Shifts in settler self-consciousness within MCC Indigenous Neighbours work in Canada

[Individual articles from the Spring 2020 issue of Intersections will be posted on this blog each week. The full issue can be found on MCC’s website.]

Starting with its role in the resettlement of Mennonites to Canada, MCC has always been intertwined, even when unacknowledged, with the lives of Indigenous peoples. Aside from work with ecumenical coalitions, MCC’s first intentional, direct engagement with an Indigenous community in Canada was likely in the Southern Inuit town of Cartwright Labrador in 1960, which expanded in the early seventies to Northern Inuit and eventually Innu communities. Following the establishment of the MCC Canada Native Concerns (now Indigenous Neighbours) program in 1974, MCC engagement with Indigenous communities across the north expanded, with an MCC service assignment emerging in the Kwatkiutl community of Tsulquate in British Columbia. Soon the initiation of MCC’s summer gardening program in 1978 began exposing young Mennonites to varied Indigenous communities, with all the complexities of nurturing relationships in an unfamiliar setting marred by the brokenness of colonialism.

Service by settler Canadians could take the form of prescribing what Indigenous people needed according to MCC’s agenda, rather than prioritizing the agendas of marginalized Indigenous nations.

In her history of MCC in Canada, Esther Epp-Tiessen identifies several learnings that emerged over the decades of MCC program engaging Indigenous communities in the country. Epp-Tiessen observes that MCC workers entered into relationships with a listening and learning stance during this initial period of exploring service and community development projects in Indigenous contexts. This listening and learning stance in turn led MCC to advocate for justice for Indigenous nations through Canadian ecumenical coalitions like Project North and by assisting the formation of the Interchurch Task Force on Northern Hydro Development.

In the mid-to-late eighties, as MCC workers in Indigenous communities began to develop long-lasting friendships and take some risks in solidarity, partnership and increased local accountability started becoming measuring sticks for local involvement. “How could MCC stand next to the people it served in such a way that the people and not MCC took leadership; that the heritage and identity of the people it served was respected?” asked Betty Pries (61). Some MCC staff started to speak of two MCC constituencies: its traditional Mennonite supporters and its Indigenous partners with whom MCC workers built relationships and whose needs, MCC staff argued, should shape MCC’s program in Indigenous contexts and push MCC towards advocacy. The 1980s witnessed several examples of MCC staff listening to and responding to counsel from Indigenous partners, including: MCC worker Dorothy Mills’ refusal to carry out policies of the Department of Social Services in Davis Inlet in 1984; solidarity with the Innu in their struggle against low-level military flights near Goose Bay; participation in the Lubicon Cree campaign against oil and gas companies; and, to a lesser extent, engagement with the Anicinabe Park Occupation in Kenora in 1974 and Kanehsatake (Oka) in 1990.

Over the following decade, MCC began confronting more of the complexities of its service worker model, including the paternalism inherent in some MCC development and engagement approaches. At the most basic level, service by settler Canadians could take the form of prescribing what Indigenous people needed according to MCC’s agenda, rather than prioritizing the agendas of marginalized Indigenous nations. A review of MCC’s summer gardening program, for example, indicated that the program fostered significant relationships, but there were no more gardens being maintained than when the program began, suggesting a lack of Indigenous ownership. MCC’s service theology, Epp-Tiessen contends, has always run the risk of paternalism, quoting Mennonite ethicist Ted Koontz’s analysis of the potential paternalism of service: “We have; they have need; we give them what they need. In a deep way the patterns of our thinking may contribute to the very sense of disempowerment which we seek to overcome” (208). Grappling with the potential paternalism of service has pressed MCC workers to ask if a vision of MCC service might be articulated that does not focus on what we (settler Canadians) do to help them (Indigenous First Nations).

MCC’s Indigenous Neighbours program encouraged Canadian Anabaptists to recognize their positioning within the broader dominant settler society and to collectively acknowledge their power and privilege as settlers, as well as acknowledge the sins of a colonial past and ongoing colonial present.

