Ontario Mennonites and Aboriginal Residential Schools

The Ontario Mennonite community is implicated in the recent report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on the tragedy of the residential schools in which First Nations children were removed from their homes and placed in church-run residential schools. A little background is required.

Irwin and Susan Schantz, two Mennonites from near Quakertown, Pennsylvania, moved to northern Minnesota in 1938 to initiate mission work among small rural communities. They founded a number of churches and turned them over to the North Central Conference of the Mennonite Church. In 1952 Schantz explored the Lake-of-the-Woods area, and later traveled as far north as Red Lake in northwest Ontario. He encountered several aboriginal communities where he preached and led Bible schools. In June 1953, with a new pilot’s license, Schantz established mission outposts in the greater Red Lake area among the Ojibwa people, beginning at Pikangikum, followed by Poplar Hill and Deer Lake. While Schantz provided supervision, each outpost was run by two or three young adults.

Poplar Hill School 1980s

Poplar Hill Development School classroom, 1980s. Courtesy Living Hope Native Ministries.

Northern Light Gospel Mission (NLGM), as the ministry was called, also established day schools at Grassy Narrows, North Spirit Lake, and Poplar Hill. The first two were soon replaced by government-run schools. In fall 1962 at Poplar Hill, with government financial assistance, Northern Light Gospel Mission opened the Poplar Hill Development School, a residential school for aboriginal children. Initially it had residential facilities for thirty students; by 1977 it had fifty-five students with thirty adult support staff.

Although many of Northern Light Gospel Mission’s volunteers and staff came from the United States, it attracted long-term support both in money and personnel from Mennonites in southern Ontario. Elaine Zehr from the Heidelberg Conservative Mennonite Church taught at the Poplar Hill Development School for fourteen years between 1962 and 1979. Mary Horst from the same congregation was the bookkeeper for the mission from 1970 to 1983. Frieda Lebold of the Maple View Mennonite Church near Wellesley worked at Poplar Hill from 1967 to 1986. Alvin and Lydian Frey from the Hawkesville Mennonite Church served at two other NLGM locations from 1959 to 1980.

In the 1980s Canada experienced a widespread renewal of First Nations culture and self-understanding. The repatriation of the Canadian Constitution in 1982 included protection of existing aboriginal and treaty rights, including their traditions and practices. The aboriginal community began to identify itself as First Nations, and traditional, pre-Christian religion experienced a renaissance. This changing culture created a dilemma for Christian mission groups working among the First Nations, including the Mennonites. First Nations people identified church-run, government-financed schools as part of the source of aboriginal community breakdown, since children were indoctrinated in European languages and culture, and were not permitted to participate with their families in traditional First Nations customs. This meant the children were no longer able to work and live as their parents had. These emerging issues had a profound impact on NLGM, especially the Poplar Hill Development School.

In 1989 an intense struggle ensued between the Poplar Hill school board and the Northern Nishnawbe Education Council (NNEC), which controlled the federal government funding for schools in First Nations communities. The Poplar Hill Development School had hosted 55 students the previous year, and it was governed by a board of four aboriginal and two NLGM staff members. Cello Meekis was the board chair. The government and the NNEC had received complaints about corporal punishment used by school staff to discipline students. The NNEC tried, but failed, to obtain the consent of NLGM to discontinue the practice of using the strap in student discipline. Additionally, the NNEC wanted its own seats on the school’s board. This was refused by the Poplar Hill board, since this expanded board would profoundly change the nature of the private Christian school. With no government funding then available, the Poplar Hill Development School did not reopen in fall 1989.

Cello Meekis

Cello Meekis in the 1970s. Courtesy Living Hope Native Ministries.

The conflict between Poplar Hill Development School board and the NNEC generated heated discussion within the mass media. The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) picked up the story partly because the local CBC reporter was a friend of a former Poplar Hill student who had been corporally disciplined. Don Showalter, NLGM’s director of education, was interviewed by CBC news, and the Globe and Mail carried a short article. Margaret Loewen Reimer did a more nuanced story in Mennonite Reporter in November 1989 after interviewing the CBC reporter, former student and staff member Rodney Howe, board chair Cello Meekis, and Merle Schantz, the general director of NLGM and son of the founder, Irwin Schantz.

Rodney Howe was a pivotal interpreter of events during this time. He was an aboriginal man who had been adopted by a Mennonite family at the age of seven. He spent seven years at Poplar Hill while his father was a dorm supervisor at the school. Rodney himself served for one year on Poplar Hill’s staff as a counselor. He did not experience corporal punishment himself while a student and did not regard the school as abusive. However, he did not agree with the school’s use of the strap for punishment, and he thought the school’s board would have discontinued its practice except for the influence of the school’s director of education. Howe said Poplar Hill students were disciplined if they spoke their traditional languages in class, and that there was little teaching about aboriginal culture. He admitted he had not raised concerns about this or the corporal discipline while at the school. Merle Schantz conceded the school had made mistakes and may have disciplined students too severely at times. However, he believed the major issue was the NNEC’s desire to have a direct voice in running the school. Cello Meekis noted that the community was divided, and that few complaints had been made directly to the school.

