A settler encounters the Doctrine of Discovery

This week’s guest writer is James Schellenberg, Coordinator of MCC Canada’s Low German Program. 

As an almost 67 year old ‘settler,’ born and raised on the Manitoba prairie, and connected to the land through seed-time and harvest, it was profoundly disquieting to have that connection challenged when I was confronted with my culpability in the implementation of the Doctrine of Discovery.  Two days of presentations on this topic at Thunderbird House in Winnipeg in early April occasioned this disquiet, and made me think.

When my great-grandparents settled here on the ‘empty land’ of the Canadian prairie in the newly-formed Province of Manitoba in the 1870’s, they were simply grateful for the opportunity to acquire land. They were grateful for the opportunity to ‘subdue’ the prairie by the sweat of their brow, and to make the land productive–by their definition.  It was with a deep and grateful satisfaction that they laid the foundation for what they hoped would be a secure future for their children and grandchildren. They truly and humbly felt that they were doing what God had called and gifted them to do.

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Low German Mennonites in Salamanca, Quintana Roo, Mexico.  MCC photo/Kennert Giesbrecht

Three generations later, when I as a child encountered Indigenous people, it was almost as if they were the interlopers, and we were the legitimate inhabitants.  And nowhere was I challenged in that perception. At school we learned about the discoverers and explorers, and reveled in their exploits.  At church we heard about ‘native missions’ and felt good about our efforts to make ‘them’ more like ‘us’.  Even after I grew up and studied, and gained some sensitivity about stereotypes, my perspective in the teaching of Canadian history was still very much that of the ‘discoverers’ and settlers.

Therefore it was profoundly disquieting to be confronted with an aspect of my history that felt like something I should have known and should have seen.  It was disturbing to see, in documented detail, how closely the church has been aligned with empire, and how conveniently doctrine could accommodate the aims of empire.   It was painful to be reminded of the many ways this has played out also in the relatively recent history of our own country, and how also we, as Mennonites, have been participants.  How could we claim not to see the injustice and wrong in a policy of assimilation that wrested children from the arms of their mothers and grandmothers, no matter how pious the terms it was couched in?

So it has been unsettling, and it has made me think. It is one thing to acknowledge an injustice, and another thing entirely to put things right.  What was done in the past cannot be undone, and recognizing the root causes of pain and dysfunction does not address their consequences.  It is so easy to let the unease and disquiet become an end in itself.  It is too easy to let meetings and conversations feel like an end, rather than the means to an end.  And so I need to remind myself of the need to move beyond reflection and conversation to action.  Acknowledgement of complicity in an injustice calls for participation in the work for justice.

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Low German Mennonites from Mexico are looking for land holdings in Colombia so that their children can continue the farming tradition that is valued in their communities. MCC photo/Kennert Giesbrecht

And it calls for vigilance in the present.  How do the assumptions that underlie the Doctrine of Discovery continue to provide rationale for what we do?  A situation that has come up recently in the course of my work with the so-called ‘Low German Mennonites’ has unsettling echoes.  In their seemingly insatiable quest for land that will allow their children also to be people of the land, Low German Mennonites from Mexico are considering the purchase of land in Colombia. They are simply looking for fertile land with abundant rainfall where they can find it, and where they will, with assurances from government about their independence in questions of education and religion, be able to live quietly and productively on the land. The ‘empty land’ that they are being offered, however, is land from which the legitimate owners have been forced, during the years of violence and instability in Colombia.

Given our own history in Canada, we in MCC cannot simply take the ‘moral high ground’ and condemn the action of land-seeking Mennonites from Mexico.  But we can invite them into conversation with Mennonites from Colombia, who see this quest with entirely different eyes.  We can, acknowledging our complicity in the injustice in our own past, call them and ourselves to a higher standard.

And that just might be one small step in the direction of repudiating the Doctrine of Discovery.

One thought on “A settler encounters the Doctrine of Discovery

  1. Thanks, James, for a great reflection. It pushes us to rethink our own past but to think about other places right now (Colombia, Palestine, where we might be benefiting, or helping others benefit, from the displacement of other peoples for settlement/colonization. It seems the Doctrine of Discover gets rebirthed in many different forms.

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