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Hope and understanding for Pauingassi


One of about 35 children who participated in week of Vacation Bible School, led by long time Native Ministry worker volunteers Henry and Elna Neufeld in partnership with volunteers from other Manitoba Mennonite churches.

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Pauingassi Kids
Children enjoy craft time at the lakeside during a week long Vacation Bible School program in Pauingassi.

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September 13, 2007
-Deborah Froese

Winnipeg, Man.Since the tragic death of six-year-old Adam Keeper in August, Pauingassi First Nation has been under intense media scrutiny.  Although a troubled image of the isolated reserve has emerged, Mennonite Church Canada workers believe there is reason for hope and that understanding cultural issues will lead to greater compassion for the community.

Located 280 kilometres northeast of Winnipeg, Pauingassi’s people remained undisturbed for decades after  white settlers began to influence more accessible First Nations communities.  When the outside world found Pauingassi, the community was unable to rationalize the jarring contrasts.

Neill von Gunten, who co-directs Mennonite Church Canada Native Ministry with his wife Edith, illustrated this notion with a quote from Chief Dan George: “My people have come further in history than almost any culture on earth.  They have come from the bow and arrow stage to the computer to the space age and it’s all happened in my lifetime.” 

Henry and Elna Neufeld have been connected with Pauingassi through Mennonite Church Canada since 1955, when community elders invited them to build a school so that children could learn how to cope with the encroaching outside world.  Over the next 15 years, the Neufelds became a part of the community, teaching and building a solid church core while respecting traditional ways.

Even after their tenure drew to a close and the Neufelds returned to Winnipeg, they maintained strong ties with Pauingassi, describing it as “home”.   Recent media coverage has hurt them deeply.  “We love the people,” Elna said. “They are our best friends.”  Although they agreed that alcoholism is the largest problem on the reserve, they pointed out that not everyone on the reserve has a problem with alcohol.
Luke and Angie Enns joined the Neufelds in Pauingassi this summer for a five day Vacation Bible School.  Luke shared his experience in Intótemak, a quarterly newsletter about native ministry published by Mennonite Church Canada. “Anyone who thinks they know something about Pauingassi will tell you that this place is like hell,” he wrote.  “But it’s not.  It’s a community.  And anyone prepared to let their guard down with these people will see this.”

Neill von Gunten is keenly aware of the impact white culture can have on traditional roles.  As fishing and trapping became less viable sources of income, people were left searching for meaning and purpose.  When alcoholism appeared, traditional community-shared responsibility for parenting failed.  Discipline became an issue as well.  In the past, if a child chose to go out in the evening after his parents had told him not to, the parents would remove his shoes from the door and the child would stay home.  Today, however, the child would simply find another pair of shoes and go.

 “So what the parents are attempting to do traditionally is no longer working for youth because they’re watching TV and movies and seeing other forms of behaviour,” Neill concluded.

Eric Kennedy, the supervisor of Child and Family Services at Pauingassi, is convinced it is the women who will spur change.  Since Adam Keeper’s death, several Pauingassi women have created a community response team.  They began patrolling the area in the evenings, gathering up children and taking them home.  Kennedy and his wife, who is also a social worker, will train the women to respond to crisis ranging from physical trauma to media questions.

Kennedy is concerned about the way Pauingassi has been portrayed in the media.  “Media raped the people of this community,” he said pointedly.  “Since then, people who love their community have said, ‘I’ll be ashamed to inform anyone of where I am from.’” 

This saddened Kennedy, particularly in light of recent positive changes.  Since he arrived three years ago, solvent abuse has disappeared.  The number of youth seeking a high school education has risen from 2 or 3 to 36.  He attributed these dramatic shifts to the process of building strong relationships with children and youth. 

Kennedy suggests that the most important assistance any outsider can give to Pauingassi is their time and presence.

Neill von Gunten agrees. He quoted philosopher Albert Camus; “‘Don’t walk ahead of me; I may not follow.  Don’t walk behind me; I may not lead, but just walk beside me and be my friend.’  We need to become attuned to a community and their culture and understand each other before we can walk together.”

Sidebar: Come walk with us

When women of Pauingassi with sewing and beadwork skills expressed an interest in making leather moccasins, Morden Mennonite Church responded by giving them a commercial leather sewing machine.  The machine allows women to engage in moccasin-making and beadwork for personal use and for sale, while providing an opportunity  to teach these traditional crafts to younger generations.

Norm Voth, Director of Evangelism and Service Ministries of Mennonite Church Manitoba, encourages churches to consider partnership not only on the basis of what they have to give out of their relative abundance, but because of how they can be transformed by cross-cultural relationships. 

If your church is interested in partnering with a First Nation community, please contact Norm Voth at or (204) 896-1616.