Although Aboriginal populations remained dominant — in numbers and authority — through the 17th century across most of North America, change was upon them. It came so quickly in some instances and with such intensity that it produced a crisis of faith of sorts. Aboriginal peoples began to doubt themselves and their ability to adapt successfully to new forces in their midst. The European agenda of religious conversion took advantage of this trauma, not always with success, but reliably and in ways that worsened the crisis.
The Black Robes
The first of the French missionaries to arrive were priests of the Recollet order. From 1615 to 1629 the Recollets worked with Aboriginal individuals near the St. Lawrence and in Wendake (Huronia). They were understood by Aboriginal groups to be emissaries from the French with exotic spiritual ideas; the missionaries were something to be tolerated but not indulged. The focus of the Recollets was on individual conversions but even more on the needs of French traders living among the Wendat. The arrival of the Recollets’ successors, the Jesuits, changed the missionary approach.
The Jesuits were closely tied to the Compagnie des Cent-Associés and were part of the restoration of French authority after a brief English occupation of the colony. The Jesuit approach was to convert whole communities rather than individuals. They did so by exercising greater control over the behaviour of the coureur de bois and working from within the host-community culture. They studied Wyandot (the language of the Wendat), represented the French enterprise in the field, and attempted (with mixed success) to live among the Wendat according to their hosts’ practices, rather than imposing their own.
The Wendat response to the clerics was mixed. On the one hand, the custom of exchanging community members had been well established in Wendat culture, so sending a few young men to Quebec to learn about the newcomers and accepting a few coureurs de bois or priests into their own villages just made sense. The priests’ agenda of cultural change, however, was not especially welcome. Various attempts were made to encourage the missionaries to return to New France, and plots were considered that would see them murdered by non-Wendat neighbours (and then invoking plausible deniability). But Champlain insisted on missionaries as part of the trading relationship so they were tolerated. Even the priests, however, knew that they were being judged by the Wendat and that they fell well short of being impressive. One report in the Jesuit Relations admits that the Wendat “gazed attentively at the Fathers, measured them with their eyes, asked if they were ill-natured, if they paddled well; then took them by the hands, and made signs to them that it would be necessary to handle the paddles well.”
Exercise: Think Like A Historian
The Missionary Position
In an account of life among the indigenous peoples of the Gaspé and what is now northeast New Brunswick, Christien Le Clerq (a Recollet missionary among the Mi’kmaq from 1675-1686) described the minutest details of personal habits and relationships.  Take a look at these three passages:
What does Le Clerq admire and what does he criticize? Keeping in mind that he is a man of the cloth devoted to the spiritual and not the material, in what ways is he criticizing his own culture? What do these accounts reveal about French society in the late 17th century? What insights can we obtain about Mi’kmaq society through the filter of Le Clerq? Is he reliable?
The Whirlwind Years
Conditions changed in the 1630s. The Recollets had been replaced in Canada and Wendake (Huronia) by the Jesuits (although they continued in Acadia) at a time when Haudenosaunee hostilities were on the rise, as was smallpox. Of all the pivotal moments in this history none is as consequential as the arrival of exotic diseases. In 1636 smallpox swept through the Wendat villages. Over a five-year period the disease picked away at the Wendat past and future, claiming the lives of elders (who were both the story-keepers and political memory of their community) and children in particular. Wendat people who might find solace or reassurance in traditional shamanic responses increasingly turned to the Jesuits for answers. Whatever good the missionaries might have done in this respect, their efforts foundered as perhaps two-thirds of the Wendat population died in the space of four years. The Jesuit practice of administering deathbed baptisms was interpreted, too, as causing death. This was the closest the Wendat came to drawing a direct connection between the presence of Europeans and the appalling mortality rates associated with virgin soil diseases.
The Wendat system of governance, which emphasized individual freedom, played further havoc with the solidarity of Wendake (Huronia). Only converts to Catholicism were permitted to trade for French muskets and this led growing numbers to look more closely at what the Jesuits had to offer. There were trade goods, yes, but also there was a spiritual commodity on offer: many Wendat were drawn to Christianity because they perceived