A long time ago, Mennonites settled in a country and thrived. When a large number of newcomers arrived looking for a home, the Mennonites welcomed them, teaching them to survive in the beautiful but sometimes harsh realm. The Mennonites lived peaceably with their neighbours, freely sharing the bounty of their land.
Soon, the immigrants outnumbered the Mennonites. Then, they got greedy. With superior military power, they took the best land for themselves and forced the Mennonites to live on smaller, poor-quality parcels.
As if that were not enough, the newcomers decided that the Mennonites would no longer be allowed to govern themselves, practise their faith, or educate their children. Believing that Mennonite homes were detrimental to children, the newcomers took Mennonite children from their families, forcing them to live in boarding schools and to learn the newcomers’ language. At some of the schools, the children endured physical and sexual abuse; some died of illnesses brought on by poor living conditions. The goal of these schools was to extinguish Mennonite culture and faith in the children, and make them like the newcomers.
Would you cry out to God for justice if you knew Mennonites were treated this badly?
What if I told you that the country is Canada and that it’s not the Mennonites who received this shameful treatment but First Nations, Inuit, and Métis people? Would you still cry for justice?
“What does this have to do with me?” You may ask. “It happened years ago and I didn’t participate.” But unless you are of aboriginal descent, you have benefitted from what was taken from indigenous people in past generations. For example, in Ontario and Manitoba, the government granted to Mennonite farmers tracts of land involved in treaty negotiations with Aboriginal groups.
And then there’s the matter of residential schools. Over a period of seven generations, more than 150,000 aboriginal children were taken from their homes and forced to live at church-run residential schools – the last of which closed in 1996. For 150 years, Canada’s aboriginal people endured this attempt to wipe out their cultures, their languages, and their religions. This experience caused a lot of damage – from the pain of abuse, to growing up without parental role models and few parenting skills.
A desire for reconciliation
Across the country among aboriginals, there is a push for reconciliation. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) was established to learn about what happened in residential schools, tell all Canadians about it, and facilitate reconciliation. The first public TRC event was held in 2010 in Winnipeg; Saskatoon hosted a major event this past summer; gatherings will take place in Montreal and Vancouver in 2013.
Coming to the table to listen
Derek and Tiffani Parenteau are MB church planters reaching out to native Canadians in Northern Ontario. First Nations friends told Derek that while the TRC reconciliation events attended by official representatives from the former schools, politicians, and other professionals are helpful, it’s disappointing when ordinary Canadians are not present to receive the forgiveness offered by residential school survivors. “It’s hard to forgive someone who is not there,” says Derek.
“If they can’t forgive, they can’t heal,” says Derek. Suicide and self-inflicted injury is the number one cause of death among First Nations people aged 10–44. Addictions are also a huge problem. “These are really just symptoms of unhealed wounds. We can help our First Nations brothers and sisters to heal by helping them to forgive,” says Derek.
Not all of us may be able to attend an official TRC event, but we can still participate in the reconciliation between European Canadians and First Nations, Métis, and Inuit peoples. We can listen when stories related to aboriginals come up in the media and dig deeper to understand the issues. We can also build friendships.
Recently, I went for tea with a Mohawk woman who had a very happy childhood growing up on a reserve outside Ottawa and now works at a university recruiting and supporting native Canadian students. Attending high school and university off the reserve, she was surprised by the general lack of knowledge about aboriginal issues, and hurt by stereotypes of unintelligent, “lazy Indians” who get everything for free from the government.
In our short conversation, I learned that the term aboriginal is equivalent to “European.” There are actually some 65 aboriginal ethnic groups in Canada. She also said that First Nations people living on reserves want to generate their own solutions to community problems rather than having them imposed by the government.
Derek Parenteau believes that, because of our long history of peacemaking, Mennonites and other Anabaptists could have a significant role in the healing that is so desperately needed between aboriginals and European Canadians. I want to be part of God’s reconciling work in our nation. How about you?
—Sandra Reimer finds community at Glencairn MB Church, Kitchener, Ont.
www.trc.ca (Truth & Reconciliation Commission of Canada)