The story of Saskatchewan Mennonites relating to their Aboriginal neighbours goes back to the time when Mennonites first came to Saskatchewan in 1891. These first settlers became the neighbours to a people whose creation stories connected them to this land since the beginning of time. The paths of Mennonite and Aboriginal people intersected in a variety of ways, sometimes literally on the trails that were used for transportation, other times through the exchange of goods and at times Aboriginal people helped our people to survive. Through this there were some friendships formed and mutual respect was born. This pattern of relationships was repeated again in the 1930's, when settlers from the Hague area were transplanted to northern Saskatchewan, often finding themselves living side by side with Aboriginal people. There are stories of fear, mistrust and misunderstanding but also stories of good friendships and relationships that were formed lasting a lifetime.
There's the story of Abe Funk and others from Tiefengrund heading to Beardy's in 1936 for the Royal visit celebration; the stories of how Aboriginal people kept the Hiebert & Fehr families alive at Pierceland in 1937 and another Fehr family at Peace River in 1934. There are the stories of Herman & Anna Thiessen of Big River who developed good relationships through their involvement in the Trapper Association of Saskatchewan and Netha Boschman of Carrot River, who hosted many Aboriginal people who came to town for medical services and later through foster care of children. We continue to build on these relationships and the efforts of those who have gone before us.
With the creation of MCC Sask in 1964, a more structured and intentional way could be created to relate to Aboriginal people. These programs came under what was then known as the "Welfare and Social Concerns Committee", chaired by a member of the MCCS board, Jake Fransen. The first activity took place in 1965, when Northern Canada Evangelical Mission (NCEM), who owned and operation Montreal Lake Childrens Home (MLCH) invited MCC to send a volunteer to work at the home. Milton and Lenore Giesbrecht spent one year there working as houseparents and the following year the minutes say, "that there was a withdrawal of the working relationship with MLCH".
In 1966, Bill Siemens was appointed to work as a Community Development worker at Beardy's Reserve. This was seen as a pilot project and if successful, it could be replicated in other parts of Saskatchewan. After one year this was terminated because Bill and his new bride Elsie had decided to move and people at Beardy's decided to carry on and prove their own leadership. This project was initiated by MCCS Board Member Jake Fransen who was employed by the Saskatchewan Government Indian Affairs Branch. It was ended when the Fransens left Saskatchewan.
In 1968, MCCS was again approached by NCEM about the possibility of purchasing and operating MLCH but at the MCCS AGM a vote was taken by the delegates and it was voted 2 to 1 against further involvement. The Brethren In Christ (BIC) then decided to purchase the home and a group of people from the Mennonite constituency who were supportive of this idea then decided to work with them.
An MCCS Board Member Jake Letkeman had set up a medical practise in Meadow Lake and encouraged MCCS to become involved with the Indian & Metis in the various communities within a 50 mile radius of Meadow Lake. So in 1968, MCCS launched a "summer placement program" for teenagers. In 1970, there were 10 Native children ages 11-17 that spent part of their summer in Mennonite homes. By 1975 this program was discontinued.
A Voluntary Service (VS) unit was established there that same year, that ran a Drop-In Centre which related to and served Native youth. This was discontinued a couple of years later because of the dissention that existed between the white and native youth at the centre. The following year, upon an invitation from Meadow Lake Town Council, MCC placed a VS couple to do recreation work with local youth.
In 1974, MCC also placed VSers at MLCH, to assist staff with operation of the home. It was also in 1974, that because of the renewed interest in the constituency, a Peace & Social Concerns Committee (P +SCC) was formed. This committee became part of the new network that related to the rest of MCC's across Canada. That same year Menno Wiebe left his job as Missions Director for Conference of Mennonites in Canada (CMC), to become the director for the newly formed Native Concerns program under MCC Canada. Some of the first things he did was an evaluation of MLCH, plus he started the Native Gardening program that brought Mennonites into First Nation communities to work with Aboriginal people planting gardens while planting seeds of relationship and understanding. In 1976, he also launched a Bull Calf project, where dairy farmers (including some from Osler) donated bull calves to Native communities to promote the raising of cattle on reserves.
Following the Treaty 6 gathering at Fort Carlton in August of 1976, a group of Native people came to visit farmers in the Laird area, to remind them that they were settled on land reserved for them. These Native people had just come from a 100th anniversary commemoration of Treaty 6, and were painfully aware of how many of the Treaty promises had not been fulfilled, including the compensation for land that had been taken from them. This visit prompted MCC and Mennonite churches to do more research on their allegations and through this it was learned that 30 square miles of land near Laird had been taken from the Young Chippewayan Band without their consent or surrender and given to Mennonites to settle. Leonard Doell helped to document more of this history, which became the first time that Mennonites became aware of the history of this land prior to their settlement.
