Waterloo Region Record

Recognizin­g Mennonite heritage

Special week is a positive thing as long as it doesn’t reinforce narrow stereotype­s

- MARLENE EPP Marlene Epp teaches Mennonite studies, among other things, at Conrad Grebel University College at the University of Waterloo.

The second week of September is Mennonite Heritage Week in Canada. Who knew? A resolution to approve the official week passed easily through Parliament in the spring, following a motion by Ed Fast, Conservati­ve member of Parliament for Abbotsford, B.C. A number of Liberal and New Democratic MPs from constituen­cies with a significan­t population of Mennonites spoke in strong support of the idea. Six members of the Bloc Québécois made the only dissenting votes.

The second week of September is not exactly optimum timing to focus on much of anything, other than the busyness that fall startup can mean — a new school year, closing cottages and swimming pools, and garden cleanup. Actually, this might be the best obscure week to celebrate Mennonites who, with their tradition of humility, feel awkward about praise.

Mennonite historians like myself consider this a bit of a dilemma. On the one hand, we are keen to see our small niche programs of teaching and scholarshi­p promoted — in the House of Commons no less. Yet, without wide community consultati­on about whether this is a good thing and why, it feels like something imposed on a small religious group which is as diverse as Canada itself. There are as many as 50 different subgroups of Mennonites, some modern and acculturat­ed like myself, and others peculiar and distinct like the horse-and-buggy traditiona­list groups north and west of Kitchener-Waterloo. There is also ethnic and racial diversity among Mennonites, which complicate­s and enriches ideas about heritage.

Ed Fast’s speech focused on a few points as rationale for this recognitio­n. I was a bit annoyed by his partisan dig connecting the “thrift and generosity” of Mennonites to “this side of the House” (referring to the Conservati­ve side), noting that 15 MPs in his party were of Mennonite background. Really? Yes, we are sometimes cheap and open-hearted, but that isn’t a politicall­y driven quality.

Fast, and other MPs who spoke, are right to emphasize the many examples of Mennonites reaching out to help others that is rooted, I think, in their nonviolent and peace-building beliefs and practices. Liberal MP MaryAnn Mihychuk noted the significan­t role that Mennonites played in the private sponsorshi­p program that brought 60,000 refugees from Southeast Asia 40 years ago. Independen­t MP Jane Philpott used the familiar “barn-raising” metaphor to describe the good deeds of Mennonites, though in my opinion she overemphas­ized the work ethic thing.

Fast kept returning to the topic of persecutio­n. Indeed, the Mennonites were formed 500 years ago in the midst of religious reformatio­n in Europe and, because their beliefs were considered heresy, they were repressed, arrested and executed. Mennonites, along with other ethnic and religious minorities and social classes, suffered greatly during the Stalin era in the former Soviet Union. My own grandparen­ts and parents-in-law survived the violence of that era. In the recent past and today, Mennonites in the global south — Colombia, Ethiopia, India, Korea, for example — are at times targeted as Christian minorities or for their conscienti­ous objection to compulsory military service.

But most Mennonites in Canada today are not persecuted, although new Canadian churches such as the Chin or Ethiopian have recent memories of oppression in their countries of origin. Rather, those Mennonites with century-long ancestral histories in this country are beginning to acknowledg­e their status as white settlers whose migrations and class privilege have supported this nation’s colonialis­t agenda. That recognitio­n upsets the persecutio­n narrative that is part of Mennonite selfidenti­ty.

It is even ironic that while other faith groups are under attack for their religious dress (by legislatio­n in Quebec and by attitude elsewhere), the plain-dressing Mennonites are mostly observed with benign curiosity, despite misunderst­anding and occasional derision. We even have Mennonite bonnet benches in Waterloo.

If a dedicated heritage week reinforces narrow stereotype­s, or complacenc­y among Mennonites themselves about their mixed-bag legacy in Canada and elsewhere, then it may not be such a great thing. If such a commemorat­ive week prompts greater interest in understand­ing the multi-varied identities of Mennonites in this region, that is wonderful.

The Mennonite Story interpreti­ve centre in St. Jacobs is a great place to start.

There are fewer than 200,000 Mennonites in Canada, less than one per cent of the Canadian population. So claiming a whole week for ourselves seems a bit presumptuo­us. I am in favour, however, of a Heritage Minute. And am pondering what moment in Mennonite history that might be. I’m open to suggestion­s.

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