Adrien Gabriel Morice was recognized as a Person of National Historic Significance in 1948. He was acknowledged for his work as a missionary and for creating a writing system for the Dakelh language.
Born in Mayenne Départment, France on the 27th of August, 1859, Morice had early visions of becoming a missionary and explorer in Northwestern Canada. Morice joined the Oblate Order in 1879 and left France shortly after, at the age of 21. He arrived in British Columbia in 1880 and began his career as a missionary in Williams Lake at St. Joseph's school. Here he studied Chilcotin and, with the aid of a student, began to study the Dakelh language.
In 1882, Morice became an Ordained Priest and in 1885, relocated to the Stuart Lake Mission in Fort St. James.
More than 10,000 natives in the region Simon Fraser named New Caledonia spoke a dialect of Athapaskan, the predominant Dakelh language.
Fluent in the language, Morice created a written form for the popular language by adapting Cree syllabics. Morice was the first person to identify Athapaskan phonological distinctions and write it accurately. In his time at Stuart Lake, Morice devised a system of syllabics, a dictionary and grammar for the Dakelh language. Further to this, he completed his missionary duties by translating the catechism, hymns and prayers into Athapaskan. He also published a bimonthly Dakelh newspaper from 1891-1894 called the Dustl'us Nawhulnuk.
In 1904, Father Morice was removed from Fort St. James by the bishop, due to complaints from the Hudson's Bay Company and his inability to get along with other missionaries. Relocated to Winnipeg, Father Morice spent the remainder of his life as a scholar. He continued to write texts on the Dakelh language, culture and general Athapaskan topics. He also wrote of the history of the Roman Catholic church in Western Canada, as well as the French and Metis of the West.
Louis-Billy Prince, a descendant of Kw'eh, a great Dakelh Chief, corresponded with Father Morice for many years after he left Fort St. James. Both men wrote in the Athapaskan syllabic, Prince responding to Morice's questions on Dakelh culture. The two men corresponded until Prince was no longer able. After this time, his daughter, Lizette Hall, wrote as Prince spoke, transcribing his letters. Ms. Hall, unfortunately, was not familiar with the Athapaskan syllabic and so continued the letters in English.
Father Morice's written form of Athapaskan was popular until around 1920, when the Dakelh language was banned from local schools. Written Dakelh soon evolved into a non-standard form of the Latin alphabet, erasing the distinctions which Morice's syllabic captured accurately. The transition was quick, exemplified in the loss of the Athapaskan syllabic between Louis-Billy Prince's generation and his daughter's.
In the 1960s, the Carrier Linguistic Committee in Fort St. James created a standardized form of the Latin alphabet to capture the language. This is now the more common form, although Morice's Dakelh syllabics is still often seen as more culturally authentic.
Today, visitors can still experience the places that Father Morice inhabited in the community of Fort St. James, BC. On Lakeview Drive, not far from Fort St. James National Historic Site, stands Our Lady of Good Hope Catholic Church. This charming church, completed in 1873, is today one of the oldest in the province's northern interior.¬† It is open to visitors during select Sunday services in the summer months. Tours of the church interior must be arranged prior to visiting, and are managed by a non-profit society. Adjacent to the church is the printing press building, remembered as the workshop where Father Morice created the first Dakelh syllabics dictionaries. For more information, contact Fort St. James NHS.
Morice River, Morice Lake, and Moricetown in northern BC were all named after Father Adrien Gabriel Morice.
Shortly after Father Morice introduced the Athapaskan syllabics, a lengthy message was written on the wall of the jail in Richfield outside of Barkerville, 80km East of Quesnel. This is the first known document written in the Dakelh language.
The Canadian Encyclopedia, Father Adrien Gabriel Morice