Origins of Mennonite Mission in Northwestern Ontario

[The following is an excerpt from my research article, “‘Part of the Authority Structure,’ an Organizational History of Mennonite Indian Residential Schools in Ontario,” which appears in the January 2019 issue of the Mennonite Quarterly Review]

Mennonite mission work in northwestern Ontario, an area whose current political realities were shaped by Treaties 5 and 9, began with the missionary work of a Pennsylvanian named Irwin Schantz.[1] Schantz started his work in that general part of the continent in 1938 in northern Minnesota. In the years that followed he found his way into Ontario, Canada, by moving north up the immense and fractured body of water known as Lake of the Woods. His outreach was largely funded by American Mennonites whom he kept informed through a series of letters. In one such letter to supporters, dated April 1, 1944, Shantz writes, “We are under the watchful eyes of God and the F.B.I., who are concerned about the young men to see if they are draft dodgers.”[2] Young Mennonite men, from this period through the 1960s, participated in work in “the north” in lieu of military service.[3] This is one of the reasons that many of those exposed to Schantz’s work in the following decades were Americans.

By the early 1950s the organization Schantz founded had become known as Northern Light Gospel Mission (NLGM) and was making forays into Indigenous communities in Ontario. In 1953 they received permission to build a mission station near Pikangikum, one of the reserves nearest to the mining town of Red Lake. Red Lake was, for all practical purposes, the farthest north one could drive. Mary Horst wrote a short in-house history of NLGM in 1977. She described the first mission station this way:

The four men and two women, preparing to live on an island there for a time, set up a tent and then the men began to make a clearing in the dense bush. All this activity didn’t go unnoticed by the Indian people in the nearby reservation and they silently paddled out to the island to watch. . . . Meeting the Indians was exactly what the missionary group wanted and they were prepared by having, as one of their number, an Indian Christian girl, Elizabeth Peake. Elizabeth was able to communicate with the Ojibway-speaking people and she used the opportunity to tell them about the love of Jesus and His offer of abundant life.[4]

Horst went on to explain that shortly thereafter members of the Poplar Hill community, some twenty-five miles north of Pikangikum, learned of the arrival of these Mennonite missionaries and wanted to hear from them as well. Traveling from one community to another was particularly difficult at that time. It was traditionally done by canoe in the summer and dogsled or snowshoes in the winter. The early Mennonite presence in this part of Ontario, however, coincided with the mechanization of northern travel. Thus, though Schantz had learned to travel Lake of the Woods by boat, he pursued a pilot’s license to explore Ontario by airplane. Other key figures in the expansion of the mission were those who learned to fly small airplanes, taking off and landing, not on runways, but on lakes. Several decades later the Winnipeg Free Press would refer to these pilots as the “Mennonite Air Force.”[5]

Most of the Indigenous communities reached by Mennonite missionaries already had a Christian presence of one type or another. In the village of Poplar Hill this put the newly arrived Mennonites in contention with a Catholic priest, who would make periodic visits to the community. In 1953 Schantz told supports how their arrival had motivated the priest to promise the community both a church and a school. Schantz reported that the Poplar Hill residents responded to the priest by saying that they had a new minister.[6] These cold ecclesial relations would not immediately warm up, and they were mirrored by the national Department of Indian Affairs’ coolness to the Mennonite’s work. Where Shantz found success was in working with “the local Indian government,” which he told supporters, “have seemed reasonably favorable” toward the mission’s initiatives.[7] In the following years NLGM missionaries undertook a variety of projects, including an attempt at helping Indigenous commercial fisherman better preserve their catch for shipment to market.

The organizational communication from this period demonstrates a mixed attitude of goodwill and paternalism. This corresponds to memories of former staff. One former staff member I interviewed, who went north a decade later in lieu of military service, told me the goal was to bring a “better way of life.” When we spoke, in 2017, he appeared fully conscious of the fact that the resonance of such a statement had changed in the intervening decades.[8] In a letter from December of 1954 Schantz attempted to share his observations about the Indigenous way of life. He described their traditional ceremonies and lack of Western furniture and cooking utensils. He then asked his readers if they could see “why life is so meaningless to these people?”[9]

Many early missionaries did make an effort to learn Ojibway or Oji-Cree, yet the assumptions and cultural disconnect exemplified by Schantz’s statement remained. Though unable to avoid the endemic paternalism that colored most relationships between whites and Indigenous peoples, early Mennonite missionaries recognized the deleterious effects of the encroaching Euro-Canadian culture. In the 1950s and early 1960s the northern economy became increasingly cash-based, gas-powered equipment became widely available, and white agents representing commercial interests were present with increasing frequency. The traditional lifeways practiced by Indigenous communities were being left aside and many of the people representing outside commercial interests were primed to take advantage of the instability. An individual who worked as a storekeeper in this part of Ontario described this period as the time when “the north fell apart.”[10]

 

 

[1]. The Numbered Treaties are a series of 11 post-Confederation agreements made between the Canadian government and Indigenous peoples between the years 1871 and 1921. These treaties cover a vast swath of what is now central Canada.

[2]. Irwin Schantz to supporters, April 1, 1944, NLGM files.

[3]. In a subsequent article I intend to outline more clearly how this arrangement worked. The phrase “the north” is commonly used by former staff as a geographic designation for their work.

[4]. Mary Horst, A Brief History of Northern Light Gospel Mission (Red Lake, Ont.: Northern Light Gospel Mission, 1977), 5.

[5]. John Lyons, “Missionaries Take to Skies,” Winnipeg Free Press, April 4, 1989.

[6]. Irwin Schantz to supporters, Nov. 1953, NLGM files.

[7]. Irwin Shantz to Boyd Nelson, Dec. 2. 1953, Red Lake Ontario Northern Light Gospel Mission, 1953-1968, Mennonite Central Committee Archives, electronic file.

[8]. Interview with former school staff member, Feb. 13, 2017.

[9]. Irwin Schantz to supporters, May and Dec. 1954, NLGM files.

[10]. Interview with early missionary, Aug. 3, 2017; interview with storekeeper from the period, Jan. 13, 2017.

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