“The stories are horrific. You can’t listen to them without a sick feeling of disbelief rising in your stomach. It’s easy to tell yourself that, because you were not personally involved, you have no blame for what happened. But the feeling of guilt persists.”
Willard Metzger, executive director of Mennonite Church Canada, describes his experience at The Meeting Place Truth and Reconciliation Conference in Toronto from May 31 to June 2.
In a subsequent blog post, Metzger recounts statements from a brother and sister that cut him to the core. They were taken from a comfortable family life to a residential school, where they were beaten for as little as waving at each other.
She was sexually assaulted by a male teacher. Metzger used the sister’s own words to describe what happened next: “Eventually I started feeling something grow in my stomach. So once again one night at 11 p.m., they came and took me to the hospital and removed the baby. They told me the baby was dead, but I think she is alive. Sometimes I hear her cry.”
Equally disturbing was her brother’s story about another boy. The child was ill, yet a teacher forced him to eat. When he vomited into his soup bowl and onto the floor, the teacher forced him to clean up the mess. Before the teacher left, she demanded that he eat everything in his bowl. But the other boys came to his rescue; passing the bowl among themselves, spoonful by spoonful, they emptied it for him.
“What a contrast of brutal cruelty and gentle tenderness,” Metzger writes. “I begged God for forgiveness. I felt ashamed of those who misrepresent God’s love.”
If the images of what Metzger heard were disturbing, he admits that he was just as unsettled by the fact that Mennonites are not one of the official TRC church participants. “Mennonite Church Canada may not have been directly involved with residential schools,” he says, “but Mennonites, as a wider people group, were. In the end, is there a difference?”
Steve Heinrichs, director of MC Canada Indigenous Relations (formerly Native Ministry), also attended the conference. He says that a Chinese-Canadian honorary witness held up a Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) Ontario Aboriginal Neighbours map outlining Mennonite schools and the indigenous communities impacted by them.
“He told the crowd that there was more work to be done,” Heinrichs says. “I understood the sub-text of that comment to be asking where the Mennonites are in all of this. We see the Anglicans and Presbyterians here in an official capacity, but where are the Mennonites?”
Heinrichs says that during the Toronto conference indigenous elders and leaders repeatedly invited allies from the broader community: “They said, ‘We need you. Ongoing colonialism and paternalism will not change unless we have more allies on the journey of decolonization, more who will risk—beyond rhetoric and apologies—to seek justice with and for Indigenous Peoples and lands.’ ”
So how will Mennonites respond now? Metzger is aware that more discussion is needed within the national church before any decisions are made. “Justice Murray Sinclair [chief TRC commissioner] put it well,” he says. “ ‘In the end, it is not what we are to blame for, but what we are responsible for.’ ”