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Day schools: the struggle for inclusion


Henry Neufeld, a former teacher in Pauingassi, Man., presents a talking stick that he crafted to Joan Jack, who is heading up the National Day School Class Action Suit.

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Elder Elmer Courchene of Sagkeeng First Nation addresses those who gathered for the first National Day School Class Action Conference at the Victoria Inn in Winnipeg, Man on May 2-3, 2012.

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June 8, 2012
-Deborah Froese, with Edith and Neil von Gunten

Winnipeg, MAN.—Official government apologies and the national Truth and Reconciliation process do not include all prior students of government-funded, church-run schools for Indigenous peoples, a handful of which have associations with Mennonite communities.

To date, pre-1970s Indian Day School students – whether attending schools on or near a reserve – remain unacknowledged. They are banding together to remedy that.

On May 2 and 3, 2012, the first National Day School Class Action Conference was held at the Victoria Inn in Winnipeg, Man. It was led and hosted by Spiritwind Inc.—a non-profit organization of survivors based in Winnipeg, Joan Jack Law Office and the Sandy Bay First Nation of Treaty 1. Nine representatives from Canada’s Mennonite community attended the conference.

Spiritwind emerged in 1986 as an advocate and support group for the Indian Residential School survivor’s movement. Now Spiritwind is using that experience to focus on and advocate for Day School survivors by launching a National Day School Class Action Suit.

Although Day School students were able to return home each night, many of them suffered the same indignities as their residential school peers—violent physical and emotional abuse, loss of language, the aggressive imposition of Christianity, and condemnation of their Indigenous histories and traditions.

Mennonites are seeking ways of walking with Indigenous communities through the TRC process and in their struggle for acknowledgement of the day school student experience. In July 2010, delegates to Mennonite Church Canada Assembly in Calgary, Alta. signed a resolution stating in part that “Mennonite Church Canada congregations and individual members recognize and confess our complicity in the failing of the Christian Church and its role in the tragic physical, emotional, mental, and sexual abuse, denial of culture, language, and peoplehood of Aboriginal peoples in Canada.”

So, what is the Mennonite connection? In the 1940s, Mennonite Conscientious Objectors were sent to United Church Day Schools in northern Manitoba to work as teachers. Some years later, Manitoba’s Pauingassi and Bloodvein communities invited Mennonite Pioneer Mission (MPM), a predecessor of Mennonite Church Canada’s Native Ministry, to open day schools within their communities. Some students of the MPM schools report a more cooperative approach to education and saw MPM workers oppose certain aspects of the government’s attempted assimilation program by encouraging Indigenous language. In some instances, programs at Pauingassi were scheduled to accommodate community rhythms around the trapping and fishing seasons. But despite these more mutual approaches, MPM operated within the larger paternalistic system that as a whole, considered itself superior to Indigenous ways.

“As Mennonite Pioneer Mission, we had a lot of learning to do,” says Egon Enns, a former teacher in Bloodvein. “Yet over the years, with the help of Indigenous friends and partners, we have learned much and changed our programs to reflect such. We are still learning.”

Those who gathered in Winnipeg for the day school conference heard from survivors as well as Indigenous leaders supporting the movement—such as Shawn Atleo, Grand Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, and Judge Murray Sinclair, Chief Commissioner of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. They also discussed next steps in the class action suit which has been joined so far by more than 10,000 former students.

Elders and Indigenous leaders stressed the need to speak in love and strength while being mindful that some may dismiss their stories without understanding the significant generational impact of their experiences, or the difficulties they face along the road to healing. They recognized that monetary compensation is a necessary gesture of atonement, but it does not provide healing. Healing must come from within. Indigenous peoples are survivors and must live as survivors rather than victims.

Retired Mennonite Church Canada Native Ministry co-director Edith von Gunten attended the day school conference. She said the struggle belongs to all of society, not just Indigenous communities. Ultimately, this is a settler problem, for settlers perpetuated the notion that their religion, culture and politics were superior to that of Indigenous peoples, and claimed the right to change indigenous peoples. Those attitudes of superiority fuelled the assimilation program to “kill the Indian, save the child.”

Other Mennonite attendees included Steve Heinrichs (Mennonite Church Canada Director of Native Ministry), Tim Froese (Mennonite Church Canada Executive Minister, Witness), Norm Voth (Mennonite Church Manitoba), Leonard Doell (Mennonite Central Committee Saskatchewan), Norman Meade (Mennonite Central Committee Manitoba), Henry Neufeld (former teacher in Pauingassi, Man.), and Neill von Gunten, retired co- director of Native Ministry for Mennonite Church Canada.