Unscientific Thoughts on the Legacy of Mennonite Residential Schools

Last June I traveled to western Ontario. I headed that way in an effort to better understand the origins of three Mennonite schools linked to the Indian Residential Schools Settlement Agreement. The first of these schools was started in the early 1960s, the second two followed in the next decade. If you know a bit about the broader history, you know that by this time what had been obvious to the First Nations for a long time, was finally becoming obvious to others: the Residential School System was a failure on just about every front. So the question I carried to western Ontario was why, particularly so late in the twentieth century, would Mennonites begin such schools?

What I had already learned from other sources was that these three schools were not the only way Mennonites were involved in the use of schooling to assimilate Indigenous peoples. Mennonite teachers were reportedly quite common at residential schools run by other denominations, particularly during wartime. Mennonites also ran residences and day schools explicitly for Indigenous children. In southern Ontario Mennonite families hosted high school students from the north who were enrolled at local schools. However, it was specifically the question of why Mennonites created these residential schools that took me to the other side of the province.

In the decades that preceded the founding of these schools Mennonites, particularly in southern Ontario and several northern US states, had absorbed a mix of missionary zeal and progressive humanitarian ambition. These themes showed up in the letters the sponsoring mission agencies sent to their supporters and they echoed similar language used to describe the work of Mennonites in other parts of the world. I heard these twin motives as well in interviews I did with a number of former staff and early leaders. Many of these folks, who were often in their twenties when they went north, were drawn by the opportunity for, as they put it, “Christian service.” Many were drawn by the idea of doing work that they assumed would better the lives of others, and by the opportunity to do so under a Christian banner. This was the case even though the more conservative mission agency explicitly refused to plant churches. In the earliest days, many of the young men who “went north” as they called it, had an additional form of motivation. They were American conscientious objectors who needed to do alternative service in place of serving in the military. Their work on this side of the border was facilitated through an agreement between a Mennonite development agency and the US government.

Mennonites, moved by these impulses, took up their Christian service in the context of an unstable arrangement between provincial school officials, the federal government and First Nation’s leaders. Documents from the period show that Mennonites thought of the creation of these residential schools as a response to requests from Indigenous Christian parents and community leaders. Those requests, the Mennonite desire for Christian service, and pressure on the government to provide alternative schooling arrangements are what made these schools possible. Initially at least, some Indigenous parents enrolled their children in these schools as a welcome alternative to sending them to cities further south. The three Mennonite schools were built in remote, northern locations for this reason. The idea was that such a setting would better bridge the difference between northern communities and the city-centered society of Euro-Canadians. Mennonite staff thought they were assisting these communities in an inevitable adaptation to Euro-Canadian society.

Looking back, leaders of these schools acknowledge that they and many of the other staff were naive. Few of them knew much about Indigenous cultures and some did not care to learn. This posture was possible because the schools were run by white Mennonites according to their own norms and standards. Documents from the 1990s show that Mennonite leaders realized that without giving actual power to the Indigenous people they were serving their educational efforts were experienced as oppressive and demeaning. At various times, all three schools had something like a “Native Advisory Board.” However, it is unclear if these boards had much actual decision-making power. Things began to change in 1980s when the federal money that paid these student’s tuition began to flow through the Northern Nishnawbe Education Council. This organization had been created to represent the educational interests of First Nations in that part of the province. This organizational evolution changed the dynamic of power. The schools did not survive.

It’s difficult to know what to say about this, other than the obvious response of acknowledgment that Mennonites have a direct link to this deeply regrettable chapter of Canadian history. There are certain simple lessons to be drawn:

1) Churches need to be careful about the ways they assume their goals and values align with those of national governments. The chances are good that when we think our faith is completely aligned with any particular national or party agenda, we are being used and our faith has become an ideology.

2) Those of us in positions of privilege should be deeply suspicious of our attempts to do things “in the best interests of others” when the others don’t have the power to be partners. If we aren’t careful, it’s pretty hard to tell the difference between good intentions and a too-optimistic view of ourselves.

3) Christians should pay closer attention to the elements within our own faith that remind us of God’s presence to all peoples, the dignity of every individual and the fact that our convictions privilege no language or culture above another.

Those kinds of things, though, seems pretty obvious. They certainly aren’t news to the Mennonites who ran these schools. Sometimes as I look at the folders of notes I have taken, the stories I’ve heard and read, I’m most deeply struck by the importance and singularity of each of the lives they represent. I know that media outlets need to consolidate and generalize as they treat these topics, but I can’t help but feel that as they do, the sacredness of lives they depict, even the genuine pain, is somehow squeezed out and what’s left is the pulp of political positioning. That, I suspect, is part of the challenge of living the faith—living generally—in our particular moment.

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