Me and Mennonites: The Way We Were "The Other"

My connection with Mennonites goes back to my early teen years--back to Anzac Dorm in northeastern Alberta and then across the border to major Mennonite educational institutions and, finally, to familial connections here in Manitoba, which is now my home. My “sojourn” with Mennonites is a story of deep and lifelong human attachments; it is also one of some pain and alienation that comes with crossing cultures, borders, languages and socio-economic locations.

I will highlight a number of very special Mennonite people who made such a difference in my life and who will always remain close to my heart. So that the reader can get as clear a picture as possible of the context from which I make my reflective observations, I will necessarily and largely take a didactic approach.First, I must provide basic information as to my cultural/ethnic heritage and the geographical location of my homelands. Then I will explain what Anzac Dorm was.

Anzac Dorm

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I am Metis, not “Indian” or “non-status Indian,” as the Anzac Dorm staff called us. In Canada we have four major Native groups identified by the umbrella and constitutional term “Aboriginal.” The four groups are First Nation (formerly “Status Indian” because they are “registered” under the federal Indian Act); Non-status First Nation (formerly “non-status” because they were status Indians who had lost their legal status); the Inuit (formerly “Eskimo”); and the Metis.

The Metis peoples began as a mixed-race population during the Fur Trade era, consisting of both Native and White (usually Cree and French). However, by the mid- 1700s the Metis began to stand out as a group who blended Native (Huron, Micmac, Abenaki, Cree, Ojibway, etc) and French (sometimes Anglo-Saxon) cultures, and by the early 1800s formed into a separate ethnic group (i.e., metis marrying metis), particularly in the Red River area which is now Winnipeg and vicinity. Here the Metis were the largest population and for a time very nearly developed a nation, complete with geographical, political and military parameters. However, the late 1800s was an expansionist era for the eastern-born Canadian confederation and, to make a long, unhappy history short, it dispossessed and dislocated the Red River Metis.

The Red River Metis resisted in 1869 in what is now the Winnipeg area, and again in 1885 (in the Saskatchewan area) under Louis Riel, but they were defeated. The Metis were punished and marginalized; they were not included in the treaties or in the Indian Act (although they are now recognized as Aboriginal in the Constitution), which meant that they were not eligible for lands and resources. The vast majority moved west and in Alberta became known as Road Allowance People because they settled on small spots of Crown land next to roads that no one had claimed. Throughout the 1900s and up to the 1970s the Metis were all but forgotten and socially neglected. Most Metis lived in dire poverty and were even expected not to survive, as masses were dying from diseases such as influenza and tuberculosis. Many of my relatives were among them.

The Metis survived by living off the land as well as by working as laborers for farmers, forestry, railroads and so forth. This is where Anzac Dorm comes in. It was set up to facilitate schooling for Aboriginal (mostly Metis) families who lived along the Northern Alberta Railway (NAR) line between Lac La Biche (LLB) and Ft. McMurray. LLB is 142 miles northeast of Edmonton, the capital city of Alberta. The railroad line ran from Edmonton, through LLB, Chard, Anzac and finally to Ft. McMurray, now the booming overpopulated industrialized home of Alberta’s famous (or infamous) oilsands. About every twenty miles or so there were small Metis hamlets along this rail line, and most of the Metis family men worked on the railroad, as well as hunted and trapped in season.

We were one of those families. We lived seasonally by the railroad tracks in an NAR company community called Chard, about 50 miles south of Anzac and 75 miles south of Ft. McMurray. Because there were no schools in those hamlets, the provincial school board Northland School Division decided to arrange this Anzac Dorm thing: to be funded by them and run by (Swiss-) Mennonite volunteers. Children would take the train to Anzac, stay at the dorm for two weeks, then come home on weekends. Children resided at Anzac Dorm in order to go to the public school there. Prior to the 1950s, public schools were not available to Metis kids.

Northland School’s idea of having us board a train to Anzac for schooling came at a critical time in my life. When I realized I could go to a school different from the one we had been forced to go to in LLB, I begged my parents to let me and my younger brother go to this Dorm. I had no idea what it really was, although I knew it meant we had to move to Chard for all seasons, and abandon our parents two weeks at a time. The logistics of how we were to get there, or how my poor parents might feel--none of this entered my desperate teenage head. All I cared about was getting away from the big-bully racialized town school of Lac La Biche, which had been my very own personal purgatory for a number of years. Only much later did I come to realize how emotionally devastating this was for my parents, especially my mother.


