In light of the news about the unmarked graves of children at former residential schools in B.C., Saskatchewan and other parts of the country, the work of Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS) Canada at the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) Indigenous Neighbours office in Timmins, Ont., took on new resonance for volunteers.
The project to renovate and upgrade the office began in March and came to an end in mid-July—much later than planned due to pandemic travel restrictions in the province.
“Even before we knew about the graves, working here was reconciliation work,” says Nick Hamm, chair of MDS Ontario. “But now it is even more significant, as we put our hope for being reconciled with Indigenous people into action.”
Through the project, MDS Canada volunteers from the Markham-Waterloo Mennonite conference and the Matheson Old Order Mennonites, both located near Timmins, along with some volunteers from southern Ontario, renovated and upgraded the century-old office building recently purchased by MCC.
The work included demolishing existing walls, building new office spaces, redoing the front entrance, assisting with updating the wiring, insulation, and finish carpentry and flooring.
Even though the volunteers were not working directly with Indigenous people, renovating the office means “we can help MCC build connections between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people,” Hamm says.
For Lyndsay Mollins Koene, who directs MCC’s Indigenous Neighbours program, the work of the volunteers “was incredible . . . the building is an extension of MCC’s work in providing access to clean water and livelihoods with Indigenous communities.”
Even though not everything was completed, due to the challenges posed by the pandemic, the renovations will help MCC move ahead with its work of connecting people and enabling Indigenous artists to sell their crafts through the Niska Artisans program, the fair-trade program that seeks to educate people about the unique cultures in Ontario’s Far North.
This is the second time MDS Canada and MCC have worked together to help promote reconciliation with Indigenous people. The first was in 2019, when the two organizations partnered with the Six Nations Woodland Cultural Centre in Brantford, Ont., for its Save the Evidence Campaign at the former Mohawk Institute Residential School. (See also “Building relationships with residential school survivors.”)
MDS Canada volunteers Joe Bless and Nic Hamm of Vineland United Mennonite Church, and Dave Brubacher of Grace Mennonite Church in St. Catharines, with the special mitts given them by the MCC Indigenous Neighbours program as a token of thanks for their work on the MCC office in Timmins, Ont. (Photo by Lyndsay Mollins Koene)