The governing body of Mennonite Church Canada has decided to end the full-time Indigenous-Settler Relations (ISR) position held by Steve Heinrichs and replace it with a new half-time position.
Heinrichs’s 10-plus notable years with MC Canada are over.
At the same time, MC Canada will add a half-time climate action position and a half-time associate executive minister position. The decisions were made at the April 9 to 10 meeting of the Joint Council.
The MC Canada release states that Heinrichs will not be filling the new half-time ISR position. MC Canada executive minister Doug Klassen says policies prevent him for disclosing whether Heinrichs was offered the half-time position. Heinrichs is similarly limited in what he can say.
That said, his preference would have been to continue in the role he had. Heinrichs was not involved in the April 9-10 decision. The cutback was effective immediately, although Heinrichs has offered to remain for a short time, to assist with transition and to wrap up projects. Klassen hopes to have the half-time position filled in the fall.
According to Klassen and MC Canada moderator Calvin Quan, the decision was based on budget constraints and the shifting priorities of the regional churches that control MC Canada. The shift is toward more climate work and toward regionalization of ISR work. Quan says that Joint Council was concerned for Heinrichs’s well-being in the change.
Klassen says the timing of the decision, which appeared abrupt to some, was dictated by the need for Joint Council to have a budget to present at the national gathering on July 29 to August 1.
When asked if the Joint Council decision was unanimous, Quan says it was a “consensus” process. Minutes of the meeting will not be made public until they are adopted by Joint Council at their next meeting in June.
Money-wise, the changes will be roughly cost-neutral. The three new half-time positions (ISR, climate and associate executive minister) will cost about as much as Heinrichs’s full-time position plus the approximately $35,000 in program money that was previously allotted to ISR.
The regions may or may not make up that lost program money. “If the regions want to put program money into it, they can,” Klassen says. None of the regions have announced new program spending for their Indigenous relations programs.
A decade of impact
The work Heinrichs facilitated included pivotal ecumenical support for passage of a federal law that enshrines the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) in Canadian law, publication of six books that included input from dozens of notable contributors and were widely used, and countless book studies and other events across the country.
Jennifer Preston worked closely with Heinrichs on the UNDRIP campaign. She is the General Secretary and Indigenous Rights Program Coordinator of Canadian Friends Service Committee. Preston says Heinrichs was passionate, generous, a great mobilizer, and an effective campaigner.
She tells of an organizing meeting at which Heinrichs was suggesting that the group try to get all three of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) commissioners to speak. Preston says, “I would not have even tried that, but Steve said, ‘Just try, come on Jennifer, just ask them.’”
It ended up being the first time the three commissioners had been part of the same event since the end of the TRC years earlier. A thousand people tuned in.
Preston said she was “astounded” by the recent MC Canada decision. She’s not alone.
Many people—Mennonites, Indigenous and others—were surprised and perplexed by the decision. “Not sure how I feel about this,” wrote Cheryl Bear on Twitter. “Feels like someone threw the monopoly board mid-game.”
Bear is an award-winning Indigenous musician, author and theologian who contributed to one of the books Heinrichs edited.
The ISR work will now be “transitioned” to the regions: MC Eastern Canada, MC Manitoba, MC Saskatchewan, MC Alberta and MC B.C. But it is not yet clear if the transition will involve significant new staff or budget commitments to the regional work. Manitoba has increased its staff capacity somewhat in recent months, and MC Eastern Canada may attach money and staff to its newly adopted emphasis on Indigenous relations, but in large part this work in our denomination is carried out by various congregations and by volunteer working groups in four of the five regions.
To a considerable extent, regionalization will see these groups shoulder the load. In most cases, Heinrichs was involved in starting and supporting these groups; and providing opportunities, resources, and connections for their work. The new half-time ISR worker will focus on supporting these groups.
Klassen and Quan say regional leaders indicated a desire to regionalize the ISR work, though neither Klassen nor Quan have heard people in the pews express this desire to them.
I did not ask regional executive ministers how exactly, and to what extent, the push for regionalization has arisen from the grassroots, but their own working groups do not appear to support the recent decision. Five of the six working group members I interviewed were surprised and disappointed.
