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The story of John Sanders, first Indigenous minister (4 photos)

Missanabe Cree trail-blazer helped translate scriptures to Ojibwa

To blaze a trail is to lead the way, to be a pioneer in a field or to clear the road for others to follow in your footsteps.

John Sanders was the first, Indigenous Anglican minister in northern Ontario and one of the first in Canada. Sanders contributed greatly to mission work with his translations into Ojibwa. It was also the time of the advent of residential schools.

He is buried in an overgrown cemetery close to the CPR tracks near Missanabie, in the middle peninsula of the elongated Dog Lake. Where’s that and who was he? This cultural story is about putting together a lifetime of puzzle pieces within two nations.

Laurel Parson is the Assistant Archivist at the Anglican Church of Canada.

“I think the General Synod Archives of the Anglican Church of Canada holds an important body of records documenting the first contacts with the First Nations who dwelt here long before white people came and the development of Indigenous and non-Indigenous relationships, as well as the development of the church and the country of Canada. John Sanders was significant to the Anglican Church of Canada because of the years he ministered to his people as a Church of England priest in the Diocese of Moosonee and because of the Ojibwe translation work he did alongside Bishop Horden,” said Parsons.

John Sanders

What we do know from the archives is John Sanders was born in 1845 at Matawagamingue (Mattagami Lake) in 1845, part of the network of fur trading routes that link the Moose River to Moose Factory, the headquarters for the Hudson Bay Company (HBC).

John Sanders’s father worked with the HBC as a canoe builder. His mother was a native woman, and as a boy, John spoke Ojibwa, but he would later learn English and Cree. He had 19 siblings.

When he was nine, his parents sent him to Moose Factory, several hundred miles north of Fort Mattagami, for his education.

“I felt as if my youthful heart was ready to break,” he was to write of his departure.

Reverend John Horden created an Indian boarding school in 1855, he was determined to promote the establishment of a native clergy in the James Bay area and took a special interest in Sanders. After Sanders left the HBC, Horden sent him to Flying Post and Mattagami to teach the Ojibwa there about Christianity.

When Horden sailed for London in 1872 to be consecrated the first bishop of Moosonee, he left Sanders in charge of mission work at Moose Factory.

As Sanders acquitted his responsibilities well, Horden then had him go to study for eight months at St John’s College in Winnipeg. Upon his return, Sanders continued to prepare for the ministry. He was ordained deacon in May 1876 and priest in May 1879 at Moose Factory.

Around 1885, after the Canadian Pacific Railway was built south of Fort Mattagami, Sanders moved to the small lumbering town of Biscotasing on the railway line, and from there regularly visited half a dozen communities, both native and non-native.

According to an article within the ‘Dictionary of Canadian Biography,’ “Sanders contributed greatly to mission work with his translations into Ojibwa. In the winter of 1878–79, he and Horden translated the Moosonee hymn-book, the service of Morning Prayer, and the Gospel of St Matthew. During the winter of 1881–82, he helped Horden translate the Acts of the Apostles. Later the complete Book of Common Prayer was published.”

Within his autobiography retrieved from the archives, there are interesting glimpses of a lifestyle we can’t imagine.

“My first impression of ministers was not a very favourable one. I used to see a Priest when I was at Matawagamingue who I was actually afraid of because I used to hear him say to my parents again and again ‘nekahseehaitawah’ [I will baptize him]. The word ‘baptize’ in our language means to throw water over a person out of a vessel. Of course, I had no idea then what being baptized meant; I only thought it was something dreadful,” wrote Sanders.


What about Missanabie where John Sanders is buried? Evidence and records suggest that by as early as the 1570s, members of the Missanabie Cree had settled in the areas surrounding present-day Dog Lake. According to Elders’ testimony and anthropological evidence, the Missanabie Cree had utilized these lands from time immemorial to hunt fish and trap for food, for ceremonial purposes and to provide for the cultural, spiritual and economic wellbeing of their people.

Lori Rainville is a direct descendent of John Sanders she took me to the cemetery at Thanksgiving.

“He represents an important part of our past here especially as we receive our much-anticipated reserve status, his family is here in Missanabie,” she said.

(In 2010, the Missanabie Cree First Nation successfully concluded an agreement with the Government of Ontario for a land transfer of 15 square miles of Crown land in the Missanabie area. The Missanabie Cree First Nation continues its discussions with the federal government to have this land designated as a reserve. This is expected to be concluded in the very near future with plans for a new community continuing.)

“The cemetery has a wealth of meaning to Missanabie Cree people.”

She explained the cemetery was deconsecrated in the late 1990s and the land given back by the church.

“There are unmarked graves of our ancestors there and to date, there are marked and unmarked graves of our people recently buried. We as a people have our own beliefs regarding death, birth, burials, ceremonies and sweats,” she said. “It is ironic that the Churches, Government and Indian Residential Schools took away our traditional practices and put the fear in our people, and now we are using Church and Government funds to bring reconciliation forward within our people, survivors and Canadians. We have our traditional ways of knowing and we are proud to be Missanabie Cree. “

Lori’s daughter, Dayna Rainville painted John Sanders, “… her paintings all have to do with her healing journey as a young indigenous woman that has been affected by the residential schools. She has also done a print of the Anglican Church in Missanabie as well as the HBC post. During her four years of university, her thesis was to reconnect with her grandmother, the land of Missanabie, culture, ancestors and family by way of painting. Her grandmother (Kookum) attended two residential schools. As an intergenerational survivor, she wanted to commemorate her grandmother and other family by painting them.”

“The people that are buried there may or may not be identified, but we know they are there in spirit. John Sanders is a connection to our identity and a reminder of what was taken away from us as Indigenous people. We respect his calling as a Priest, but most importantly we honour him as the first Ojibway Priest at the time. He paved the way for our people to walk in two worlds. Even though some of us do not follow the practices of the Anglican Church we do follow the practices of our ancestors years ago and understand the hardships they went through in order for us to be here today.”

John Sanders died in 1902. The Shingwauk Indian Residential School started In Sault Ste. Marie in 1877; the Chapleau Indian Residential School opened in 1907, these were Anglican schools.

The Anglican Church is among the major Canadian Christian denominations that have frequently apologized for early colonial attitudes. It has more than 225 predominantly indigenous congregations, often in rural or northern regions. More than 130 Indigenous Anglican priests and deacons serve those congregations and since 1989, Anglicans have elected nine aboriginal bishops.


His modest headstone is found at the end of Hwy 651, veer left or east, cross the tracks towards Northern Walleye Lodge and keep east on Beer Bottle Lane (yes, the story behind the sign, local grandparents left beer bottles along the way for their granddaughter to collect for return money). 

Drive to the small pit, access the short trail to the railway line, cross over the tracks to the cemetery path. There’s no sign on the overgrown but discernible trail. Or travel 800m east, down the track from the end of Curran St. East (lakeshore/railway crossing). Here is the map.

The use of various forms of evidence helps craft a story. It is a good time to find John Sanders because he became a forerunner of goodness at a time when a tragic shadow was being cast on the social fabric of our country. 

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Bill Steer

About the Author: Bill Steer

Back Roads Bill Steer is an avid outdoorsman and is founder of the Canadian Ecology Centre
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