Blog: Anti-racism includes unlearning the histories of the land

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

Marlene Epp By Marlene Epp, Professor of History and Peace and Conflict Studies

Marlene Epp is a professor of history and peace and conflict studies at Conrad Grebel University College at the University of Waterloo. She lives, works, and plays on the traditional territory of the Huron-Wendat, Attawandaron, Anishinaabeg, and Haudenosaunee peoples.


It is somewhat ironic that the Land Back Camp underway at Victoria Park is just a short walk from the Schneider Haus on Queen Street.

The Land Back Camp is where a group of local Indigenous activists began occupying a small area of the park on National Indigenous Peoples Day (June 21). They are claiming land that was a traditional meeting ground for Indigenous peoples, used for trade, ceremony, and relationship building. The land was taken away by white colonizers and settlers, but in 1784 the Haldimand Tract (10 kilometres on each side of the Grand River from end to end) was granted by the British to the Haudenosaunee (Six Nations), to support them in perpetuity.

The Schneider Haus – a national historic site – was built in 1816 by the Schneiders, a Pennsylvania German Mennonite family who were among the first white settlers in this region. It now functions as a museum, with vibrant programming that educates children and adults about how Mennonites and other nineteenth century white settlers farmed, gardened, cooked, preserved, played, and sustained themselves on the land.

For a long time I knew a great deal about the Schneiders and very little about the Haudenosaunee and other Indigenous peoples who were here – the Huron-Wendat, Attawandaron, Anishinaabeg. I have been teaching the history of Mennonites, and that of other immigrants and refugees, at University of Waterloo for close to 25 years. I taught the familiar and comforting narratives of Mennonite migration that included stories of flight from persecution, seeking freedom, and pioneering new lands.

Because pacifism is among their religious beliefs, Mennonites are often viewed as benign actors in the displacement of Indigenous peoples, but they too are complicit in the physical and systemic violence of colonialism, in Canada and elsewhere, then and now. Over the years I have attempted to alter my teaching, my language, and my scholarship to acknowledge this.

I still tell stories of my Mennonite grandparents who arrived in Canada in 1924, having left their homes in the Soviet Union in the aftermath of violent civil war, famine, and overwhelming community losses. (By the way, Mennonites were also European colonizers that displaced Indigenous people in the Russian empire). And the stories of my parents-in-law who came to Canada as refugees following the Second World War, having lost many family members to execution or imprisonment under the Stalinist regime.

I teach these stories because they are about who I am and about what Canada is. But it is essential that I also help students understand the Indigenous histories of the land that their ancestors and my Mennonite grandparents settled on. And that Indigenous people continue to live and work and experience injustice on this land. In the case of my four grandparents, it was Treaty 1 Territory and the land of the Métis Nation in southern Manitoba, and the land of the Chippewas Point Pelee in southwestern Ontario.

My own anti-racist learning and teaching journey continues. Another gap in remembered history points to this.  A few years ago my family purchased a cottage in Mapleton Township, Wellington County. Along with adjacent Wellesley and Woolwich townships, this area is often described as ‘Mennonite country.’ Recent and long ago research by others has helped me understand the history of Black settlement in this area. Many Black peoples, freed from or escaping enslavement in the United States, created farm communities before the Mennonites. Indeed, the Mennonite enterprise was made easier, in some cases, by the earlier work of Black farmers who felled trees and tilled the soil.

I now point out to my visitors the many sites, marked by often forgotten and ignored plaques, of churches and cemeteries founded by Black settlers, near towns like Yatton, Wallenstein, and Glen Allen. These sit amongst the more commonly pointed out Mennonite meetinghouses and parochial schools. If there are plaques or other signs that also acknowledge this as the traditional territory of the Anishinaabeg people, I am unfamiliar with them.

The great thing about history is that while the past itself may not change, the way in which we understand, interpret, and teach the past changes immensely. As do the choices we make about what to forget and ignore, and what to remember and commemorate. Indeed, real learning about the past necessitates unlearning what we think we know about the past.

Unlearning also involves action. That is why I think the City of Kitchener should honour the claims of the Land Back Camp activists, by returning a space of Victoria Park to Indigenous peoples, as recognition of their traditional territory. As a resident of Waterloo, I think we should do the same.


This blog post is in a series of reflections on how COVID-19 and other current social justice issues relate to and have implications for the Peace and Conflict Studies community of students, staff, faculty, and alumni. If you would like to submit a reflection to this series, please contact Rachel Reist at rreist@uwaterloo.ca