"The Man the Indians Called the Great Spirit"

by George Siamandas


April 4, 1803 marked the birth of Father Belcourt, one of the most popular Roman Catholic missionaries who pioneered work amongst the native people. This outstanding man was called the Great Spirit by the native people of the west. Belcourt was the eldest of eleven children born to Antoine Belecour and Josephte Lemire who were farmers in Yamaska County Lower Canada. He was ordained by Bishop Panet in 1827. Belcourt took the trouble to learn English. Learning he would be coming to the west he spent two months at Oka to learn Algonquin, a language similar to the Cree and Saulteaux languages of western tribes. Together with Bishop Provencher, Belcourt came out to Red River in the spring of 1831. A fastidious writer, Belcourt kept graphic descriptions of his travels from day one in his daily journal.


Father Belcourt was an able carpenter that assisted in the building of Provencher's new St Boniface Cathedral. He also built furnishings for Provencher's home and helped establish a workshop that produced prefabricated door frames at St Francis Xavier. Belcourt did this in part because he needed extra money and worked as a tradesman making door frames and cart wheels.


Near what is now St. Eustache, Belcourt established a mission and worked to turn the Indians into Christians. But Provencher was always disappointed with Belcourt's productivity at attracting converts. Belcourt retained the respect of the Indians like no other white man. His facility and interest in learning Indian languages was a big help. He also helped develop native language that helped express Christian concepts and ideas. Indians travelled from as far as the west coast to meet the man they called the "Great Spirit." Belcourt wrote textbooks and worked to develop a Saulteaux English dictionary.


Belcourt made extensive visits to the interlake trying to establish literally a dozen new missions. He was not always welcome by the Indian bands. He also went to Rainy Lake, White Dog, Duck Bay, Swan River, Fort Francis, He travelled by water using a birch bark canoe he built himself.


Belcourt had a variety of garden seeds sent out and he tried to establish farms. Belcourt had frequent disagreements with Provencher. It is thought he tried to do too much, too soon, and Provencher felt his work was too costly. His mission was not considered productive enough. Belcourt was considered a wishful thinker. But he was a great persuader. And he received separate funding from Quebec for his missions over Provencher's disapprovals. Amongst other things Belcourt wanted to start an industrial school.

Belcourt became independent and disagreed with Provencher and his HBC sympathies. Provencher feared Belcourt had gone native. Belcourt started "going to the prairies" or out on the buffalo hunts. He documented the hunt in great detail: how it was organized, their route, and the hunting methods.


He fought to maintain access for the buffalo hunters into the northern US after 1845 when the US became concerned with border crossers. Belcourt also helped the Metis in their trading grievances with the HBC at a time when the HBC was suppressing free trading. Neither the HBC or Bishop Provencher agreed with this action and they had Belcourt recalled to Quebec.

Annoyed by this interference, Belcourt went south of the border and spent 11 years near Pembina North Dakota at St Josephe. In 1859 he left the west and relocated to Rustico, Prince Edward Island where he helped establish the Farmer's Bank of Rustico forerunner to a Credit Union. He died peacefully on May 31, 1874.


His missions did not survive. It is said that several hundred natives left Manitoba to follow him to Pembina. His works suggest that he may have been an early pioneer of the social gospel. Today Belcourt, North Dakota, just south of the International Peace Gardens, stands as the only reminder of this distinguished man who got along better with his parishioners than he did with the church and political hierarchy.


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