How can Mennonite historical sites become sites of decolonization and reconciliation? This question has challenged and inspired my husband Joshua and me for the past four years, as we have served as hosts of Brubacher House Museum. This is an 1850’s Pennsylvania German Mennonite farmhouse owned by the University of Waterloo and operated in partnership with Conrad Grebel University College and the Mennonite Historical Society of Ontario.
As Mennonites, and Canadians in general, wrestle with the legacy of colonialism and attempt to reconcile this with the much longer history of Indigenous peoples on this land, we have been working to unravel the story of our complicity in the colonization and dispossession of Indigenous lands, and the cultural genocide that has taken place, as detailed in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada’s 2015 Final Report.
Article 11 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples states: “Indigenous peoples have the right to practise and revitalize their cultural traditions and customs. This includes the right to maintain, protect and develop the past, present and future manifestations of their cultures, such as archaeological and historical sites, artefacts, designs, ceremonies, technologies and visual and performing arts and literature.”
While even today, Indigenous people here on the historical Haldimand Tract are fighting for basic recognition of, and access to their own lands, ceremonies, and cultural teachings, Mennonites in this area are privileged to have Brubacher House and other historical sites and cultural institutions that people can visit to learn more about Mennonite history and culture. For too long, these sites have done violence to Indigenous peoples by ignoring the important histories of their existence on and caretaking of the land. What could it mean for us to tell a more inclusive story?
In April of 2019, the museum’s 40th anniversary year, Marlene Epp, a Grebel professor, invited a group of Mennonite and Indigenous university faculty, staff and students to tour Brubacher House and offer counsel. Over a shared meal, the group reflected on many aspects of the museum, including the tour, film, programming, and displays. Creating new indoor and outdoor information panels that would better reflect current understanding of local Indigenous and Mennonite histories emerged as a collective priority.
The Mennonite Historical Society of Ontario graciously provided funding, and Grebel provided communications staff support to facilitate this important project. We are especially grateful to Margaret Gissing, communications assistant at Grebel, for her thoughtful and striking panel designs.
From 2019 to 2021 we continued to engage this group, as well as other local Indigenous and Mennonite museum professionals, in a process of intercultural knowledge-sharing and collaborative writing. Together, we created five indoor panels:
- The first panel talks about local Indigenous history, mentioning the Haldimand proclamation of 1784 and the Six Nations.
- The second panel provides basic information about the Mennonites and their interactions with Indigenous people in the area.
- The third panel discusses the German Company’s 1805 purchase of Block 2 of the Haldimand Tract, noting that proceeds from the sale were to go into a government trust that would support the Six Nations for 999 years, in perpetuity. (This did not happen.)
- The fourth panel talks about the history of the Brubacher family and invites viewers to trace their own family histories.
- The fifth panel depicts a Brubacher House timeline, beginning with the Haldimand Proclamation of 1784.
In addition, we created an outdoor information panel in front of the house, introducing the history of Indigenous peoples on the land, as well as the Brubachers and other Mennonites who eventually settled here. This panel has proven to be especially valuable throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, when the museum has remained closed for tours. We look forward to reopening the museum and sharing the new indoor panels with future visitors.
This signage project is just one part of an ongoing journey of reflection and collaboration between Mennonite and Indigenous peoples at Brubacher House and the University of Waterloo.
History is never straightforward; we learn while we unlearn. We look forward to journeying together through this process.
Laura and Joshua Enns have served as live-in hosts of Brubacher House since 2017. They care for the house and gardens, and host tours and community events.