MC Canada shares the pain of Indian Residential School legacy

August 26, 2010 | Feature | Volume 14 Issue 16
By Deborah Froese, Mennonite Church Canada

Delegates to Mennonite Church Canada Assembly 2010 struggled with just how to confess systemic complicity in the Indian Residential School (IRS) survivors issue while not admitting to being directly abusive in non-existent Mennonite residential schools.

Of 139 residential schools identified by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) as participants in the horrific legacy of residential schools, only one institution is generically associated with Mennonites. The now-closed Poplar Hill Development School located in northwestern Ontario was run by the Northern Gospel Light Mission (now Living Hope Ministries) in Red Lake, Ont.

A resolution first brought to the floor on July 1, was unanimously passed, only to be questioned later by some delegates as not being far-reaching enough in working at reconciliation with survivors, and acknowledging still-existing prejudices toward First Nation people. So a second draft was brought back on July 2, which, though having more intentional language, was rescinded because it seemed to be contradictory by stating “exoneration of abuse,” while still admitting complicity.

“It seems to me it should say one or the other,” one delegate said.

Other delegates, such as Lydia Harder from Toronto, Ont., and the adoptive parent of a Blackfoot child, said the second draft still seemed “too superficial” in its intention, a statement she would not want to “show to her daughter” because she knew it would not be well-received. Another delegate said that related matters—such as settling on aboriginal land—has “us much more complicit” than we want to acknowledge.

In the end, the first resolution from the MC Canada Christian Witness Council stands in its confession of the complicity of Mennonites “in the failing of the Christian church” and its role in the residential school system, and acknowledging “that destructive individual attitudes, such as paternalism, racism, and superiority, are still present among us.”

Neill von Gunten, who co-directs MC Canada Native Ministry with his wife Edith, says that two other Ontario schools—Stirland and Cristal—were not included in the TRC process because they were defined as “day schools,” thus excluding them from the federal government’s criteria for inclusion on the TRC list. The von Guntens believe that some students from distant communities may have boarded there, but at the voluntary request of their parents. The Timber Bay Home at Montreal Lake, Sask., also did not make the TRC list because it, too, operated as a day school.

Neill notes that neither MC Canada nor its predecessor, the Conference of Mennonites in Canada, operated any residential schools. The only involvement in schools for aboriginals as a denomination occurred through Mennonite Pioneer Mission (MPM), the forerunner of Native Ministry. Through staff already in place in Pauingassi and Bloodvein, Man., MPM operated two day schools, both of which were established at the request of local community leaders.

Although MC Canada and its predecessor were not involved, the von Guntens say that over the years members of some MC Canada congregations—whether as representatives of those congregations or of their own volition—volunteered or supported these schools. The extent and nature of this involvement is currently unknown, as is the existence of any additional, generic Mennonite connection.

However, Edith notes, “In the eyes of the general public, ‘a Mennonite is a Mennonite,’ and there are no distinctions between geographical locations or denominational affiliation.”

With files from Canadian Mennonite editor/publisher Dick Benner.

See other stories related to the 2010 Truth and Reconciliation Commission events:  

“How complicit are Mennonites in Residential School Abuse?”  Evelyn Rempel Petkau attended the first TRC hearings and spoke with Mennonites about whether the church might be complicit in the system.  

“With God, all things are possible” A residential school survivor recalls childhood abuse and his quest to forgive his tormentors.

“A first step toward healing” A personal reflection on the first TRC events, held in June 2010

“Poplar Hill’s closure remembered”- Some history on the only Mennonite-affiliated school

“Mennonite treaty rights” The implications of Treaty 1 

“Forgiveness to what end?” An editorial on accepting and offering forgiveness

“For discussion: August 23, 2010 issue” Questions for reflecting and discussing 

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