MACKAY, JOHN ALEXANDER, Church of England priest, educator, and translator; b. 14 July 1838 in Mistassini (Que.), tenth of the twelve children of William McKay and Mary Bunn, who were both of mixed blood; brother of Joseph William McKay*; m. 4 Aug. 1864 Margaret Drever, sister of Jean Anne*, in Red River (Man.), and they had five daughters and one son; d. 26 Nov. 1923 in Battleford, Sask., and was buried in Prince Albert, Sask.
The son and grandson of Hudson’s Bay Company men, John A. Mackay eschewed a career in the fur trade in favour of mission work. He received his initial training as a catechist under the Reverend John Horden* at Moose Factory (Ont.) and then continued his studies in the late 1850s at St John’s College in Red River. His ordination as a priest on 29 May 1862 was part of the mid-19th-century attempt of the Church Missionary Society to create an indigenous native clergy in Rupert’s Land [see James Settee*; Thomas Vincent*].
Mackay went first to York Factory (Man.) (1862–64), moved to The Pas (1864–65), and then transferred to Stanley Mission (Sask.) (1865–76), the site of a massive, Gothic Revival–style church, the oldest structure in Saskatchewan today, on the English (upper Churchill) River north of Lac la Ronge. His journal demonstrates that his duties at Stanley went well beyond ministering to the local population. Not only did he travel extensively in all seasons through present-day northeastern Saskatchewan in an effort to convert the local aboriginal population, but he also ran a 15-acre agricultural operation, including a mill, that made the mission almost self-sufficient. He also used a small printing press to begin to produce Cree translations of the Scriptures and religious services. In fact, there was little that the priest could not turn his hand to, a talent that was surpassed only by his capacity for northern travel. He was an imposing figure. With his flashing eyes, bushy eyebrows, and long clerical garb, he looked every part the prophet and reportedly feared no one but God.
In the fall of 1876 Dr John McLean*, the first Anglican bishop of Saskatchewan, invited Mackay to accompany him on a tour of the new diocese from Prince Albert to Fort Edmonton (Alta); the pair conducted the first Anglican service in Battleford in the local telegraph office on New Year’s Day 1877. Thereafter, Mackay worked briefly in the Fort Carlton (Sask.) and Nepowewin (Nipawin) districts before being sent back to Battleford by McLean in September 1877 to build a church there. Mackay worked largely with the local native population for the next two years and established a mission on the Red Pheasant Indian Reserve.
Bishop McLean had sent Mackay to Battleford apparently as part of a larger scheme to found a divinity college in the new capital of the North-West Territories. But in November 1879 McLean decided to open Emmanuel College in Prince Albert to train native missionaries and catechists for work in the territories. Mackay was one of the original staff members and taught Cree grammar and composition – an unprecedented educational experiment. In 1882 Mackay was named archdeacon and two years later he left the college for The Pas to supervise CMS activities in the Cumberland district. He returned to Battleford in the fall of 1885. Early the next year the Department of Indian Affairs appointed him its agent there. The department was worried about Indian behaviour in the aftermath of the North-West rebellion – there were ten reserves in the immediate Battleford area – and believed that Mackay would have a calming influence on the situation. This assignment lasted until 1887 when Mackay assumed a new role at Emmanuel. McLean’s successor, Bishop William Cyprian Pinkham, believed that the college, which had secured university status in 1883, was best suited as an Indian boarding school and called on Mackay to serve as the new principal. Indian Affairs, however, used Mackay one more time, in February 1889 when as translator he persuaded the Montreal Lake and Lac la Ronge Cree to sign an adhesion to Treaty No.6.
During his 13 years at Emmanuel, Mackay continued to serve as Cree tutor. He translated the Bible, the Book of Common Prayer, and the hymn book into Cree, as well as prepared revised editions of the prayer book translated by James Hunter* and his wife, Jean Ross, and Horden’s grammar in the Plains Cree dialect. He also vigorously pursued his evangelical work. Indeed, he could be rather territorial. When Mackay learned, for example, that the Oblates of Mary Immaculate wanted to re-establish a school on the Thunderchild Indian Reserve in 1891 [see Peyasiw-awasis], he reminded the Indian commissioner that the Anglicans had been there first and had always faithfully served the interests of the department. This uncompromising zeal ultimately led to his appointment as superintendent of Indian missions for the diocese of Saskatchewan in 1900. In this capacity, he supervised the building of churches and schools and hired staff; he also undertook gruelling annual inspection trips through northern Saskatchewan, even when he was well past retirement age.
Perhaps the best example of his determination to further the work of the church was his rescue of the abandoned day school on the Little Pine Indian Reserve. In 1921 he struck a deal with the deputy superintendent general of Indian affairs, Duncan Campbell Scott*. He offered to rebuild the school and provide the operating funds out of his own pocket; if after one year the school was considered a success, then Indian Affairs would take it over. It was Mackay’s last challenge and last victory. He died in Battleford in November 1923 while working on a Cree dictionary. The Reverend Edward Ahenakew* remembered him as “a father to our race, not indulgent, but kindly and wise . . . a true and honest man. When need arose for determined action, he was far from wanting.”
John Alexander Mackay’s publications are listed in Biblio. of the prairie prov. (Peel). His diary for 1870–72 has been published as “The journal of the Reverend J. A. Mackay, Stanley Mission, 1870–72,” Saskatchewan Hist. (Saskatoon), 16 (1963): 95–113.
Saskatchewan Arch. Board (Saskatoon), S-A113 V (Campbell Innes fonds, J. A. Mackay papers). Edward Ahenakew, “Little Pine: an Indian day school,” ed. R. M. Buck, Saskatchewan Hist., 18 (1965): 55–62; Voices of the Plains Cree, ed. R. M. Buck (Regina, 1995). Arlean McPherson, The Battlefords: a history (Battleford and North Battleford, Sask., 1967). J. E. Murray, “The early history of Emmanuel College,” Saskatchewan Hist., 9 (1956): 81–101. Eleanor Shepphird Matheson, “The journal of Eleanor Shepphird Matheson, 1920,” ed. R. M. Buck, Saskatchewan Hist., 22 (1969): 66–72, 109–17.
© 2005–2023 University of Toronto/Université Laval
Cite This Article
W. A. Waiser, “MACKAY, JOHN ALEXANDER,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 15, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed June 9, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/mackay_john_alexander_15E.html.
The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:
|Author of Article:||W. A. Waiser|
|Title of Article:||MACKAY, JOHN ALEXANDER|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 15|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||2005|
|Year of revision:||2016|
|Access Date:||June 9, 2023|