I was struck by a comment recently that echoes others I’ve frequently heard in the past, something like…….. “We Mennonites managed to survive the horrors of our history and flourish. Why can’t Indigenous people do the same?”
The gist of these comments is that the Mennonites who came to Canada during the 1920s from Ukraine had suffered through famine, war, tremendous economic loss, and family tragedy yet they managed to rise above all that and build a successful life for themselves in a new country. Why can’t Indigenous people do the same thing?
Whenever I hear people talking in that vein, I remember a presentation I heard Ovide Mercredi give at Thunderbird House. Mr Mercredi, a lawyer, and former National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations was speaking at a program organized by Mennonite Church Manitoba and Mennonite Church Canada, as part of their mission to build mutually beneficial relationships with Canada’s Indigenous community. The theme of Mr Mercredi’s talk was how Mennonites and Canada’s Indigenous people are the same.
Mr Mercredi said both Mennonites and Canada’s Indigenous people know what it means to be oppressed. Mennonites left Ukraine where they had been for about 250 years and fled to Canada to be free from oppression. Mr Mercredi noted that unlike Mennonites, Canada’s Indigenous people couldn’t flee from oppression because it was happening to them right in the place where they had lived for more than 6000 years.
Upon their arrival in Manitoba, the Mennonites were given two large reserves of land both east and west of the Red River, land which had been the traditional homeland of Indigenous people for over six hundred generations. Manitoba’s Indigenous people were also given reserves of land by the government. Mennonites were given prime agricultural land, while Indigenous people were given mostly muskeg.
Mr Mercredi explained that another thing his people and Mennonites have in common is strong religious beliefs and abiding faith in the Creator. The Canadian government allowed Mennonites to practice their faith freely and even granted them special dispensation to remain true to their religious belief in pacifism, exempting them from military service. Indigenous people, on the other hand, had their spiritual practices outlawed by the Indian Act and the government tried to convert their children to Christianity by forcing them to attend residential schools.
Although Ovide Mercredi had said he was going to talk about how Mennonites and Canada’s Indigenous people were the same, he essentially talked about how vastly more privileged and entitled Mennonites have been.
Mennonite Central Committee has a program called Indigenous Neighbours that provides opportunities for people to learn about Indigenous history and rights. It works towards building respectful partnerships with the Indigenous community and collaborates with Indigenous partners to ignite positive social change.