“Having [Heinrichs] out of that position felt like a real blow,” says Peter Haresnape, an MC Eastern Canada pastor and chair of the regional church’s working group on Indigenous relations. “I’m really surprised by this and concerned about what it means for [our] working group.”
A statement put out by the working group in Manitoba reads: “We are deeply saddened to be losing the wisdom, experience, support and broader connections that Steve was able to offer to us as a group and to many others. . . . We are also disappointed that neither [our group] nor the other regional ISR working groups were consulted in the decision-making process.” The working group reiterates its commitment to the work and the general need for “commitment of those giving their time at the ground level.”
The decision may have the least impact in B.C., which has dedicated staff time for Indigenous relations (0.4 FTE) and where the working group, while deeply grateful to Heinrichs, appears to operate with greater autonomy, although Heinrichs was involved in helping members plan for a trip to Wet’suwet’en territory in northern B.C.
The decentralizing trajectory is part of a decade-long process of restructuring. The Future Directions Task Force process, which traces back to 2011, essentially cut the national office, shifting control to regions, with a stated focus on congregations. Hopes are that the restructuring process will finally wrap up this year, after a decade of very substantial organizational investment in the internal work. An operating agreement and shared revenue agreement should be presented for approval at the annual national gathering this summer, with procedural changes to follow.
For now, the future direction is turnover and reduction of ISR work on the national level. This fits a broader trend. In March 2019, Christian Peacemaker Teams (now Community Peacemaker Teams) closed its Winnipeg-based Indigenous Peoples Solidarity Team due to a major budget shortfall. One half-time and three full-time positions were replaced with a volunteer network that receives some support from head office.
The same year, Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) Canada closed its Labrador program and cut the national Indigenous Neighbours coordinator position. The commitment at the time to increase advocacy work on Indigenous matters has not been met, due in part to COVID-related decreases in income.
Heinrichs himself notes that staff and budget allocations for Indigenous relations work by the church were higher in the 1970s and ’80s than now. In 1990, MCC Canada had two full-time Indigenous relations staff with a budget of $395,000 in today’s dollars.
As Mennonite leaders have become more open in proclamations of support on Indigenous matters in recent years, the corresponding staff and budget capacity have generally shrunk. The notable exception to this irony is MCC Ontario, which currently has six staff devoted to Indigenous relations work, a significant increase in recent years.
“We lost another good one,” Adrian Jacobs says of Heinrichs. Jacobs is a member of the Cayuga First Nation (Six Nations) and outgoing keeper of the circle at Sandy-Saulteaux Spiritual Centre in Manitoba. As a pastor, teacher, writer and advocate, he has worked with Mennonites in various provinces for many years. He says the feeling of losing good church staff in this work is familiar to him, mentioning other Mennonites who lost work roles.
Jacobs wrote for publications that Heinrichs edited, and the two worked together on reconciliation efforts with the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada, of which MC Canada is a member. Jacobs calls Heinrichs “a friend forever.”
Jacobs appreciates Mennonite history, flat leadership models, and a “dirt under the nails” approach to faith, but he is not interested in the intricacies of our organizational explanations for why people like Heinrichs find themselves out of work. “Don’t tell me about all that,” he says.
Referencing the pattern of government relations that involves government officials being moved once they become familiar with a community, Jacobs asks of MC Canada, “Are you going back to square one again,” or, “building on” the work Heinrichs has done?
“Where’s the consultation?” he adds. Without it, “you leave us hanging.”
Klassen and Quan confirmed that Indigenous people were not consulted in the decision about Heinrichs’s position, and the Joint Council does not have an Indigenous advisory group. Quan says it would have been unfair to Heinrichs to have open conversations about the possibility of reducing his position. (Although key parts of the MC Canada restructuring process involved open conversations in the context of imminent layoffs.)
In terms of consultation on next steps, Klassen says that once a job description for the new position is drafted, regional leaders can consult Indigenous people as they see fit. The national office does not have the authority in the current structure to consult unless the regions together request it.
