:

The fact that, apparently against expectation, so many Indigenous people identify as Christian invites some explanation and investigation. In particular, for a historian, it raises the question: How did First Nations, Métis, and Inuit peoples in Canada become so Christian? And how have their styles of Christianity developed? There are many different perspectives on this puzzle, as our Page 5 will summarize.

This is one of the best known Indigenous Christians in recent years. No, he's not a church leader, a theologian, an evangelist, a worker in a medical or poverty or justice ministry, or a high-profile personality. He's the subject of a best-selling memoir by his son Wab Kinew (The Reason You Walk [Viking, 2015]). As the book relates, Tobasonakwut Kinew (1936–2012) spent five years in a Roman Catholic residential school, and suffered the permanent psychological effects of the humiliation and abuse to which he was subjected there. Indeed, the major theme of The Reason You Walk is his inability for many years, in his anger and absence, to be a real father to his son. But the Christian devotional practices at the school "worked their way into his spirit," Wab writes, a little like the holy bread that entered his body at communion, and the church that damaged him also helped heal him. As an adult he attended an Aboriginal Catholic church in Winnipeg, befriended the archbishop of the city (whom he adopted as an Anishnaabe brother in a formal ceremony), and traveled to Rome for the canonization of the Mohawk saint, Kateri Tekakwitha. Ndede (as his son called him) was also an Ojibwe elder, a Grand Chief of Grand Council Treaty 3, a pipe carrier, a Sundance chief, a member of the Midewiwin Lodge, a teacher of Anishnaabe language and culture, and an advocate for treaty rights.

Connecting faith and culture has been a problem for Christians since New Testament times. Settler Christians may feel self-conscious about being people of faith in a secular society. Similarly, some Indigenous Christians in Canada can feel a little uncertain about being both Indigenous and Christian. They may have friends who think of Christianity as a European religion which simply can't be squared with Indigeneity in America. Many of the early Christian missionaries thought the same. But in reality Indigenous Christians seldom if ever simply accepted a purely European style of Christianity. And The Reason You Walk, written by a son who appears not to share his father's church commitment, gives an example of how Indigenous and Christian identities can be reconciled.

Christianities today among settler peoples in Canada

Almost exactly the same percentage of settler Canadians as Indigenous people in Canada are census Christians, about 67%. Wikipedia offers a brief survey and history of Christianity in Canada. I have a website which looks at some themes in settler Canadian Christianities since 1960. More references can be found in the website bibliography.

Settler Canadian Christianities have always been deeply engaged with the Indigenous peoples of the country, perhaps largely, though not exclusively, for imperialist reasons: the churches, like other settlers, wanted to neutralize them as impediments to the white territorial expansion. Most settler missionaries also had more purely evangelistic purposes of the kind that they also directed to other whites, but people are complex, and it can be difficult to distinguish spiritual from imperialist motives. And some settler missionaries were advocates for social and legal justice for Indigenous peoples, at least to a point. Predominantly, however, settler Christians looked on Indigenous peoples as "the other". Most, I believe, still do.


This is the end of the Introduction. Click to go to Page 2: An overview of Indigenous peoples in Canada



This website was created by Alan L. Hayes, originally for a course at Wycliffe College, a federated college of the University of Toronto and a member school of the Toronto School of Theology. Hayes has been a professor of the history of Christianity at Wycliffe since 1975.