Why should the Mennonite community be concerned about the plight of Aboriginal people – your neighbours?
I will speak from my heart on this topic.
The First Nations population is the fastest growing population in Canada today, with 50 percent under the age of 25. Unfortunately, First Nations are plagued with the highest rate of unemployment both in urban and rural areas of Canada. They also have the highest rate of incarceration in the land.
Notwithstanding these statistics, the federal government has seen fit to unilaterally cap education investments on First Nations communities at two percent per year. This means that these communities have to provide more education to more students each year with less money. The result has been crumbling infrastructure, lower salaries for teaching and support staff, and fewer dollars for extracurricular educational supports like libraries, physical education, and technical equipment.
Moreover, in 2007, the Department of Indian Affairs, or Indian and Northern Affairs Canada (INAC) as it is currently called, reported that 69 new schools were needed in First Nations communities across Canada. Additionally, 40 schools in other communities could not be used because of disrepair. Those communities are left without permanent educational facilities. It is further estimated that 95 other First Nations communities require major repairs to their schools.
In the area of housing, the Assembly of First Nations reported that 44 percent of houses in First Nations communities require repairs. Many were built substandard and thus pose health (life) risks to the occupants through conditions such as mould, overcrowding, and risk of fire. It is not uncommon to read about deaths of First Nations and Aboriginal people due to house fires.
As well, there are far more homeless people among the Aboriginal population of cities than among other groups. Yet this is our homeland. Being homeless on one’s home turf just does not seem right. It is said there are some 2,000–2,500 Aboriginal homeless people in Winnipeg alone, and the numbers are growing.
Stories and Scripture
My question as the Aboriginal Neighbours’ program co-ordinator for the Mennonite Central Committee in Manitoba is this: can Mennonite and Aboriginal communities work together in addressing some of these issues?
I believe we can. But how?
In a nutshell, we can do it by listening, understanding, and appreciating each others’ stories. I hope this short article will be a start.
We also need to look to Scripture to see what it says about relating to our neighbour. For example, in Leviticus 19:15 it says, “you shall not be partial to the poor or show a preference for the mighty,” and continues in verses 16 to 18, “you shall not go up and down as a dispenser of gossip and scandal among your people, nor shall you (secure yourself by false testimony or by silence and) endanger the life of your neighbour. You shall not hate your brother in your heart… but you shall love your neighbour as yourself: I am the Lord.”
In Galatians 6:1 it says, “If any person is overtaken in misconduct or sin of any sort, you who are spiritual should set him right and restore and reinstate him, without a sense of superiority and with all gentleness, keeping an attentive eye on yourself lest you should be tempted also.” Verse 2 says, “Bear one another’s burdens, and by doing so, you will fulfill the law of Christ.”
I will venture to say that the majority of Mennonites are not aware of the plight of the Aboriginal people in Canada today. Conversely speaking, probably not many Aboriginal people are aware of who the Mennonites are.
One similarity between the groups is that both have been granted land referred to as reserves from the Crown to live on and raise their families.
A second similarity is that both groups had a strong spiritual connection to the land and their immediate environment; both were very dependent on the land for their survival.
A third similarity was a communal type of life. Sharing to survive was very important. Families had to be concerned about families, neighbours had to be concerned about neighbours. Both groups had the underpinnings of extended family relations based on biblical principles.
I, for one, as an Aboriginal person, have had the honour of working with and associating with Mennonites for quite some time now. It has been a good learning experience for me. I would be the first to acknowledge that Mennonites have, for the most part, worked hard and given up much for what they have.
In the same way, Aboriginals have given up much (or, should we say, had taken) of the resources they once had, including a strong work ethic. Yes, some have lost that work ethic over the last centuries as a result of colonialism, and government intervention and reliance.
But, Aboriginal nations are making good progress on restoring the independence they once had. I know many Aboriginal people who work very hard, have always worked hard, and are doing very well. However, just as it has taken centuries to eradicate the pride among Aboriginal people, it will take years to restore it.
We must remember that Aboriginal people in Canada have faced many, many obstacles. One obstacle is colonization. Historically speaking, Aboriginal people were nomadic. They were hunters and gatherers. They moved, lived, and survived off the land and water. They lived within the natural laws the Creator had provided for them. They did not live under laws that were foreign to them as they are expected to now, in the post-colonization era. This has had significant impact on Aboriginal people and, in my view, is why Aboriginal people make up the highest percentage in jails.
The other obstacle is residential schools. Before colonization, parents were responsible for the education of their children as they moved around on the land in search of food. The education system was based on the natural laws provided by God the Creator. However, during and after colonization, parents were deprived of that responsibility. Children were taken from their parents, often forcibly, by the government and church authorities, stripped from the home and land they knew, to be educated elsewhere by strangers.
We need to ask ourselves: how would a process like this affect our spiritual makeup, if it happened to us?
Again, let us look to Scripture for some answers. What happened to Adam and Eve when they did not obey the natural laws handed down by God in the Garden? As we know, they faced punishment, even until death, that the world had brought on them. I could go on quoting Scriptures to support my supposition and answer the question posed, but I think readers will get the drift.
Let me leave you with this message: Can you, or I, say with an honest heart, “I love the Lord my God with all my heart, and with all my soul, and with all my might” (Deuteronomy 6:5 or Matthew 22:37) but at the same time have doubts about loving my neighbour as myself?