I had never heard of Mennonites. The first sighting I had of a Mennonite came in the form of a stocky, blue-eyed blonde woman who welcomed us into the special Anzac Dorm coach that the NAR added to its long, clackitty, clangy, screechy, lethargic locomotive of black metal and steam. The Mennonite woman greeted us with the warmest and kindest white smile I may have ever seen. I was in love. I instantly adopted Mennonites. I absolutely idealized them. I loved their warmth, their apparent joy, their food (for the most part), their singing. Their prayers. Their apparent peaceful ways. Even their regulations (at first). Of course, at first I was painfully shy and scared out of my tree.

I did not know it then, but the day I first walked into the Anzac school classroom was the beginning of a new life and a new future for me. It was there I first met Ted Walter. “Mr. Walter,” as we always addressed him, was the principal of the school and the teacher for my combined class of grades 7-9. While Metis were the majority, the school also had Status and Non-status Indian (Cree and Dene) as well as a handful of White students. Those of us from the Dorm were foreigners to the rest of the school population, who were local. All told, we were an odd set of unpredictably complicated teenagers. Mr. Walter was a Mennonite originally from Pennsylvania. His wife Arlene taught another classroom that combined grades 1-6. Ted was also the director of the six young VSers who staffed the dorm.

It is no exaggeration to say that Mr. Walter virtually saved my life. He was simply the greatest teacher I ever had. When I first arrived at Anzac school I was a very vulnerable, frightened, extremely shy and a socially awkward 14 years old. With his perceptive kindness and support I not only successfully passed those grades, but I left with much greater confidence than when I had arrived. Mr. Walter was one of those rare souls who knew how to respect a scared child’s dignity. He not only quietly nurtured my love of knowledge, but he also taught me how to play baseball during recess so that I could gain confidence in making friends.

And when I was ready for high school, he made arrangements with the Northland School Division to finance my stay at a private, albeit right-wing, religious school in southern Alberta known as Prairie Bible Institute (PBI). At the time I had no idea about right-wing anything. I had no idea what Prairie Bible Institute was. I just could not go back to that dreadful school in Lac La Biche. When I graduated from high school Mr. Walter and his wife Arlene came. So did Ada and Lindford Hackman and Harold and Erma Lauber--all folks who had in various ways helped me make a transition from my northern home to strange new places.

Not everything went well for me or my friends or my brother at the Dorm. There were at times misunderstandings, cultural conflicts and power struggles between the children and the staff. Perhaps these were unavoidable, but these were power struggles that the children could not win. The majority of the staff were very young and obviously knew next to nothing about who we were, especially that we were quite diverse in our cultures and languages. Being mandated to missionize, they were eager to indoctrinate us. And given the White American mass-produced and ideologically based stereotypes about “the Indian,” I suspect they came with a lot of pre-conceived notions and themselves suffered culture shock.

Years later I read a missionary-type report that one of the staff had written. It was a classic colonial gaze at “the natives.” Interestingly, colonial gazing is apparently not over. I just read a long article by T. D. Regehr in the Journal of Mennonite Studies, in which the Anzac Dorm children are basically objectified and “ethnographied” (my word), which in post-colonial language is known as “othering.” However, we are now reversing that gaze.

For me, overall, the Anzac Dorm Mennonites proved to be the nicest white people I had met up to that point in my life. I hung onto that--and their values--for dear life! Having suffered the trauma of the brutal racist environment of the LLB school, I was indeed easy pickings for kindness and indoctrination.

The kindest of all the Dorm staff were Harold and Erma Lauber from Tofield, Alberta. I adopted them. And their faith. When school was out I visited them at their farm near Tofield, some 45 miles east of Edmonton. And when I was going to high school at PBI I would come and stay at their place during holidays, as I could not afford to go home to see my parents. At Harold and Erma’s, always I felt welcomed, safe and well-fed. And I didn’t mind working with and for them. Gardening was not strange to me, as my parents had gardens whenever possible. But herding cows was strange--and terrifying--although their good dog did most of that for me! Hard work was not strange to me, as I grew up watching my parents model a very strong work ethic. People of the land know how to integrate work with life. I also went to the country Salem Mennonite church with them, and got to know a host of wonderful people, many related to either Harold or Erma, and gained many friends from that community, too.

