A Failure of Good Intentions

I stood beside an Indigenous man, an artist born on an Ontario First Nation. He was, oddly enough, wearing an Amish straw hat. I asked him about the prints he had displayed on the table in front of us. I could see the connection in his work to that of the widely-celebrated Ojibwa artist Norval Morriseau. He seemed pleased when I mentioned it. The story of the artist I was talking with, the little I know of it at least, is worth telling. But it’s not my story to tell. Our conversation drifted to the link he and I shared: his people had been sent to institutions known as Indian Residential Schools; my people had run them.

In Canada the term “residential school” usually applies to government-sponsored institutions set up to forcibly assimilate Indigenous children into Euro-Canadian society. At its peak, in the early decades of the twentieth century, the residential school system included some 80 schools. At any particular time as many as one-third of school-age Indigenous children attended these schools, and more than 3,000 children died at them. Many of these deaths resulted from disease to which overcrowding and malnutrition made the children particularly susceptible. The system has come to be symbolized by the words of Duncan Campbell Scott, head of the Department of Indian Affairs, who, in 1920, said, “our object is to continue until there is not a single Indian in Canada that has not been absorbed into the body politic.” Residential schools were a means toward that end. Early in the venture, the Canadian government realized that getting churches to run these schools represented a financial and pedagogical shortcut to meeting their treaty obligations. Churches, most notably Roman Catholic, Anglican, and those that would later form the United Church of Canada, saw the project as a missionary opportunity that came with financial support from the federal government.

Mennonite involvement—I am a Mennonite pastor—was relatively minor and, until recently, little known. Apparently some Mennonites who were conscientious objectors to military service taught in schools run by other churches, especially during times of war. Mennonites also ran three schools in western Ontario from the early 1960s through 1990. None of the schools were administered or directly sponsored by a denominational network. Instead, they were run by independent mission organizations, mainly connected with conservative or, better put, culturally distinct Mennonite communities. These particular Mennonites tried to dress and act in ways that differentiated themselves from their non-Mennonite neighbors. Many of the men wore what they called “plain suites” with jackets that lacked lapels, and many of the women wore long dresses and a “covering,” a piece of lace fabric pinned over their hair. Financial support along with volunteer staff and construction workers came from these types of churches in the US and southern Ontario. Many early volunteers were young American men who had been drafted for military duty but chose to do alternative service in line with their pacifist beliefs. Their opportunity to do alternative service in the north was facilitated by a Mennonite relief and development agency that had a broad agreement with the U.S. government allowing such international assignments. (the full article can be found here)

6 thoughts on “A Failure of Good Intentions”

  1. Crying now.  When shal we add confession into our services routinely. For those done and not done….

    Moira  Sent from my Samsung Galaxy smartphone.


  2. I am a bit confused about the role of the First Nations gentleman in this piece. You were a child of staff members at one of the schools. Was this man a student at that school? Did you know him? Did you interview him for this story?

    Also, given this is part of your personal history how do you view Christian mission now? Seems to me the story of the Mennonite residential schools In North Western Ontario point to a deeper critique of the Christian missionary impulse.

    In another piece you write about this but seem to think that the mistakes made here were that no attention was paid to cross cultural or language training. Do you believe that proselytizing is still okay, just that it needs to be more sophisticated?


    1. Thanks for the note Kathy. The questions you raise are precisely some of the ones I hope the piece prompts.
      I’m of the opinion that ‘proselytizing’ (and mission) is simply a part of the human experience in one form or another. The moral question for me is about power. How do we share our normative views and the stories that guide our lives? Is that sharing coupled with force and power or offered with humility and openness?


  3. Thanks for your response. Sounds to me like your answer to my question is yes.

    I guess you have chosen not to answer my other questions. I respect that, just to say that as I read through your article and realized you were part of the residential school experience in North Western Ontario I found myself wondering why you chose not to use this opportunity for a more personal reflection.

    My husband was once an aspiring Mennonite historian and had done some research on Red Lake a long time ago. He now does land claims research. I am retired and volunteer with projects in downtown Kitchener and am a big supporter of the Save the Evidence project lead by Woodland Cultural Centre (Six Nations)

    I haven’t yet read your MQR article. Will need to go to Conrad Grebel to do that. Cheers.


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