Changing Historical Narratives

“We need new understandings.” Grebel Dean Marlene Epp said these words to a large group of witnesses in September, surrounding a small garden at the College. “Just twelve years ago, as homage to the Mennonites’ settler-ancestors, we created this garden with the black walnut tree at the centre. The current plaque says:
The Black Walnut Tree marks the 200th anniversary of the establishment of the German Company Tract in 1805. It commemorates the first Pennsylvania German Mennonite settlers in Waterloo Region.
It reflects the way in which Mennonites have come to understand our history.”

“In historical narratives,” Marlene explained, “Mennonites are described as the first—as the pioneer—as if the land was untouched by humans and unlived with. Many of these narratives are not only incomplete but are racist. The land had already been settled by Indigenous people who were displaced and dispossessed as colonialism progressed.”

In the early 19th century, Mennonites purchased 60,000 acres in what is called Block 2 of the Haldimand Tract. This land had been given in treaty to the Six Nations and was to support them in perpetuity. 

“Over the last few years,” added PACS Professor Reina Neufeldt, “we have had warm and painful discussions with our Indigenous neighbours about shared and unshared histories. In those conversations, a question surfaced: How can we transform this particular garden as a symbol, sign, and step towards changing our narratives about Indigenous peoples, Mennonites, and the land we are on?”

“We felt an urgency to speak, in a public way, about the limited narrative of this plaque,” she continued. “But we also know we need time to think, to reflect, and to educate ourselves. And most of all, to engage in ongoing dialogue and activity towards recognizing and repairing our relationships with Indigenous peoples as part of a journey towards reconciliation, here on the Waterloo campus and elsewhere.”

The collaboratively-written text for the new sign says:
Conrad Grebel University College sits on the traditional territory of the Neutral, Anishnaabeg, and Haudenosaunee peoples. Mennonites from Pennsylvania began migrating to this area in 1800. In 1805, they purchased land that was part of the Haldimand Tract given in treaty to the Six Nations, which included 6 miles on either side of the Grand River.  As buyers and settlers, Mennonites were, and are, implicated in a larger process of Indigenous dispossession. 

Grebel Chaplain Ed Janzen built the sign and local artist Meg Harder (BA ’13) designed it.

As the ceremony ended, Reina again addressed the crowd. “This garden is under construction as Conrad Grebel, and Mennonites more generally, work on building a new covenant relationship with our Indigenous hosts, neighbours, and friends, and seek to embody the enduring principles of peace, friendship, and respect. Like the garden, we are under construction, as we educate ourselves and alter our understanding and narratives to reflect neglected histories. We chose to leave the current plaque as a reminder of settlement history.”

Lori Campbell, Director of Waterloo Aboriginal Education Centre, spoke as well, encouraging steady engagement. “Reconciliation is not a checkbox,” she noted. “To move forward in collective Indigenization is an ongoing reciprocal relational piece.”

The noon gathering began with smudging and included songs from both Indigenous and Mennonite traditions, as well as treats of fry-bread, apples, and popcorn.

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