In February of 1979, a Peace Conference was held at Tiefengrund hosted by MCCS P & SC, CMC and MCCC to learn more about the history of the First Nations of the area, to develop relationships and to begin to dialogue on issues that affect our relationship. The conference itself brought many concerned people together and created some good space for learning. The anxiety and misunderstanding in the Laird community was very real and because of this a petition was presented from concerned individuals which prevented further movement from happening for a number of years following the conference.
In 1977, MCC provided a VS couple to Prince Albert who worked with the Christian Outreach program, a crime prevention program focused on Native youth.
Through the cooperation of MCCS & CMC, a conference on Mennonites & Natives was held at Mayfair Mennonite Church in Saskatoon in Oct 1982, which was intended to be a cross cultural education for educators, administrators & pastors. The guest presenters were Rudy Wiebe, Oliver Brass from Regina and Dorothy Betz from Saskatoon.
In 1984, a Native Concerns Steering Committee was formed in MCCS, under the auspices of the Justice Ministries of the P+SCC, to study the concerns of native people in Saskatchewan and make potential recommendations about MCCS involvement. In 1985, this committee made a number of recommendations to the MCCS Board which included: a specific MCCS staff be designated for coordination responsibilities for Indian programs. It was felt that nothing is likely to happen in the area unless specific responsibility was given to a specific staff person or a group of persons with both a mandate and interest in this area. As a result of this, David Neufeld became a VS person working with Native Concerns, which he did for one year.
At the MCCS AGM in Nov 1985, a resolution in support of the Young Chippewayan land claim was passed, urging the Federal Government to an early and just resolution to this issue. This was a significant move after years of mistrust and very little dialogue.
In 1990, Bob Bartel was appointed to do a listening project among Native peoples & MCC constituents. After his report was released in 1991, a Native Concerns advisory committee was formed to consider its findings. This committee was made up of Native Christians, MCCS staff and board. It became part of the larger MCC Native Concerns Advisory a short time later.
Also in 1991, MCC discontinued providing VSers to MLCH, which they had done since 1974. In 1992, MCC made a presentation to the panel on Treaty Land Entitlement (TLE). The TLE would prove to be a very valuable mechanism, used to guide conversation and settle outstanding land disputes. MCC also made a formal apology to the First Peoples in 1992, on the 500th anniversary of Columbus getting lost and arriving on the shores of America.
In 1996, Leonard Doell began as the first full time Aboriginal Neighbours staff person to work for MCCS. He was supported in this role through both the provincial and national advisory committees. One of his first tasks was a presentation made to the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations (FSIN) Review of Corrections done in 1996. The presentation was a compilation of many Mennonite voices, who worked in the corrections system and shared wisdom from their life experiences.
Bob Bartel was asked to testify at the Primrose Lake Hearings held at Buffalo Narrows in 1997, which looked at the efforts of low level flying on human and animal life. Bob and his wife Dorothy had lived in Labrador for 3 years working under MCC and could speak from their experience in standing with the Innu as they protested the low level flying in their community.
During the 18 years that I have been privileged to coordinate this program, I want to highlight some of the things that we have worked at. The communities of Beardys, Poundmaker and Sandy Bay all hosted summer gardeners. A special bond developed between the people at Sandy Bay and gardener Belle Zimmerman, a 76 year old woman from Colorado, who continually returned to this community many years after her formal assignment ended and maintained good friendships and was an encouragement to those who persevered with gardening. MCC also provided a Health Researcher, Kim Weaver, to the community, to act as a liaison between the local health district and traditional healers in the community. She also actively worked with local elected officials to assist them with their land claim and compensation claim from the construction of Island Falls Dam.
MCCS helped to create the Mayfair Housing Co-op in 1999, a partnership between Sask Native Rentals, Mennonite Trust and MCCS, which was an affordable housing project, that created the possibility for 10 first time home owners (families) to own their own home. Bill Siemens and Marlene Froese served as the co-ordinators of this project.
In 2003, MCCS partnered with Parliament Mennonite Brethren (MB) Church in Regina to support the work of Spurgeon Root, who had been seconded to Healing Hearts Ministry to work with inner city youth. Much of Spurgeon's work was spent providing alternatives to youth who were likely to join gangs. The youth were taught how to build and repair and maintain bicycles and then were rewarded with a bike trip, they could also learn how to refinish old furniture or how to build wooden strip canoes. Through these activities relationships and trust were built that led to further opportunities to teach healthy life skills and choices, plus a sharing of spiritual beliefs.
