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We are all Treaty People


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Makato Wadidika, an ACT NOW member from Stobart High School and Ben Wert, Learning Tour participant, of Toronto.

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Maria Campbell
Maria Campbell

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Maria Campbell
Learning Tour participants, from left to right. Back row: Gordon Nesdoly, Leonard Doell, Dan Jack, Egon Enns, Steve Plenert, Aaron Epp, Alf Redekopp. Middle row: Ben Pauls, Eric Olfert, Arthur Wiens, Ben Wert, Rita Macdonald, Janet Plenert, Neill von Gunten. Front row: Deborah Froese, Jim Shantz, Sharon Janzen Nichols, Erna Enns, Leila Kornelsen, Edith von Gunten, Barb Daniels.

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June 19, 2009
-Deborah Froese

DUCK LAKE, Saskatchewan — History is not always what it seems, and the treaties signed with Canada’s First Nations belong to all of us, heard 21 participants at Mennonite Church Canada’s first ever Aboriginal Learning Tour on June 7 – 9.

ACT NOW – Anti-racist Cross-cultural Training – was a special highlight for Barb Daniels, pastor of Riverton Fellowship Circle in Manitoba. ACT NOW, an outreach program of Stobart High school in Duck Lake, uses art, drama and discussion to teach cultural awareness to Stobart peers and fellow students in Saskatchewan and Alberta. Learning Tour participants sampled the culture via ceremonial drumming and dancing performed by the Skyboy Singers (and drummers) and Sunrise Dancers. All are Stobart students.

Maria Campbell, teacher and author of Halfbreed (University of Nebraska, 1982), invited the tour group to her home where she shared tea and historical accounts that included links between Mennonites and Aboriginals. “Mennonites came to Canada because terrible things were happening in Russia. But terrible things were happening here too. In Manitoba, Métis people left [temporarily] to hunt for buffalo, and the government sent Mennonites into their empty homes.”

Retired pastor and Saskatoon resident, Arthur Wiens reflected on her comments. “As I listened to Maria’s story, I gained a new appreciation of the pain and destruction that had been inflicted upon them as a people.”

Harry LaFond, Executive Director of the Office of the Treaty Commissioner in Saskatchewan, denied the assumption – or myth – that First Nations agreed in any treaty to the form of social support system that exists today. The oral tradition of passing down stories from generation to generation reveals another perspective, he explained.

When First Nations realized their traditional way of life was dying along with the buffalo, they chose to negotiate for other ways to survive that would also accommodate their European neighbours. First Nations did not ask to be taken care of, but to be allowed the capacity to “make their own way” and to have access to appropriate healthcare.

The government agreed to provide agricultural advisors, equipment, livestock and seed to help First Nations improve their methods of farming. Things began to disintegrate when the government did not hold up their end of the bargain, providing old or broken machinery and poor quality cattle.

Legislation to ensure the farming success of European immigrants eventually prevented Aboriginals from selling goods other than firewood (no grain, cattle, milk, etc.) outside of their reserves. They were forbidden to hold traditional ceremonies and eventually, even their right to fight for justice was taken away.

These views impacted Pastor Steve Plenert, who preached about his experience at Springstien MC in Winnipeg upon his return. He compared the imbalanced relationship between whites and Aboriginals to the new king in Exodus 1: 7-14 who, unaware of Joseph’s contribution to Egypt, begins to persecute Hebrews.

“In our case what might be the things that get forgotten in the relationship between white people and Aboriginal or Métis people? We tend to forget that the First Nations people are called that because they actually were here first…. We forget that treaties have been signed between the government and the indigenous people…I am a treaty person.”

The phrase, “we are all Treaty People,” resonated throughout the tour.

On August 22 2006 a Memorandum of Understanding was signed at Stony Knoll, Sask. by representatives of Young Chippewayan First Nation, Lutherans and Mennonites who had all, at various times, lived and worked on treaty land. The document noted the provision of the Great Creator, the need for all parties to respect “the sacred nature of covenants” including treaties, and an agreement to work together for “peace, justice and sufficiency for all our communities.”

The Learning Tour visited Stony Knoll and met with many of those who had been present for the historic signing and act of community building. “Saskatchewan has a strong, vibrant Aboriginal community in the Saskatchewan River Valley area north of Saskatoon – a place where Mennonite and Aboriginal people have co-existed as neighbours for over 100 years,” said Edith von Gunten, who co-directs Mennonite Church Canada’s Native Ministry with her husband, Neill. She observed there are many myths perpetuated through mass media that need to be broken down.

“We are all learners on this journey of building bridges and relationships with our neighbours,” she added.

The von Guntens planned the tour with guide Leonard Doell of Mennonite Central Committee Saskatchewan’s Aboriginal Neighbours program, Gordon Nesdoly, chair of MC Saskatchewan Ministries Commission and Eric Olfert, MC Canada Partnership Facilitator in Saskatchewan.

For further reading see Aboriginal Peoples Resources in the Resource Centre.