As awareness grew of potentially paternalistic modes of service, MCC’s focus in Canada over the past two decades regarding Indigenous issues has shifted inward. MCC’s Indigenous Neighbours work encouraged Canadian Anabaptists to recognize their positioning within the broader dominant settler society and to collectively acknowledge their power and privilege as settlers, as well as acknowledge the sins of a colonial past and ongoing colonial present. This was not a new idea for MCC. Indigenous friends and partners had been encouraging Mennonites for several decades to reflect inward on their place as settlers in Canada. In 1975, a Kenora Report by Meti scholar Emma LaRoque commissioned by MCC to assist it “in gaining a theologically valid perspective on minority oppression,” observed that “the Mennonite Church must come to terms with power and powerlessness.”

MCC more broadly was slow, however, to internalize a critical understanding of racialized oppression and how Mennonites of European background in Canada participated in such racialized oppression. Stressing the importance of internal work, MCC Canada Indigenous Neighbours program coordinators Harley and Sue Eagle emphasized relationship building itself as peacebuilding. In the 1990s and the first part of this century, learning and owning our own complicity in settler colonial history and healing the brokenness within broader Canadian society, including the Anabaptist community in Canada, came to be understood as essential for—and an inherent part of—building authentic relationships between settler Canadian Mennonites and Indigenous peoples.

To spur Mennonites to reflect on colonial legacies in Canada, MCC promoted use of the Kairos Blanket Exercise, an interactive tool designed by the ecumenical Kairos initiative of which MCC was a part. During the years of the Canadian government’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, MCC pushed for Mennonites to acknowledge and address Mennonite involvement in the Indian Residential School system, including in the Timber Bay Children’s Home at Montreal Lake, Saskatchewan. The Commission’s 94 Calls to Action implored the church to repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery, which had already become another emphasis for MCC conversations with its Anabaptist supporters, including how the assumptions behind the doctrine continue to manifest in our theology, legal structures, and unconscious interactions. MCC also increasingly engaged in places where the interests of Anabaptist communities came up against Indigenous ones, such as the Haldiman Tract in Six Nations of the Grand River in Ontario and the Young Chippewayan land dislocation in Saskatchewan documented in the film Reserve 107.

Tricia Monague peformed a
traditional dance in a jingle dress
on the steps of Parliament Hill
following a mass blanket exercise
there. (MCC photo/ Alison Ralph)

MCC’s Indigenous Neighbours work today is at a significant crossroads. MCC is more aware of the dangers of paternalism and has a bolstered commitment to advocacy with Indigenous peoples. At the same time, MCC has access to fewer formal denominational or organizational structures allowing for the fostering of relationships between MCC and Indigenous First Nations than ever before. MCC’s history of placing workers in Indigenous communities is largely a thing of the past. MCC continues to engage with Indigenous communities when possible, particularly in northern Ontario. Yet many of MCC’s current connections with Indigenous individuals and institutions, as well as with non-Indigenous supporters passionate about Indigenous justice, developed over time through the placement of MCC workers in Indigenous communities. Neil Funk Unrau, reflecting on the Anabaptist interaction with the Lubicon Cree Nation, suggests that the distinctively Anabaptist response to injustice against Indigenous nations in Canada has consisted not simply of showing up sporadically when barricades are being erected, but of a willingness to be present long-term in the community for the “slow, frustrating task of building people-to-people relationships” (with the readiness to be present giving MCC’s response legitimacy).

MCC has considerably fewer opportunities now for sending people out of their comfort zones to be mutually transformed by the complexities of relationship building. We therefore need creativity to determine anew how to foster opportunities for authentic relationship beyond occasional interaction. Advocacy that responds to Indigenous calls for respecting treaties and Indigenous rights is one important response, though we need to be mindful of the need for authentic relationships to do advocacy well. Ecumenical collaborations have been an important part of MCC’s past and could hold some relational opportunities going forward. The key challenge remains how to further catalyze settler Anabaptists in Canada as a people to engage with the Indigenous neighbours with whom we share this land.

Kerry Saner Harvey is Indigenous Neighbours coordinator for MCC Manitoba.

Epp-Tiessen, Esther. Mennonite Central Committee in Canada: A History. Winnipeg: CMU Press, 2013.

“History of Aboriginal-Mennonite Relations Symposium.” Journal of Mennonite Studies. 19 (2001).

Pries, Betty, ed. Seawindrock: The History of MCC in Newfoundland and Labrador 1954-1993. Winnipeg: Mennonite Central Committee Canada, 1993.

Reserve 107: Reconciliation on the Prairies. Film. Available here:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s