Moving from Encounter to Relationship

by Randy Klassen

National Indigenous History Month celebrates the presence and contributions of First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples and communities. Especially on its focal day, National Indigenous Peoples Day (June 21) It invites those of us who are newer-comers to this land to encounter and build relationships with Indigenous persons around us.

Relationships are not abstract entities. They are forged from the meeting of specific individuals, and particular communities. And they do not grow in a vacuum, but in the rocky soil of five centuries of destructive, even genocidal, colonial history.

Art piece Landed Buggy (August Swinson, Arnold Jacobs, and Jeanette Seiling) was exhibited at Conrad Grebel University College as an “artistic land acknowledgement” that incorporates traditional Swiss Mennonite and Indigenous elements, alongside a mirror on the front that invites viewers to ponder their own connections to this land and to imagine a better future. (MCC Photo/Dianne Climenhage)

Recently, Conrad Grebel University College (Waterloo, Ont.) sponsored an academic conference entitled “Indigenous-Mennonite Encounters in Time and Place” (“IME”). I and MCC colleagues across the country were grateful to attend this learning event which included about 75 people on site, and another 150 online. This event aimed to explore the challenges and complexities arising from one particular set of encounters, namely with “Mennonite” communities (though the designation itself raises a number of important questions). The issues brought forth by the conference are not specific to one religious or ethnic group in Canada, but highlight the importance of every community (whether geographic, ethnic, religious, or familial) reflecting on its story, not shying away from the painful chapters, and moving forward with integrity and courageous truth-telling. Here are a few reflections on this National Indigenous Peoples Day.

Good neighbours can still do serious harm. It’s a broad generalization, but the concept of “good neighbour” is a pretty strong value in most Mennonite communities. It probably goes back to that core biblical command: “Love your neighbour as yourself”. That hasn’t stopped Mennonite communities from doing damage as they “moved into the neighbourhood”—that is, engaged in settlement on land that was promised to Indigenous peoples, with little to no thought given to the presence of those neighbours. These historic harms include the Haldimand Tract in southern Ontario, set aside in 1784 for the Six Nations of the Grand River: six miles on either side of the waterway, with Kitchener-Waterloo now situated right in the heart of this vast tract. Only 5% of the original tract remains reserved for the Six Nations. Mennonites were among the first to settle here. Or Manitoba’s “East Reserve granted in 1873, which included land already claimed by Métis Nation members. Or Saskatchewan’s Reserve 107, 30 sq miles of rich farmland reserved for the Young Chippewayan Band, then illegally sold by the federal government to Mennonite settlers in the 1890s. In some of these cases, it’s possible that the settlers didn’t know much of the backstory. Yet they, and their ongoing communities today, benefited from these injustices. At the IME conference, Reina Neufeld used the term “implicated subject” as appropriate for such participants in the settler project—those who are neither a direct perpetrator of harm, nor an innocent bystander.[1] This term is helpful in distinguishing between perpetrator and perpetuator, and it calls for the beneficiaries of ongoing harm or injustice to take responsibility and work for justice in the situation.

More complex yet are the historic and ongoing harms stemming from Mennonite participation in institutions that broke up Indigenous families and communities: Indian Residential Schools and day schools in Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta, as well as provincial social service departments involved with foster care and adoptions, especially the adoption campaign often called the 60s Scoop. There is at least one unresolved legal case currently before the courts, involving the Timber Bay Children’s Home.

When it comes to the removal of Indigenous children for adoption, the complexity becomes overwhelming. At a systemic level, adoptions are seen as part of a violent colonial construct, but at a personal level, they generally emerge out of motivations of deep parental love. For some children, adoptive or foster homes were and are abusive; but others have experienced them as healthy and loving families. For Mennonite and other adoptive parents, the gap between these two truths of systemic violence and experiential love can be excruciating.

Adrian Jacobs (also known as Ganosono of the Turtle Clan, Cayuga Nation of the Six Nations Haudenosaunee Confederacy at Grand River Territory, Ont) speaks at the Indigenous-Mennonite Encounters conference, May 13, 2022. (MCC Photo/Dianne Climenhage)

At the IME conference, elder Adrian Jacobs offered some words of response when he implored the listeners to “own your darkness!” Don’t be afraid of it. He referred to one of the Haudenosaunee sacred symbols: a warclub, which serves as a reminder of their darkness before the Peacemaker was sent (a historic figure from the Nation’s distant past). “We remember our darkness,” he said. “And we are not troubled by hearing about Mennonite darkness.” But the darkness must be owned.

And so, on National Indigenous Peoples Day, we who are settlers are called to name and own the darkness of our settler stories. Not to wallow in guilt or shame, or be paralyzed by them. But to speak the truth so that the shame doesn’t in fact incapacitate us.

