The journeys and the land that shapes us

by Brian Dyck

This past summer, on a warm day in July, I set out for an early morning bike ride. Destination was not important to me. For me, in so many things, it is about the journey and not the destination. As a long-time prairie cyclist, I checked the wind direction before I started and decided to head south so I would have a tailwind on the way home.

Brian Dyck stands in front of a path leading to the Mennonite memorial landing site near Niverville Manitoba. (MCC Photo/Brian Dyck, 2021)

It was a great day for biking, even with a headwind on the way out, so I biked about 40 kilometers south before I stopped where the Rat River flows into the Red River near Niverville, Manitoba. That is where Mennonites from Russia first came to this area on a steamboat that sailed up the Red River from the United States. According to a cairn erected there, they arrived on 1 August 1874.

Three years earlier, almost to the day, in 1871, Canadian government officials created and signed Treaty 1 with the Anishinaabe and Swampy Cree peoples at the Lower Fort Garry about 60 km northeast as the crow flies—but much longer as the river flows—on the Red River.

While I was at the landing site, I thought about the relationship between the Mennonites and the Indigenous people of this place over the last 147 years. As a result of Treaty 1, Mennonites were welcomed here and given two reserves—the East Reserve and the West Reserve—to live on and farm; many prospered in this place that was like the land they had left.

A plaque commemorating the arrival of Mennonites in western Canada. (MCC Photo/Brian Dyck, 2021)

To the Indigenous people who agreed to allow us to settle here on their ancestral lands, the Canadian government in return promised support and full access to the land to ensure Indigenous livelihoods, prosperity, and identity as well. Sadly, this relationship between the Indigenous people and those who came here later has not always been good. Most recently, the unmarked graves at residential schools remind us of how Canada has not honoured these treaty promises.

I have become increasingly aware of this tension between migrants and those who are on the land where migrants arrive. In the last few years, I have been part of a discussion in MCC about how we respond to migration. We have centered our conversation on two ideas, both focused on the idea of choice:

First, we believe people should have the right to migrate when conditions exist in their home that make it too difficult to survive. MCC works at accompanying people on this journey to a new place that feels safe. We work to make sure that our communities are welcoming to those on the move. That is a central reason why MCC in Canada works at sponsoring refugees. Many people connected to MCC over the years remember the difficulty of coming to a new place and feel compelled to help others settle in this place they call home.

Secondly, we believe that people should have the right to remain in their home community. To support this, we work at addressing the root causes of migration including war, violence, environmental degradation, and economic exploitation. Much of MCC’s work related to relief, development and peace around the world is focused on this goal of helping people stay in home communities that provide for their wellbeing.  

In our discussions in MCC on the right to migrate and the right to stay, we have also begun to think about the impact that migration can have on receiving communities.

There can be connections between colonialism and migration. While there is always some interaction between the migrants and those they encounter in their new home, the impact on the newcomer is usually greater than on the host community. The newcomer can feel off-balance in a new setting, and at an economic disadvantage. However, in so many places where MCC works, colonial powers have shaped the landscape as they have entered it. Many Mennonites from Europe have been part of migration connected to colonialism.

Generally, the factors that pushed Mennonites to move in the 1870s—limited access to land, the requirement for military service by the Russian government and the general encroachment of the Russian government in Mennonite colony life—were far stronger than anything they knew that might pull them to a new place. Yet when they arrived in Canada with promises of land and to be able to keep to themselves, they came into a situation where the government was at the same time limiting similar rights to language, school, and access to land for Indigenous groups. While one may debate if the Mennonites were cognisant of it, there is a connection between one group coming in and another being displaced.

The fork of the Rat River where it flows into the Red River near Niverville, Manitoba in Treaty 1 territory. (MCC Photo/Brian Dyck, 2021)

Colonial migration is also not something from a bygone era. So many of the harmful practices controlled by companies in Canada, the US and the “developed world” in the places where MCC works on the right to stay, resemble the colonial conquests of the past. It is these exploitive practices that have made conditions untenable for so many and contributed to conflict over resources or exacerbated the impacts of a changing climate.  As we in MCC reflect on how we support people to either migrate or to stay in their land, we are beginning to also reflect on the negative impacts that migration has had on the people where we work globally. While we support people in their right to migrate, we do not want to support migration that leads to exploitation.

Our first steps are to understand our own story of migration and the migration history of the place we call home. MCC’s continued work in our Indigenous Neighbours Program is a part of that work.  We must also make sure that newcomers to this place also know and honour the stories and the people of this place. In our refugee resettlement work, we work at incorporating those histories and invite Indigenous leaders to tell those stories. Finally, awareness of the exploitation of land and people must extend to places where we may not actually set foot, but where the influence of neo-colonial powers, some with roots in Canadian resource companies and supply chains, continue to reverberate.   

Journey shapes who we are, even if the journey is a bike ride with no predetermined destination.  The land we are on and the people we live with also must shape us. Mennonites have been in this place where I live now for 147 years. We must continue to think of the ways in which our migration ties us to the original inhabitants of this land and how we are called to respond, at home and around the world.

Brian Dyck is the National Resettlement and Migration Coordinator for MCC Canada

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