The bond between me and the Laubers was extraordinary. It was not financial; the connection was purely human. There were vast differences between us--in age, culture, belief systems--to say nothing of economic standing. Due to my educational pursuits I had to leave my parents long before any child should have to leave their parents in order to go to school. Those were very difficult things to do and go through. But what made it tolerable for me was having people like Harold and Erma as my stability zone in my teenage years. That sort of gift is immeasurable. And it is forever.

Goshen College and AMBS

I don’t remember what my first impressions were of Goshen College. I do know that I had always wanted to go there because that was where my hero “Mr. Walter” had graduated from. I figured it must be a special place. Apparently some kind Mennonite person, whose identity was never revealed to me, contributed to my tuition costs, making it possible for me to attend. I believe I was there for the years 1971-73.

I met and treasure memories of many wonderful people at Goshen College. I don’t even remember some of their names but I remember their faces, their teachings, their friendships, their songs, the deep discussions on philosophical, theological, social or racial issues. My world was much expanded at Goshen College, not only from my classes but my friendships, which included international as well as American Black and Latino fellow students.

A big part of my expansion took place off campus when I travelled with a rainbow of “minority” people to Mennonite churches across the Midwest of the United States. We were funded by Mennonite Congregational Ministries and our purpose was to share and teach about racism. These times with these friends were very special and enlightening. We were an exceptional group--a rare gift for all of us and certainly for the churches that hosted us.

Like a fairly typical college student I was quite mindless about my professors. But I do remember that they were not run-of-the-mill professors; most were caring and attentive. One day in poetry class Professor Nick Lindsay prayed that Black and White peoples would be in harmony “like the black and white keyboard of the piano,” to which I chimed in the words, “And brown!” Professor Lindsay wrote me a number of agape love poems and notes after that. I still have those notes.

I was very surprised to receive a Rockefeller Fellowship based on a recommendation from Prof. Marlin Jeschke, who taught World Religions. The Fellowship was for pursuing a Master’s in Theology, and although the Rockefeller Foundation preferred I attend Princeton, they graciously allowed me to go to the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminaries at Elkhart. I was too intimidated to go to Princeton. Elkhart was not too far from Goshen so it felt much more comfortable. I was at AMBS in the years 1974-76. There again I met very special people and did some interesting projects, including more travelling with Congregational Ministries.

When I think of AMBS I think ever so fondly of Prof. Clarence Bauman and his wife Alice. I was drawn to them because they were warm and inviting; they exuded spirituality with unassuming yet enormous intelligence. In classes Prof. Bauman was engaging, respectful and intellectually inspiring. I also remember Prof. Marlin Miller, who as a professor appeared distant but was also very ethically conscious and highly intelligent. These two professors made a big impression on my young, searching intellect. Then there was Prof. Paul Miller, who persuaded his orthodontist friend to do much needed orthodontal work on me. Free of charge. My teeth are still straight!

My review of my life among Mennonites would be skewed were I to relate only positive things. I had my share of negative experiences. I share the following incidents because of how deeply they affected me.

At AMBS a painful encounter in a classroom took place when a professor took pains to denigrate Metis people who in the 1870s had apparently obstructed some Mennonite travellers in the southern Manitoba area, according to Mennonite records. When I tried to explain the possible context for the Metis behavior, by saying that southern Manitoba was their land, this professor became visibly angry and insulting, leaving me feeling humiliated and angry.

There was another disturbing encounter at Goshen College that is difficult to forget. A very well known Mennonite theologian/writer was a guest lecturer in a class. I questioned his notion of “voluntary suffering” vis a vis those peoples in the world who suffer involuntarily. Much to my shock (as he was highly regarded), he virtually exploded into a diatribe--something about how Indians knew nothing about suffering compared to other peoples. I was utterly dumbstruck and so intimidated that I could not respond. The only thing I could do was leave. I cannot describe the pure, stinging soul-loneliness and hurt that I felt. For days. For years.

