The early success of the Anglican Church in the North was due in large part to Archdeacon Robert McDonald. McDonald had a true empathy and appreciation of the culture of the indigenous population and attempted to adapt his message to mesh with their existing beliefs.
McDonald was a Métis man, of Scots and Ojibway heritage. Born in 1829 in the Red River settlement that would eventually become Winnipeg, he was educated in at St. John’s College and ordained as a deacon of the Anglican Church in 1852. He worked at an Ojibway mission in Manitoba for nine years where he became proficient in the language and worked as a translator.
In response to Reverend Kirkby’s call, he travelled to Fort Yukon in 1862 to begin his mission work among the Gwich’in. During a suspected smallpox epidemic that decimated entire villages, McDonald also became severely ill, so much so that William Carpenter Bompas was sent to replace him. Upon arrival, Bompas found McDonald fully recovered which McDonald credited to a local tonic called “toayashi.”
Following the international boundary survey, Fort Yukon was found to be in Alaska. McDonald moved his headquarters to Peel River Post, later known as Fort McPherson. In 1876, McDonald married a Gwich’in woman, Julia Kutug. Together they travelled throughout the north Yukon and eventually had nine children together. He learned the local languages, trained First Nations catechists and, with the help of his wife, translated the Bible, prayer book and hymnal into Tukudh, a dialect of Gwich’in, so the people could worship in their own language. He readily shared his translations with the Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox priests he encountered. He developed a Tukudh alphabet that later proved to be of enormous benefit in translating all the Athabaskan languages in the North. In 1911, he published a dictionary and grammar book that are still in use today.
After 40 years in the north, and over 2000 baptisms, McDonald retired to Winnipeg in 1905 where he lived until his death in 1913 at the age of 84.
Archdeacon Robert McDonald and his two sons.
YA, Anglican Church of Canada, General Synod Archives fonds, 78/67, #90
Julia Kutag (right) and her two sons.
YA, Anglican Church of Canada, General Synod Archives fonds, 78/67, #91