Mennonite diversity shouldn’t be used to deflect responsibility. I’ve been speaking throughout of “Mennonites” as though they are a known quantity.  The word Mennonite, however, is used as self-identification by a vast array of communities and individuals who might have very little in common. Historically, “Mennonite” includes peoples of differing geographic and ethnic origins; people who use the term culturally, and those who use it as a religious designation only. “Mennonites” do not have centralized leadership; they rather “confer” with each other (i.e. form ecclesial bodies often called “conferences”). “Mennonites” are far more prone to fission than fusion.

This yields a real challenge when it comes to naming “Mennonite” failures or flaws with respect to Indigenous communities: What happens when a survivor of historic harm challenges or charges a Mennonite institution that “had nothing to do with” the source of that specific harm? The protest, “it wasn’t our specific organization/ denomination/ congregation!” rings hollow, even if technically true. Jeremy Bergen’s paper at the IME gathering offered a strong challenge to such protests. The historic creeds of the Church, which speak of the “communion of the saints,” point to a unity through space and time that shows how the Church might today understand its relationship to historic harms. Just as the Church finds itself called to stand with the survivors of harm, Bergen suggests that the Church is called to stand with its earlier self, its broader self. Mennonites and any similar community-in-diversity could do well to minimize the protests of disambiguation and do better to field the accusations on behalf of an unknown but fellow member of the larger Church. Of course, this means going to a very difficult and often murky place: —not necessarily “guilty,” but certainly “responsible”…for reasons of both theological conviction and the ongoing benefits received from those historic harms.

Beautiful things happen in encounter. As the IME conference amply demonstrated, encounters of Indigenous and Mennonite are not always marked by the vortex of systemic harm. Sometimes they are indeed the encounters of neighbour with neighbour. At the IME conference, we heard a delightful story first told at the 2000 precursor to this gathering, from the same creative storyteller. Métis Elder Maria Campbell shared a story of her great-grandmother: “Kookoom Mariah and the Mennonite Mrs.” (Hear the retelling here, with Elder Campbell joined by her niece, Lori Campbell of the U of Regina). When power or status is not at stake, when neighbours come together in common pursuits for the common good, encounters can indeed yield a beautiful relationship.

Members of MCC’s Indigenous Neighbours network (including Bridget Findlay, Scott Morton Ninomiya, Ruth Plett and Rebecca Seiling) listen to Clarence Cachagee at Crow Shield Lodge near New Hamburg, Ont. (MCC Photo/Randy Klassen)

Another, very practical example of a beautiful encounter came in the work of Clarence Cachagee. He presented at the IME conference on his own journey and current work with land-based healing. A few days later, a group of us MCC workers had the good fortune to visit his Crow Shield Lodge, the centre he has developed for healing, education, reconciliation work, and creation care. He spoke of his upbringing, including being fostered in a Mennonite home; he now finds support for his important work from a number of Mennonite institutions.

And finally, for some, there is the most personal of encounters—where the confluence of family lines includes both Indigenous and Mennonite members. A number of conference speakers shared this perspective, as did Cris Derksen, a guest artist who put on a remarkable concert at the conclusion of the IME conference. As someone with both Low German Mennonite and Cree lineage, she expressed some of the tension and pain that was her experience. But she also offered musical gifts to the gathering that incorporated the best of her classical cello training and her Indigenous culture.

Derksen’s concert came to mind as I pondered a more recent cultural event, a showcase of Métis fiddling and jigging by the Creeland Dancers (from Beardy’s & Okemasis Cree Nation, Treaty 6 territory, in Saskatchewan). At this event, the MC spoke of how the Indigenous drum was silenced by the authorities after 1885. As a reprisal for alleged support of the Métis resistance at Batoche, Indigenous ceremonies and spiritual practices were outlawed by the Indian Act. But when the drum was silenced, said the MC, “we picked up the fiddle, and joined our cousins in the dance.” The Métis fiddle represents something new and beautiful that grew out of the pain of Indigenous-European encounters. Cris Derksen’s cello played the same role at the IME conference (the cello is, after all, just a super-sized fiddle). In a larger way, the Métis nation, so often invisible in our histories and current society, offers another way of seeing the promise of beautiful relationship through encounter. But that path involves the loss of one identity and the forging of a new one. And that is a daunting lesson not just for Mennonites, but for all settler Canadians.


  • Attend a National Indigenous People’s Day event in your area.
  • Research your (family’s / community’s) story of arrival and life in N.Am. How does that story intertwine or interact with the Indigenous stories of where your ancestors lived?
  • Do a group book study of Healing Haunted Histories: A Settler discipleship of decolonization (Elaine Enns and Ched Myers, 2021).

Randy Klassen is the Indigenous Neighbours program coordinator for MCC Saskatchewan. He lives near the heart of Treaty 6 territory in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan.

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[1] See Michael Rothberg, The Implicated Subject: Beyond Victims and Perpetrators. (Stanford UP, 2019)

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