1862 Father Émile Petitot

In September of 1860 Émile-Fortuné-Stanislas-Joseph Petitot joined the Oblates of Mary Immaculate, a Roman Catholic order dedicated to serving “those most in need”. After training at Notre-Dame-de-l’Osier (Marseilles, France) Petitot was ordained a priest and twelve days later, on March 27, 1862 was on his way to Canada to become a missionary to the Dene of the Northwest Territories.

Father Petitot’s first posting was at the Fort Providence Mission (map) and it quickly became apparent to him that missionaries must have a working knowledge of the various Dene languages in order to secure their religious conversion. He immediately began to prepare dictionaries in Dogrib, Slavey, Chipewyan and Gwich’in.

In August of 1864 Father Petitot was moved to Fort Good Hope to work under the supervision of Father Jean Séguin. It was felt that this supervision would help Father Petitot get over his obsession with exploring and mapping and get back to his mission. Around this time Petitot is said to have had a sexual relationship with a young man described as a “servant from Providence [Mission]”. This relationship resulted in a temporary excommunication for Petitot and may have contributed to what have been described as “short bouts of insanity” beginning in 1868.

Even with all his problems Father Petitot still made ten trips, between 1865 and 1879, into the wilderness around Great Bear Lake and the Mackenzie Delta to not only convert the Dene and Inuvialuit but to also produce detailed maps, sketch the landscapes he saw and the people he met, record Aboriginal words for his dictionaries and write down stories and legends. Father Petitot also found time to design and decorate Our Lady of Good Hope church in Fort Good Hope, designated a National Historic Site in 1977.

In 1874 Father Petitot returned to France to oversee the publication of his Dictionnaire de la langue dènè-dindjié… and was honoured for his work in the Northwest Territories by induction as a member of both the Société d’Anthropologie de Paris and the Société Philologique. In 1875, on the occasion of addressing the Société de Géographie de Paris, Émile Petitot donated his handmade map of the Western Canadian sub-arctic and received a medal.

His return to Fort Good Hope in 1876 also meant a return to some of the mental problems so evident earlier in his career. In 1879 he was sent ‘south’ to less demanding work around Cold Lake, Alberta but his problems only worsened and by 1882 the Oblates forcibly sent him to Montreal where he spent months in an asylum before being sent back to France.

Father Petitot spent most of his remaining years as a parish priest in Mareuil-lès-Meaux where, in 1975, the Canadian government unveiled a plaque honouring his work in the Northwest Territories. During his time in Mareuil-lès-Meaux he wrote five autobiographical books and numerous articles about his time in the Northwest Territories. Father Émile Petitot died in France May 13, 1916.