On a frigid January morning, I joined about forty other mostly Mennonite folk at a busy Winnipeg intersection, where we held signs, sang, prayed and walked, to demonstrate our support for the Idle No More movement. We were there as “settlers,” offering our solidarity with Indigenous people who are seeking a new relationship with the government of Canada and Canadians.
My reason for being there relates to my heritage as the granddaughter of refugee immigrants. All of my grandparents arrived in Canada in the 1920s from the Soviet Union in the wake of war, revolution, terror and famine. Like 20,000 others, they had lost their homes and their future. They hoped that Canada would provide a new home where they could practice their faith, build their communities, and find economic security. Despite a decade of Depression, Canada more than met their hopes and dreams.
My father, born in southern Manitoba just a few years after his parents’ arrival, was effusive about the opportunities Canada afforded to the immigrants. He saw the hand of God at work in the way Mennonites prospered in Canada. In 1957, as the 28-year-old editor of a new English language inter-Mennonite newspaper, he wrote,
Before us lay a mighty expansive chunk of natural resources and opportunity. We chose where we wanted to live, bought land for a dollar an acre or thereabouts, and made our living. West, north, or any direction spelled opportunity. An undeserved opportunity to be sure, but there it was, ours as a gift of God’s hand (The Canadian Mennonite, 31 May 1957, p. 2).
My father’s words express the sentiments of many Mennonite immigrants who were deeply grateful to Canada for providing a new home. It also, unfortunately, reflects the mentality of most immigrants who settled Canada – that the land was empty and simply waiting for their settlement, and that God ordained it for their use. The immigrants had very little knowledge of the Indigenous people whose land they were entering and whose access to that land and its resources had been drastically limited. They had no understanding of how they were participating in a colonizing enterprise.
I like to believe that later in life my father would have taken a different view than the one he expressed in 1957. I like to believe that, instead of seeing Mennonite opportunity in Canada as a gift from God, he would have seen it as a debt owed to the Indigenous people.
Like him, I am deeply grateful that my grandparents were able to find a home in Canada in the 1920s. I share their love for this great country. At the same time, I recognize that my privilege has been bought at tremendous cost to the Indigenous people who are my neighbours. My desire to support Idle no More is a way of acknowledging the debt and seeking a reconciled relationship between Canada’s Indigenous people and its settlers.
For more on MCC Canada and Idle No More, see the Ottawa Office January Newsletter.
Esther Epp-Tiessen began as Public Engagement Coordinator for MCC Canada’s Ottawa Office at the beginning of February. She has just completed a history of MCC in Canada which will be published by CMU Press in Fall 2013.