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Documentary records efforts to bring justice

By Andréa Ledding


SASKATOON — On June 10, the Mennonite Central Committee showed the documentary Reserve 107 at Prairieland Exhibition Hall to a few hundred people, before breaking into a panel discussion. The documentary follows the story of how Lutheran and Mennonite faith communities near Laird, Sask. banded together with the dispersed and dispossessed Young Chippewayan Band to try and restore peace and harmony and deal with outstanding land claims.

“I think what has impressed me most about this situation is that peace and reconciliation can actually be achieved when you work at it slowly and steadily,” noted farmer and pastor Wilmer Froese, one of four Mennonite panelists. “These things that we talk about in other parts of the world — conflict and conflict resolution. We experienced that personally. What’s rewarding is that it shows you that can work at a difficult situation and achieve some form of reconciliation and understanding and friendship.”

Farmer Jim Johnston, Ray Funk, and Leonard Doell rounded out the Mennonite portion of the panel, while hereditary Chief George Kingfisher and elected Chief Sylvia Weenie represented the Young Chippewayan Band.

“Really what we have done is to listen, to share, to talk, to get together and to be friends,” said Johnston about what he has learned through the process, adding that this not only humbles but transforms people and situations.

In the 1800s reserve land in the Laird area was granted to the band, but then taken away and added instead to the Rosthern Mennonite Reserve by the government in 1897. They never received compensation or new land. Present-day Mennonite and Lutheran farmers gradually became aware of the injustice and began to discuss the situation with band members, eventually signing a document affirming the treaties and the heritage of the land as part of the Stoney Knoll Band, hoping to see them compensated for it and some justice done.

“I’ve come to realize that land is not only about private ownership, land is something that we have that we can use and it’s part of creation; we’re just using this land for a period of our life and things are rather transient,” noted Froese.

Funk recalled that he knew exactly where he was when he first read about the issue in Briarpatch magazine, likening it to the impact of Kennedy’s assassination.

“It made a big impact on me and on my family, and my father ended up signing the document,” said Funk, adding that the Old Testament demonstrates heritage, family, ancestry, and obligations being passed down. “To me it’s an obligation we carry with us. I don’t want to be thought of as a hypocrite. It’s easy to profess your faith and opinions in the abstract, but when it comes down to reality it’s easy to find yourself missing in action.”

He added it has since been a blessing in his life to reintroduce the Kingfishers to the land, along with the treaty celebration in 2006 at Stoney Knoll.

“To me, the way things are going, that’s how it should be. Settle things peacefully,” noted Kingfisher, who has since passed on hereditary title to his eldest son, Marshall. Before his own father passed away, he wrote a letter warning George that to take the land away from the farmers who’d been there for over 100 years would make him look worse than the government. “So I followed his wishes, and that’s how we became friends.”

Kingfisher, who is currently camping by invitation on Ray Funk’s farm on the traditional lands, is one of the only band members on original reserve land. He hopes the political pressure and support from the Mennonites and Lutherans works soon, in conjunction with a new federal government, but time would tell.

Weenie noted her late husband and former Chief, Ben, worked for many years on the tedious claims process, trying to get the federal government to admit the wrongs they had done to the Young Chippewayan Band as well as the Mennonite people, and provide compensation along with some justice — and some land of their own.

“At the beginning, nobody wanted to touch the claim, even the lawyers,” noted Weenie. “I’m really glad we’re at this point where we’re actually meeting, but we need a recognized First Nations to sponsor the claim so we can take it to court.”

Her late husband pointed out that the Mennonites and Lutherans were also the victims of the situation, so they all had to work together.

“The results from this you probably won’t see, it’s not for us, it’s for our grandchildren and great-grandchildren coming up,” noted Weenie, quoting her late husband. “Always remember the bigger picture.”

“Part of our journey was learning about a people who had been displaced from that land and how we were beneficiaries of an injustice that allowed us to occupy the land,” noted Leonard Doell, asked four decades ago by the Mennonite Central Committee to investigate the history of Reserve 107. “We only had a narrow picture of what actually happened, and now our story in the past 39 years has become more complete as we’ve filled it in with the Young Chippewayan people who’ve now become friends connected to us in a variety of ways.”

Doell noted there were frequently misunderstandings and it took a lot of time and patience, but also perseverance because the task is to keep working at the issue. The MCC is currently collecting funds to help with the land claims process, and hopes Reserve 107 will be used by other faith communities as a model to begin achieving grassroots justice, and peace and reconciliation over the land and the original inhabitants of the land.

“As much as I’ve come to know these people, I also realize that it isn’t just about land but that they also come to fill fulfilled lives in their community — that they find their place, that they feel they are complete and belong in this land and have everything we have, that’s my hope for them,” said Froese.

The Young Chippwayans are currently scattered across two countries, but the shared hope is that land will be returned to them so that justice can be done, and the Young Chippewayans can have a home base of their own.

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