Category Archives: Mennonites

Ousting Inhabitants




The newcomers to Canada had a different attitude to the land than the indigenous people they met had.

As Doug Williams, elder and former Chief of Kitiga Migisi, saidimn the documentary Spirit to Soar, “I think the early, early settlers had a real difficult time  with what they called the wilderness. Of course, we did not have a wilderness. We had a home.” The newcomers needed the Indigenous people to survive. Doug Williams put it this way in the film Colonization Road:


“When the land grants were starting to happen, they were giving away our old camps, and our shorelines, and our islands, and the river mouths, and all of this. We had to move. In fact, we were being shot at. It’s a history which started with conflict, so we had to move.”


Premier Brian Pallister of Manitoba was wrong. The settlers were not only builders. They built alright, but first they also  pushed out the inhabitants. Sometimes not directly, but through the governments that represented them and did not represent the indigenous people, the indigenous people were ousted. Settlers accepted this. They did not question their privilege. They saw it as natural. They thought they were entitled to this privilege.  That is the way privilege works. It sees anything that undermines that privilege as irrational.

I recently watched a limited television series call The English. It is well worth seeing.  It dealt with the settlement of North America by Europeans.  In it I was struck by a group of Mennonites who had come to Kansas to settle the land. The English woman in the series came up to the Mennonites and challenged them. “What are you doing here,” she asked. “Why are you here? Don’t you know people live here? Why don’t you go home?”  The Mennonites were dumb struck by these perplexing questions.  They seemed to never have thought of this. After all, the reason they were there, they said, was that God had called them to come. How could they possibly question that?  In a sense, the Mennonites were villains of the series [along with a wide assortment of other villains].  I had never before seen Mennonites painted as villains. Is this an unfair portraiture? I wonder what my friends think?

Recently, a friend of mine, told me about a Canadian farmer who is a descendant of settlers. He felt the injustice of this ouster so keenly, that he met with his family and together they decided to give the land back to indigenous people! Just like that after a few generations of farming the land they gave it back while acknowledging the injustice of the original displacement of the indigenous people.  That is an impressive expression of conscience and, I dare say, in this case, true Christian spirit.

That settler demonstrated a new attitude to the land and its inhabitants.


Women Talking


Miriam Toews is one of Canada’s finest writers and she comes from Steinbach, my home town. I read this book after I had already heard a lot of criticism about it. Most of that criticism came from Steinbachers. Some felt that Miriam Toews was not true to Mennonite colonies. They weren’t like that some said. Others didn’t like her approach. The book was largely about women talking with each other. The women had been subjected to horrific abuse by the Mennonite men in the colony and were meeting to discuss what to do about it.


My view is entirely different. I loved this book. To use the approach of Northrop Frye in the book The Educated Imagination, the book is not about abuse in a Mennonite colony. It is much more than that. It is a book about women talking about their own exploitation by men and what, if anything they should do about it. It is a book about rebellion from exploitation. And I don’t think there are many more important things than that. In Aristotle’s sense it is a vital and fundamental universal theme. And I think Toews was very true to that theme. For me, she made it come alive. And that is what great books do. They make it real. Even if it did not really happen. It was still real.


Many things were interesting in that book. The women wanted to have the freedom to think. Again a universal theme of vital significance. Did not every child in every home and in every country want exactly that? We all want to think and must escape from the domination of our family, our church, our clique, or our friends. We all want to break free and that is never easy to do.

I remember years ago I was at the Red River Exhibition in Winnipeg. There was a circus-style show involving a trainer and some chimpanzees. During the show the trainer made a mistake in improperly chaining the chimp to his place on stage. The chimp took one look around and made a burst for freedom. It might have been entirely irrational. What was the chimp going to do in Winnipeg? But that burst for freedom was glorious. The chimp took off and the trainer ran after him. From the stage we saw them a city block away. The show was over. But the bolt for freedom was real and it lasted in my mind forever.

In the novel, the women challenge the patriarchy. Around the world women are doing that. One of the women says, “We are not revolutionaries. We are simple women. We are mothers. We are grandmothers.” Yes. But they are rebels! They are talkers. And they are thinkers.

In this novel some of the women talked about making a bolt for freedom. Should they or shouldn’t they? I found it fascinating. I think this is one of Toews’ best novels ever. I think it is a great novel. Read it and think.