“I’m sorry that our mothers and fathers didn’t see you when they settled here 100 years ago.”
With those words, Richard Thiessen, president of the Mennonite Historical Society of British Columbia, apologized on behalf of the society to representatives of the Semá:th First Nation (also known as the Sumas First Nation) near Abbotsford, B.C.
The apology was made July 24 during a visit by participants in the “Memories of Migration: Russlaender Tour 100,” which found people traveling across Canada by train to commemorate the arrival in Canada of Mennonites from the Soviet Union between 1923 and 1930.
In the apology, which was made in a traditional long house at the First Nation, Thiessen acknowledged that some of the Mennonite immigrants who arrived in the Fraser Valley a century ago were able to take advantage of the draining of Sumas Lake.
The lake, a resource and source of life for the First Nation for generations, was emptied by the British Columbia government to create fertile farmland for the new arrivals and others.
While Mennonite immigrants saw the newly drained land as a “positive opportunity,” it was “nothing like that for your people,” Thiessen said.
In fact, it had “a devastating impact on your people. You were displaced from your dwellings, and your traditional fishing and hunting grounds were taken from you. In so many ways, your lives were changed forever,” he said.
On behalf of those who “care about our Mennonite story,” Thiessen said he was “sorry for the role our settler ancestors played in this devastating chapter of your lives.”
Dalton Silver, chief of the Semá:th First Nation, accepted the apology and said it was “a step in the right direction.”
Noting that members of the Memories of Migration tour had “come a long way to be with us,” he expressed thanks for how they took time to visit his community “and hear our stories.”
Silver added he hoped the apology would be the “start of a new journey of friendship and reconciliation together.”
Peter Wolfe, chair of the board of Mennonite Central Committee British Columbia, said the organization was committed to pursuing truth and reconciliation with Indigenous people.
Harry Heidebrecht, a longtime Mennonite Brethren pastor in the Fraser Valley, remembered participating in a celebration in 1972 to mark the 100th anniversary of Mennonites coming to western Canada.
At that event, he was asked to speak about the arrival of Mennonites in the Fraser Valley and how the draining of Sumas Lake had given the new arrivals opportunities to prosper and grow.
“I spoke of it in a positive tone, never thinking of how the loss of the lake impacted you,” he said. “There was no acknowledgment of that. Only thankfulness to God that we settled there. I acknowledge that today.”
By meeting together and “listening carefully,” Mennonites and First Nations people can “discover their commonalities,” he said, and that can be a “base for reconciliation.”
For Aileen Friesen, co-director of the Centre for Trans-National Mennonite Studies at the University of Winnipeg and part of the organizing committee, the apology underscored the importance of acknowledging the impact of Mennonite migration on Indigenous communities in Canada.
“That this was Indigenous land, that there were wrongs done to Indigenous people as well, is a part of the story that can’t be ignored,” she said.
The “Memories of Migration: Russlaender 100” cross-country train tour ran from July 6-24, starting in Quebec City and ending in British Columbia. The goal was to commemorate a century since the first of about 21,000 Mennonites escaped from the Soviet Union to find new homes in Canada.