Women and the White Man’s God: Gender and Race in the Canadian Mission Field
November 4, 2013
Review By Margaret Die
THOUGH THE ENCOUNTER between missionaries and Aboriginals continues to fascinate, the tables have dramatically turned. Where once missionaries saw it as part of their task to explain Aboriginal culture to a White society, in today’s scholarly discourse it is the missionary who has become “the other.” Challenging the Eurocentric missions approach common among an earlier generation, historians have drawn on poststructuralist and postmodernist theory to reinterpret the missionary endeavour within the wider text of imperial relations and gender identities. In the process, their subjects’ idealism and religious motivation-have frequently been dismissed or subordinated to more fashionable postcolonial discourses. A welcome corrective, therefore, is this balanced examination of 132 British and Canadian women who were part of the Church of England’s mission frontier in northern British Columbia, the Yukon, and the Canadian Arctic from 1860 to 1940. Why the women were attracted to mission work, how they described their new circumstances, and how they interacted with the various Aboriginal cultures they encountered are the focus of this study.
While the emphasis is on the perceptions and experiences of the missionaries and much of the resulting analysis of their preconceived ideas about empire, race, culture, gender, and evangelical religion is predictable, Rutherdale goes further to probe as well the extent to which discourse actually reflected reality. Gender differences, she notes, were tested and amended in the mission field, as middle-class women found themselves performing unconventional tasks, learning to endure isolation, and living off the food provided by the land. A pervasive theme is that, as a result, the boundaries of gender constantly shifted, without, however, undermining the close bonding between women encouraged by the strain of mission work. Though Rutherdale is careful to avoid any hint of glorifying the experiences of her subjects, there are times when the sheer strength of their stories, the level of their commitment to the needs of Aboriginal women and children, transcends her carefully crafted analytical framework. A similar stretching of the theoretical boundaries takes place, with equally insightful results, when she examines the nature and impact of cross-cultural contact. Discourse analysis of missionary writings, with only “one side talking,” can easily lead to its own cultural imperialism. This is mitigated here, however, by the fact that a small number of the missionaries were themselves Aboriginal, and by the author’s own interest in depicting how, in unexpected ways, White and Aboriginal women found themselves drawn more closely to one another. The missionary experience, as she points out, was filled with ambiguities, such as Aboriginal women’s auxiliaries supporting mission work in China, and with such unpredictable outcomes as Aboriginal women eventually assuming the title – once a missionary self-designation – of “mothers of the church.”
In ways often overlooked by post-colonial historians, Aboriginal women and men, far from being passive “converts” of all-powerful missionaries, played vital, active roles in slowly reshaping Christianity to reflect their own culture. While Rutherdale sees this as an example of syncretism and a sign of failure on the part of the missionaries, historians of missions such as Andrew Walls have concluded that, on the contrary, such indigenization (to use their term) can be seen as the ultimate sign of success. It would be helpful, therefore, to know if the god these white Anglican women brought to the North was more amenable to such indigenization than was the religion preached by their male counterparts. A related question, touched on in the concluding chapter, is the extent to which missionaries were able to mitigate some of the enormous problems caused by European settlement by opening opportunities for Aboriginal agency. Here one needs to listen carefully to Aboriginal women’s voices, and while these are not the subject of this book, Rutherdale’s careful and nuanced reading of missionary discourse does much to provide a new, more fluid, and less dichotomized approach to the study of women, colonization, and missions.