Another time a fellow student (was it at Goshen College or AMBS?) outrightly called me a liar after hearing me make some culturally evaluative comments about Anzac Dorm staff. Clearly, some members of the Mennonite community take umbrage at those who challenge their ideas or their ideological and religious-bounded notions of how White North Americans got their lands. There is no question but that I as an Indigenous person represent an uncomfortable mirror for many whites. But it always surprises me when it comes from the church. Perhaps because I had idealized Mennonites for so long.

I struggled through AMBS. I was awakening to political, social, cultural and economic realities of being Native in North America. I also had to make a decision about my vocation. I knew I had gone as far as I wanted to with my spiritual/theological quest; I had concluded that spirituality is a forever journey; if allowed, it becomes fathomless. Either I was going to make a career of it, or I had to move on to address social and historical issues concerning Native/White relations in Canada. That the Mennonite Church in the mid 1970s was still largely White and patriarchal--in language and in structure--made my decision clear. I chose to come home to my native land.

The University of Manitoba

Again Mennonite connections influenced my choices. While at AMBS I had been approached by a guest lecturer who was Department Head of Religion at the University of Manitoba; he invited me to apply for a doctoral program in his department. So I landed at the University of Manitoba—not, however, in Religion but in Canadian history. I was intent on “discovering” the Europeans and their colonial records. I needed to know the truth about how Aboriginal peoples’ histories and cultures got so distorted in mainstream culture, particularly in textbooks, tourist shops, and the media. I wanted to build on what I had thus far learned about stereotypes while writing Defeathering The Indian (1975), which was actually meant to be a curriculum guide for teachers in Alberta.

Unknown to me when I first came to U of M, there was on campus a newly founded department in the Faculty of Arts, the Department of Native Studies. I well remember the day I was asked to teach the summer introductory course for this Department. After my first day of teaching, I felt I had found my niche in life. Teaching in a university was to become my vocation and career.

When I started lecturing for the department we had only an undergraduate program and two instructors. Today we have eight professors, all with PhDs, and more than half of us are Aboriginal. We now also offer a Master’s and a Doctoral program; I am currently Chair of the M.A. program. The majority of our students are Aboriginal but we also have many non-Aboriginal, including some international, students.

I specialize in colonization and its impact on Native/White relations in the areas of cultural productions and representation. Involved are the study of Canadian and Aboriginal worldviews, histories, literatures, identities, gender relations, land/resource use and Aboriginal self-determination in the context of colonial discourse which colonization has engendered. My scholarly pursuits have included developing and advancing the place of Aboriginal epistemology within academia.

Early in my teaching, and long before most audiences were aware of Native literatures, I designed courses and promoted the critical and comparative study of oral and written Native literatures of North America. Aboriginal writing contributes substantially to an understanding of Aboriginal knowledge systems and experience. In subsequent years I have especially focused on the treatment of Aboriginal writers and writing in Canadian intellectual life. Colonial mis/representation and Aboriginal (resistance) response forms a significant part of my research. My recent book When the Other Is Me: Native Resistance Discourse 1850-1990 (2010) is one outcome of this research.

In retrospect, it occurs to me that I, in effect, have developed a decolonizing approach in my scholarship. And although I have acquired, and in many respects, refashioned several methodological “languages” (feminist criticism, post-colonialism, resistance literature, traditional ecological knowledge) from which to frame my research, I have always strived towards a personal and intellectual liberation. I have advanced a theory and a vocabulary of an Aboriginally-based but critically contemporary decolonization that would ultimately be free of rigid paradigms, ideological or cultural formulas and mystification of language that often come with academic methodological tools or theories. I have assiduously avoided being a mere conduit of cultural or political “voices.”

Critical Aboriginal scholars present complexities, in that we are crossing cultures, disciplines and genres, and we do not fit the standard patterns of either western conventions or nativist pressures. But we are bringing “the other half” of Canada into light. We are creating a space from which to enter the mandates of western thought and format without having to internalize its coloniality or to defy our personal and cultural selves. I believe I have played a significant if not leading role in the articulation of these issues, as well as in the growth and development of Native Studies as a teaching discipline and an intellectual field of study.