The NNEC’s investigation of abuse at Poplar Hill did not find evidence of sexual abuse by teachers or staff. The primary complaints were use of the strap in corporal punishment and the destruction of aboriginal culture.

In hindsight it appears that the NLGM and Poplar Hill staff were slow to understand and adapt to the changing cultural milieu within the Canadian aboriginal communities. The NLGM had been very missionary-leadership driven since its inception, and slow to develop indigenous leadership. Religious teaching continued to be mixed with cultural values of settler Canadians (and Mennonites) in an era when this mixed message faced increasing opposition. Poplar Hill was also included in the Canadian residential school legal actions that came in the 1990s.

In 1997 Impact North Ministries, a successor name of Northern Light Gospel Mission, issued an apology. The document recognized that, although staff members acted in good faith, the school made cultural impositions on the First Nations students, including limited aboriginal language rights, foreign methods of discipline, and a lack of cultural sensitivity that “served to devalue First Nations culture in the minds of young people and may therefore have contributed to personal struggles and dysfunction.”

To learn more about Ontario Mennonite and First Nations people, read In Search of Promised Lands.

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Mennonite and First Nations Relations at the Grand River

The First Nations people Mennonites encountered in the early 19th century in the Grand River Valley were primarily the Ojibwa, for whom the area was traditional territory. The stories of positive relationships between the Ojibwa and Mennonites have traditionally been told only from the Mennonite side, with little notice taken or questions asked about why the aboriginal people disappeared from the community in the later 19th century.

Peter Jones, from his History of the Ojebway People

Peter Jones, from his History of the Ojebway Indiana

The story of Jacob Bechtel being led in 1799 to the Grand River by an Ojibwa scout is doubtless correct. Samuel S. Moyer wrote that his mother, Barbara Shantz Moyer, as a child “would run out in the bush and play with Indian children, and how the Indians would be all around them and bring venison (deer meat) for a loaf of bread, etc. When the nights got cold many of the Indians would come in and lie on the floor with their feet toward the fireplace and sleep until morning. . .” Lorna L. Bergey reported that her grandparents, Norman and Susannah Cassel Shantz, lived on a farm in Wilmot that was annually visited as late as 1900 by aboriginals wanting to harvest ginseng. After the birth of Norman and Susannah’s eldest daughter several abor­iginal women gave the family a handwoven doll cradle made from black ash wood. Elizabeth Betzner Sherk recalled the fall council meetings of Mohawk braves across the Grand River from her home early in the nineteenth century. Generally, the Ojibwa seemed to trust the Mennonites to be honest dealers, as indicated in a story told by Peter Jones, an Ojibwa chief who had converted to Christianity and become a Methodist minister. In his History of the Ojebway Indians Jones told of a chief who accepted a lesser price for a piece of land from a Mennonite who had never cheated the aboriginals, as opposed to a “Yankee stranger.”

Ezra Eby, in his Biographical History of Waterloo Township, described in positive terms how “Indian Sam” Eby, an 1804 immigrant from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania “spent much of his time among the Indians and taught them many good things, in fact he was their law-giver, minister, interpreter and peacemaker.” The memory of aboriginal writers was much less positive. Eby had established a still soon after he arrived, and traded alcohol to the aboriginals in exchange for furs. Thomas McGee wrote in 1829: “I used to live here de Waterloo—All time get drunk—I go some times on dis road in the night, some times midnight—go up de river to Still house, after de whiskey. You know up to Sam Aby’s Still-house. Me was very poor, me hungry, me naked….”

Alcohol addiction among the aboriginal population became a significant concern after white settlers, including Mennonites, introduced alcoholic beverages to them. By January 1808, twenty-seven petitioners, probably mostly Mennonite, asked the Legislative Assembly of Upper Canada to prevent the trading of alcoholic beverages with aboriginals, both because their drunkenness left the children hungry, and because it gener­ated behavior that frightened the white settlers. They recalled an October 1804 incident in which Abraham Stauffer was shot by an Ojibwa man they believed was drunk. John Erb, Abraham Weber, and Stauffer had been investigating a mill site below Block 2 when the man ordered them away from the site, and in the confusion shot Stauffer in the arm.

In the early years of the Mennonite settlement at the Grand River,  E. Reginald Good, who has written extensively on this issue, says the Mennonites and aboriginals appeared to mutually benefit from their contact. In the long term, however, their economic interests conflicted, and the Mennonites and other European settlers contributed to the colonization of the Ojibwa people. Increasing Mennonite economic development deprived the aboriginals of access to their traditional lands and the resources required for an independent existence. “Finally, Mennonites participated in forcing the Mississaugas out of their community and out of their history.”

To learn more about Mennonite relations with First Nations read In Search of Promised Lands.

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