Throughout the years, we have created the opportunity for our constituents to learn more about their Aboriginal Neighbours and to develop relationships with them. We have hosted workshops at our AGM's and dialogue events like "Peacebuilding on the Prairies". When guest speakers have been available whose work relates to the theme of reconciliation with First Nations, we have made them available to churches who were seeking more input on this theme. We have developed a very good relationship with the Office of the Treaty Commissioner (OTC), who have been great partners to work with. They have excellent staff and resources that they have made available to all people. I have really appreciated the Speakers Bureau as well as the curriculum material that they have created for Saskatchewan schools in "Teaching Treaty in the classroom".
Throughout the years, God has sent many wonderful partners into our lives and work, whom we have learned from and been blessed by their inspiring words, deeds and friendship. From the OTC, we have learned in a better way what it means to be Treaty people, of how the lives of Aboriginal and Non-Aboriginal people are bound together and that there is hope for us to live in peace and harmony. Most of all I cherish their friendship and mutual respect.
The summer of 2006 was a memorable one for me and that work that we had been doing with the Young Chippewayan Band. Upon the initiative of Chief Ben Weenie, he called me to see if it would be possible for the Young Chippewayan Band to gather at Stoney Knoll for the 130th Anniversary of the signing of Treaty 6. I told him that this was not my decision to make but that I would meet with leaders from the Mennonite and Lutheran churches at Laird to get their response. We met and the churches decided to move ahead and next invited Chief Weenie to share his dream with us. On 22 August 2006, Young Chippewayan Band, Mennonites and Lutherans met at Stoney Knoll, a powerful time of sharing food and stories but also a great time of building friendship, trust, understanding and good will.
This was followed 5 years later at the 135th Anniversary at Stoney Knoll, where the event included not only food and story-telling but also a special Treaty Day. These three communities continue to work together in attempting to seek justice for the Young Chippewayan Band by doing a genealogy of the Band to meet the requirements of the Indian Claims Commission, plus to educate our constituency about this issue through events like the Spruce River Folkfest and to continue to explore the possibility of creating a land trust, to symbolically purchase a piece of land that could be returned to this landless band. Much goodwill has been built but this is something that will need to be nurtured in the years to come.
With this year being the 50th anniversary of the beginning of MCCS, it is a good time to pause and reflect, as to where we have come from, to think about some of the lessons that we have learned along the way and to dream about the future.
I am indeed grateful for the lives and examples of the many who have gone on before us, who as individuals have created and shaped the organization like MCCS, who sought to be faithful to God by working at these issues of peace, justice and reconciliation. I am grateful for our churches who have faithfully supported this work with their prayers and resources and were willing to take risks and be engaged in difficult issues.
But today is also a day of repentance, for by looking back we also see that in spite of many good intentions, the impact of our work often missed the mark. We acknowledge as well that many of our people still carry deep colonial attitudes of racism, prejudice, and superiority towards our Aboriginal brothers and sisters. We also acknowledge that our institutions too often reflect similar attitudes and are not always welcoming and respectful places to the guests who are unlike us who attempt to enter our doors.
I am grateful for the grace, forgiveness, kindness and hospitality that our Aboriginal brothers and sisters have extended to our people throughout the years, who continue to extend friendship even when it has not been returned.
At a treaty gathering held a few years ago at Fort Carlton, an Aboriginal leader said that he had not come to celebrate the Treaty Day but to commemorate it. He felt that the word commemorate was more accurate because this was a time of thoughtful reflection and learning but he acknowledged that there was much more that still needed to be done.
In his song "Man in Black," Johnny Cash says too that he would love to wear a rainbow every day and tell the world that everything is okay but until things were brighter in the world he would continue to wear black. I am not suggesting that we all wear black or that we have nothing to celebrate because we do. There is still much that needs to be done as long as Aboriginal people are marginalized and continue to live in poverty, are overrepresented in jails, suffer with high unemployment and suicides and are not treated with dignity and respect.
Today we do give thanks and celebrate the time and places where our people have been the vehicles of Christ's love and peace as they walked with Aboriginal people in their quest for wholeness. I am thankful for MCC, in spite of its failings and shortcomings, it too has been a movement for sharing God's love, for sharing of the abundance of resources with those in need and a vehicle for speaking for peace and justice. A short 50 years ago, our people had a vision that created MCCS, may God help us to renew this vision and may the Spirit energize us as we continue to learn about what it means to be his servants of faith, hope and love.
Report: Aboriginal Neighbours -Indigenous Work Anniversary Event - August 17, 2014
Back to MCCS's 50th Anniversary - index Or; Jan: IVEP | Feb: Thrift Shop Movement | Mar: Canadian Foodgrains Bank| Apr: Ten Thousand Villages | May: Restorative Justice | June: Relief Sale | July: Refugee Assistance | Aug: Aboriginal Neighbours (Historical overview) | Sept: Governance | Oct: Music Gala