McDougall was born in 1842 in Sydenham, Upper Canada to George and
Elizabeth McDougall. George McDougall was a Methodist missionary and, as
a result, John grew up attending mission schools and learning to speak
Ojibwa and Cree.
In 1862, George McDougall (by this time the Superintendent for the
Wesleyan Methodist Church in Canada) decided to move his mission West,
and the family relocated to the Victoria Mission. There, John worked as
an interpreter and teacher and, in 1864, married Abigail, the eldest
daughter of the Reverend Henry Bird Steinhauer and Jessie Mamanuwartum.
That same year he became a candidate for missionary service.
John and Abigail were appointed to reopen the Pigeon Lake Mission, from
which John visited Aboriginal camps and Hudson's Bay Company posts at
Rocky Mountain House and Fort Edmonton. These were tumultuous years for
the missionary: violence was escalating between the Assinboine, Cree and
Blackfoot tribes; in 1870-71 a smallpox epidemic swept the plains; and
in 1871, Abigail died. After his wife's death, John travelled back to
Upper Canada where he was ordained and married his second wife,
Elizabeth Boyd. In 1873, they moved south and established a new mission
at Morley, on the banks of the Bow River, to serve the Stoney people.
Throughout his life, John McDougall was involved in public and
Aboriginal affairs. During the 1870s he was present for the negotiation
of Treaty 6 and Treaty 7. During the North-West Rebellion he accompanied
the Alberta Field Force, negotiating with tribes to stay on the side of
the government. In 1897, he was named chairman of the Indian District,
comprising parts of all four present western provinces. After his
retirement in 1906, he served as a commissioner for the Dominion
Government and Department of Indian Affairs and later (unsuccessfully)
ran as a Liberal representative for Calgary Centre. In 1917, John
McDougall died in Calgary.
In his later years, John
McDougall, wrote his memoirs in six volumes. His popular style and
romantic imagery fed the imagination of his readers. As controversial as
some of his writings may appear today, they describe the environment and
people of Western Canada in luscious detail and discuss many of the
debates that occurred during that turbulent period. They help to create
a picture of a generation of Albertans and, consequently, remain a
source of information for historians.
John received many honours for his work as a missionary. He was elected
in 1893 and 1906 to serve as President of Conference to the Methodist
Church and, in 1903, he received an honourary Doctorate of Divinity from
Victoria College. The United Church restored his mission church at
Morley and in 1977 declared it a historic site, recognizing its
importance in the development of Methodism in Western Canada. Both John
and his wife Elizabeth Boyd were, during their later years, counted
among the most prominent citizens in Calgary.
John McDougall's legacy, like that of other missionaries, has been
debated. The Methodist Missionary Society and traders criticized him for
fur trading with the Aboriginal community, an activity he justified on
the grounds that it helped to fund his mission work. His Morley
residential school has, like similar institutions, been the source of
controversy and accusation. The objectivity of his advice to the
Aboriginal people during the treaty period has also come under fire.
However, as evident from his writings, McDougall believed he was acting
in the best interests of the Aboriginal community: "the Indian's past
was dead to progress; dead to the destiny of our race, and there had to
come a wonderful change."