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The Jesuit Relations and the History of New France

Accounts of a Missionary Offensive

While they reveal the minds of the 17th-century missionaries, the Relations are also invaluable documents for reconstructing the history of the conversion of the Native peoples of New France. The Jesuits' writings are essential texts for determining the strategies and methods used in the conversion of Aboriginal peoples. The Jesuits in the 17th century arrived in the colony with preconceived ideas about the most effective ways to convince the Native peoples to adopt the Catholic religion. A number of these methods had already been used elsewhere in the world: learning the languages; use of fear, especially through descriptions of suffering in hell; use of European technological superiority to impress the Native people; bringing Aboriginal people together in settlements; creating boarding schools for young Native people, and so forth.

Today, the Relations allow us to understand the missionary policies and strategies and follow how they were adapted to the realities of the North American Aboriginal peoples. Faced with the resistance or indifference of the Native peoples with regards to certain methods, the Jesuits were forced to adjust their sights. For example, they quickly gave up their plan to settle nomadic Aboriginal peoples in one place in favour of itinerant missions, which the Jesuits adopted in 1641. They also made the decision at this time to give up the boarding schools for young Native people. In the first case, the Jesuits encountered the indifference of nomadic Indigenous peoples, who were strongly attached to their way of life. In the second, the missionaries were stopped by the Native peoples' refusal to give up their children for several months, or even years, and hand them over to strangers, whose customs had to appear strange to them, at the very least.

Given the lack of writings by Native people, the Relations are almost the only documents available which reveal their reaction to the missionary offensive. Conversion was obviously one Aboriginal response, and the Relations, intended to be the account of how Christianity was introduced to North America, contain numerous examples of this. But the Jesuits also met with resistance  --  very strong at times --  in the communities where they founded missions, because their desire to implant a new religion threatened many aspects of Native cultures. The changes demanded by the missionaries were many, and at times went completely counter to practices that were fundamental to Native societies.

In their Relations, the Jesuits certainly had a tendency to emphasize the Aboriginal peoples' favourable views of Christianity. Their annual accounts did not, however, paint an idealized picture of Native peoples' attitudes to this new religion. They tell of different kinds of resistance, from mockery to threats of violence, and more or less explicit threats to the priests and their neophytes. These manifestations of resistance also played a part in the construction of an edifying narrative. From a strictly literary point of view, they created a dramatic effect  --  a climate of adversity and tension  --  giving the missionaries and converts an opportunity to display the strength of their beliefs and thus edify the readers.