This article was originally published by Mennonite World Review

Heritage Week causes division in Canada

WINNIPEG, Man. — It seemed like an inoffensive gesture for the House of Commons to initiate a Mennonite Heritage Week, but reaction from Mennonites has been split, with some concerned the recognition goes against traditional aspirations such as diversity and humility.


The House of Commons passed a motion May 29 to mark the week annually. The motion was proposed by British Columbia Conservative Member of Parliament Ed Fast, a member of a Mennonite Breth­ren congregation.

The government will “recognize the contributions that Canadian Mennonites have made to building Canadian society, their history of hope and perseverance, the richness of Mennonite culture, their role in promoting peace and justice both at home and abroad.”

The event is to occur in the second week of September.

Elton DaSilva, national director of the Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches, thinks it’s a good idea to celebrate and acknowledge the contributions of Mennonites to Canada. But as the leader of a multiethnic group of churches, he wonders if it might define what it means to be Mennonite too narrowly.

“I think it would further confuse the Mennonite theological banner, which is multicultural, with the ethnic Mennonite identity,” he said.

Ken Warkentin, executive director of Mennonite Church Manitoba, echoed the sentiment.

“The focus seems to be on a historical European ethnicity that no longer reflects the Mennonite communion worldwide, and increasingly in Canada,” he said, noting more than 30 churches in his denomination across the country use 14 languages in worship.

“While I share the European ethnic faith heritage, I celebrate many diverse and faithful cultural expressions in the Mennonite branch of Christianity.”
Warkentin hopes the week will also affirm the “faith that undergirds the many expressions of service, peacemaking and justice-seeking that are the public face of the Mennonite community.”

Conrad Stoesz, archivist at the Mennonite Heritage Archives, is enthusiastic about the celebration.

“Part of the Canadian dream is that everyone is welcome in Canada but can also celebrate where they are from,” he said. “I welcome a week to help recognize the history of the Mennonite people.”

While Stoesz agreed Mennonites have become more diverse, he noted: “There is no one body that can decide who is a Mennonite and who is not.”

He believes a week that recognizes Mennonites “could lead to more interest, awareness and support for Mennonite organizations.”

Royden Loewen, chair in Mennonite studies at the University of Winnipeg, is ambivalent about the designation.

“I’m thrilled to hear Fast talk about nonviolence but appalled at what seems to be such an un-Mennonite thing, gushing at ‘our’ accomplishments,” he said, adding that Canadian Mennonites might want to distance themselves from this “very un-Mennonite request for such an honor.”

Karl Koop, a professor at Canadian Mennonite University who is especially interested in Mennonite and Anabaptist studies, said: “This discussion in Parliament is quite an embarrassment.”

Discussions about Mennonite identity are “quite complex,” he noted, adding the motion “does not in any way recognize the Mennonite global reality, nor does it consider the growing multiethnic communities in Canada that would identify themselves as Anabaptist or Mennonite.”

Koop said he would be more comfortable “if our parliamentarians would recognize all the various cultural groups that have made a contribution to Canadian society. . . . For the government of Canada to single out one particular group does not seem appropriate.”

Winnipeg-area MPs who spoke in favor of the motion in the House of Commons include Liberals Robert-Falcon Ouellette and Kevin Lamoureux, Tories Ted Falk and Candice Bergen, and Daniel Blaikie of the New Democratic Party.

Whatever Mennonites think about the motion, it sparked a rare moment of cooperation among the parties.

As NDP MP Sheri Benson of Saskatoon noted, it is rare for an NDP MP to “thank a Conservative member of Parliament, and it is even rarer that a politician stands in the House of Commons and acknowledges their ignorance. This evening, I am going to do both.”

She thanked Fast for sponsoring the motion, noting it gave her “an opportunity to find out more about the Mennonite community and its history in my riding and my province.”

Politician shaped by Mennonite values, family

Member of Parliament Ed Fast worked for the last couple of years in Canada’s House of Commons to pass a motion for a national Mennonite Heritage Week because he values his own Mennonite background.

“I very much valued not only the cultural aspects of it, but the way it shaped my faith perspectives on life,” he said in a telephone interview. “I think I’m very blessed to have had that opportunity to grow up in a Mennonite home.”

On May 29, the House of Commons passed a motion marking every second week of September Mennonite Heritage Week.

Fast is a member of Northview Community Church in Abbotsford, B.C., a member of the British Columbia Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches. The MCC Festival For World Relief takes place Sept. 13-14 in Abbotsford.

He said it is common for MPs to bring forward bills reflecting what has become meaningful in their lives.

“Even if people say we are supposed to be the quiet in the land, this is not intended to be a boastful effort,” he said. “ . . . It’s to reflect the role Mennonites play in a pluralistic in society like Canada.”

When he introduced the motion in February in the House, Fast spoke in detail about Anabaptist history in Europe and the challenges some Mennonites endured as they migrated first to Russia, and later to Canada.

He disagreed that a heritage week should focus only on one ethnic identity, noting some of the largest populations of Mennonites are not in North America. He cited his own church as an example.

“With all our campuses, our church might have 5,000 people on a Sunday,” he said. “Many, many are not ethnic Mennonites, but love what the church offers in Bible teaching and community.

“In a Mennonite Heritage Week, I would emphasize the faith values that underpin what the Russian Mennonites experienced under persecution and migration, the characteristics that defined them like peacemaking and determination, hard work and thrift. These are the values that should be shared commonly outside the bounds of ethnicity.” — Tim Huber, MWR

John Longhurst

John Longhurst was formerly Communications Manager at MDS Canada.

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