In a number of significant respects, I have unorthodox beginnings in university teaching. As one who grew up in a Cree-speaking, land-based culture in an era of devastating marginalization and bleak social conditions for my community and family, I was not expected, statistically speaking, to finish elementary school, let alone to become an author or a teacher in a university.

I teach to make a difference and I believe in the social purpose of knowledge. These values that I exercise in my university life are grounded in my heritage and the socio-economic marginal status of Aboriginal peoples in Canada. But they are also and in no small way based on the kindness and the supportiveness of those Mennonite peoples I have named here (and many more I have not named) who have made it possible for me to keep going.

Mennonite Heritage

I have no institutional affiliations with the Mennonite church, nor am I a member of any church. And I certainly have noticed that invitations to speak at Mennonite events or churches have totally disappeared. My association and relationships with Mennonites has been more personal than institutional or ideological. While I respect the Anabaptist vision with its core values, it is my Metis cultural tradition and my own intellectual preference to relate to the Mennonite tradition on personal terms.

My relationship with Mennonites continues today in very personal ways. Among my best friends are Ike and Millie Glick, who live in Edmonton, and Lydia and Menno Wiebe in Winnipeg. I cannot say enough about the Glicks. I first met them at Anzac Dorm where Ike (and sometimes Millie) would fly into Anzac, since he was the Area Director of VSers who worked in northern Alberta. But I only came to know them as friends in my 20s when I “room and boarded” at their place. They and their children graciously shared their space with me. Simply put, Ike and Mil have been the best friends anyone can dream of. It would take a chapter to account for all their gestures of kindness, acceptance and generosity they display to so many people, and certainly to me.

One winter when I had a very severe cough they collected money from their church to pay for my flight back to South Bend, Indiana, so that I did not have to do the 58-hour long trip by Greyhound bus. Since my 20s, Ike and Mil have been my “stability zone.” Their welcoming and helpful ways have eased my trips to my family, trips complicated by distance and uncertain family dynamics. They accepted me and my family situation without judgement; they carried me through my nights of grief when my parents passed away. They truly model their Anabaptist faith and values.

I first met Menno Wiebe at the Mennonite World Conference in Minneapolis (1972?). He was the director of MCC/Native Concerns. Menno had a passion for justice, with a love of wit and poetry to match. We became fast friends, traveled together to give presentations to conferences or churches, and through him I worked for MCC several times. Since the late 1990s, when I finally started to know his gifted wife Lydia, they have been my best friends in Winnipeg.

In part because so many special Mennonite individuals have made such a difference in my life, I have always tried to make a difference in the world I live in. My hope for the Mennonite Church is that it not lose its Anabaptist roots and human values, which is what makes it unique and puts it in a position to reach across cultures and nations for service and non-violence. The world needs an alternative ethic, alternative to hatreds born out of implacable leftist and right-wing ideologies. My hope is that it not succumb to the fundamentalist movements in the Evangelical churches sweeping the United States.

I also hope that the Mennonite community will not forget on whose land they stand--that they will seek to understand and to support Indigenous peoples’ struggles for justice, land and resource restitution.

For Emma's poem "Long Way from Home," as published in the journal ARIEL for January 1994, see: http://ariel.synergiesprairies.ca/ariel/index.php/ariel/article/view/108/105

About the Author

Emma LaRocque

A Plains-Cree Metis originally from northeastern Alberta, Emma LaRocque is a scholar, author, poet and professor in the Department of Native Studies, University of Manitoba. She is author of When the Other Is Me: Native Resistance Discourse 1850 - 1990 (2010), which won the Alexander Kennedy Isbister Award for Non-Fiction in 2011, and Defeathering The Indian (1975). Emma has been a leading figure in the growth and development of Native Studies as a teaching discipline and an intellectual field of study. She has produced more than 60 publications in areas of colonization, Canadian historiography, misrepresentation, racism, identity, violence against women, and Aboriginal literatures. Her poems appear in the anthologies Native Poetry in Canada (2001) and Writing the Circle: Native Women of Western Canada (1990). Emma graduated from Goshen College in 1973 with a degree in Communication and English and earned an interdisciplinary PhD in 1999 from the University of Manitoba.