Acknowledging treaty and territory

This week’s guest writer is Steve Plenert, peace program coordinator for MCC Manitoba.

“I just think it’s annoying.”  That’s how my conversation with someone from church ended one Sunday after worship. The person had just pointed out that on the cover of our new church directory we had included “Treaty 1 Territory” as part of the address of our church building.

Hundreds of people particpated in a mass blanket exercise on the steps of Parliament Hill, lead by members of Kairos. Members of First Nations communities, faith communities and many others participated including those from Mennonite churches and MCCer's from across the system.

Hundreds of people participate in a mass blanket exercise on the steps of Parliament Hill. The blanket exercise teaches Canadian history from the perspective of indigenous peoples. MCC photo by Alison Ralph.

“That’s a political statement” he went on, clearly irate. I tried to make some statements to defuse the tension, but clearly the high dudgeon he was experiencing was more important to him at the moment than having a conversation about issues relating to colonial history and indigenous-settler relationships.But it got me thinking. I thought about it during lunch (hotdogs), clean-up, and even while I was golfing that evening. I thought about two questions: First, is church a place where people are supposed to get annoyed? And second, so soon after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s closing, what are appropriate ways of acknowledging this troubled/troubling era of Canadian history?

Although I didn’t initiate the “address change” on the directory, I actually think that’s a pretty good symbolic way of identifying with Indigenous people.  The history of Mennonites with Indigenous people here in Manitoba slants pretty heavily in favour of the Mennonites. When you look at measures like education, economic class, cultural stability, representation in society, we Mennos stack up very high on the positive side of the ledger.  As with all settler peoples here in Canada some of this, at the very least, comes at the expense of Indigenous people.  So, if we acknowledge that the land was generously shared with us and sometimes confiscated on our behalf, putting “Treaty 1 Territory” on our bulletins and directory doesn’t feel inappropriate to me at all.

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Walk for Reconciliation, Ottawa, May 31, 2015. MCC photo by Alison Ralph.

Our congregation also hosts community people on Sunday mornings before the worship service. People come for coffee, breakfast and conversation. Many of them are Indigenous. This has been going on for years now and some good relationships have been established.  Quite a few of those folks now consider our congregation “their church” – whatever that means to them. I think that’s pretty cool. In an era of “truth and reconciliation” relationship-building and hospitality, perhaps this is what is called for.  It’s not everything, but it’s something.  Maybe having “their” address as part of “our” address can help us see each other as part of one body. That would be good.

But is church supposed to be a place to go to get annoyed?  Probably. At least some of the time. Because if we’re not annoyed with each other occasionally, we’re probably not being honest with each other. There’s always the question as to whose annoyance takes priority, mind you. Is it more important that one person feel annoyed over an experiment with identifying with Indigenous people or do we prioritize the annoyance of never saying anything about this topic?

Maybe you wonder about my use of the word “annoyance.”  It’s particularly appropriate, I think, because I am in the privileged position of being able to choose my annoyances.  Settler privilege and priority have a rich history in the church. Mennonite settler types, such as myself, are in the places of power. That means we get to pick how words get used.  Perhaps we use some of that privilege to add a line to the church directory in the hopes of seeing one of the troubled pages of Canadian history getting written with a more inclusive story.

The adage says that the gospel should comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.  In my view, this is a fairly minor “affliction” – if an annoyance for some – that can hopefully contribute to  more respectful and authentic relationships with Indigenous people in Canada.

One thought on “Acknowledging treaty and territory

  1. Well-expressed Steve. Thanks. I’d also suggest that in our introduction and welcome to Sunday morning worship, our congregations include a line acknowledging who lived her before European settlers arrived. Something like “We acknowledge that we are meeting on the traditional lands of the Mississaugas of New Credit. We are grateful for their sharing of this land, and we recognise that their sharing often happened via force, manipulation and duplicity.” We do this occasionally at TUMC, but not often enough.

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