Jacobs praised Heinrichs for his embodied action and standing with people when they are standing up for their rights. That is what “gets noticed” in Indigenous communities, he says.
Harry Lafond echoes the appreciation for the way Heinrichs did “not just sit in his office in Winnipeg” but organized walks and got directly involved in pipeline issues in northern B.C.
In addition to being the former director of the Office of the Treaty Commissioner in Saskatchewan and former chief of Muskeg Lake Cree Nation, Lafond is also a university lecturer and Catholic Church deacon. Like Jacobs, he has worked with Mennonites for years.
“It’s a real loss,” Lafond says of Heinrichs’s departure. “I don’t know the full story,” he adds. “I just think they’re losing a very strong, passionate advocate.”
Noting that, as an “outside observer,” he does not know how it will all play out, Lafond says: “It makes me wonder: What shape is your social justice advocacy going to take? . . . What’s behind the change? . . . What happens to the national Mennonite voice?”
Sylvia McAdam—author, law professor and co-founder of Idle No More—says the decision to halve the position that Heinrichs filled has “shaken” her trust in the Mennonite church. Institutional rationale means little to her. For McAdam the decision signals a lack of commitment. She says the Mennonite “light is diminishing.”
Of course, not everyone felt the same about Heinrichs’s work. Predictably, it was controversial. In 2019, when on holiday, he was arrested at a pipeline protest in Burnaby, B.C. Last fall, he spearheaded the “7 Calls to Climate Action” initiative, a non-work involvement that targeted church leaders, offending some. His activity on social media—where lines between personal and work identities blur—likewise caused leaders consternation, ultimately leading to restrictions being placed on his online activity related to climate change.
Tim Wiebe-Neufeld, executive minister of MC Alberta, speaks to the varying views. He says there is “lament” among some in congregations and some Indigenous partners around the decision, and there is concern that the commitment to ISR work is being reduced or “downloaded” to the regions.
At the same time, Wiebe-Neufeld says: “For some in [the regional church], Steve’s approach to advocacy didn’t give them an entry point to engage in ISR. Some also found that their existing relationships with Indigenous people were at odds with Steve’s approach. It is a challenge to find ways to engage in issues of justice like these in ways that meet people where they are at, and do not further polarize.”
A familiar feeling
Edith and Neill von Gunten experienced the last round of MC Canada cuts to Indigenous-related work. From 1969 to 2003, the church employed them to work in Indigenous communities in Manitoba. In 2003, they and others were cut due to major budget shortfalls. The process was troubling.
They were given 30 days to wrap up. They recall those they worked with saying, “We were never consulted; we thought we were partners.” Now, too, they say of the recent decision, “We wish it didn’t happen the way it happened. . . . It’s painful.”
An Indigenous relations group at their church met just after the decision about Heinrichs was announced. “We were stunned,” they say of the atmosphere that evening.
At the same time, they express profound gratitude for the opportunities MC Canada provided for them.
One of the projects Heinrichs is now helping to wrap up is a book the von Guntens are writing about their work. Heinrichs is providing budget and guidance.
For his part, Heinrichs has only positive things to say, aside from his obvious grief: “I am so lucky that I got to do this work for 10-plus years. . . . I and my family have been so enriched by the relationships we have formed.”
He “celebrates” the creation of the climate position.
Noting that the work is much bigger than one person, and that he does not rest his hopes in staff allotments, his primary concern is for the deepening and growth of that work and the community that carries it out.
While this is a low, or at least perplexing, moment for many who care about Indigenous relations work, Heinrichs takes a broad view: “[There’s] nothing to say the church can’t respond differently in two years.”
—Updated on May 13, 2022 to correct four typos.
In this 2018 photo, Lorne Brandt (right), then chair of Mennonite Church B.C.’s Service, Peace and Justice Committee, presents Steve Heinrichs with a vest and moccasins made by Cree craftspeople. The governing body of Mennonite Church Canada has ended the full-time Indigenous-Settler Relations position that Heinrichs held for the last decade. (Photo by Henry Krause/Canadian Mennonite files)