Reconciliation in the Archives: What was lost, what remains, what is possible

Poet Jean Janzen offers a definition of “everything” as “what was lost, what remains, what is possible.” As an archivist I find this a useful definition. I once answered a phone call from an older British man with a common “Mennonite name.” He began quizzing me about local Mennonite genealogy. When I told him how common his name was in southwestern Ontario, he exclaimed incredulously, his voice crackling over the long-distance line, “but I thought I was the only one!” Here was a man, after decades of loss, reaching out for what remains and discovering new possibilities for understanding his personal past.

Nowhere in archives are the three companions of loss, remainder, and possibility more present than when communities seek to understand historical wrongs. Following the Truth and Reconciliation calls to action, archives in Canada are being urged to communicate to Indigenous communities what has been collected by and about them. In response, I have created a guide to Indigenous-related content in the Mennonite Archives of Ontario.

This guide has assisted Indigenous and non-Indigenous researchers in uncovering stories of the past. But it is not just the role of archives to dispense knowledge, but to learn. For example, our archives preserves photographs of the Clearwater Lake Sanatorium in The Pas, Manitoba in the 1950s. We have these images because voluntary service workers were posted there. Until I received an inquiry from researchers with the Manitoba Indigenous Tuberculosis History Project, I was unaware that Clearwater Lake had been one of several “Indian hospitals,” a racially segregated hospital system. As I have learned, the 26 Clearwater photos in our collection can play a small but vital role in understanding lived experiences in these institutions.

Mennonite volunteers went to Clearwater Lake and other places to serve and live out our peacemaking principles. What do we make, now, of these good intentions? In engaging with what remains and encountering what has been lost, what possibilities might emerge for Mennonite and Indigenous understandings of this past?

Another example is closer to Grebel’s own history. In 1976, a “symposium on Native Peoples” took place on the Waterloo campus, with several Grebel students as organizers. The Archives holds a photo from that event of an Indigenous speaker, whom I was recently able to identify as prominent Cree leader Harold Cardinal. I also learned that his audience that day, visible in the photo, included Dene, Haudenosaunee, and other Indigenous participants who had travelled some distance to hear Cardinal speak.

What might it mean to add such detail to this photo’s description? Will it elicit memories of those who were there that day? Will it raise awareness for current students of a longer history of Indigenous presence on this campus? These are emerging connections that truth and reconciliation work in archives can make possible.

“Solo” by Jean Janzen is published in Three Mennonite Poets. A link to the Research Guide to Indigenous Content in the Mennonite Archives of Ontario is on the archives website:
All photographs mentioned here are searchable in the Mennonite Archival Information Database:



There are two program endowments that provide ongoing budgetary support for the Mennonite Archives of Ontario.

The Bowman Archives Endowment, which funds Archives operations, is at 45 percent of its $500,000 goal. Last year the Robert J. Tiessen Archival Community Education Endowment Fund was established by Bob’s wife Anita Tiessen (BA 1981). Earnings from this endowment will support the archivist’s efforts at community presentations and digitization projects related to Mennonite history.