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It seemed like an inoffensive gesture for the House of Commons to initiate an annual Mennonite Heritage Week, but reaction from Mennonites has been split, with some concerned the recognition goes against traditional aspirations such as diversity and humility.
The House of Commons passed a motion May 29 to mark the week annually. The motion was proposed by B.C. Conservative MP Ed Fast, a member of a Mennonite Brethren congregation.
The government will "recognize the contributions that Canadian Mennonites have made to building Canadian society, their history of hope and perseverance, the richness of Mennonite culture, their role in promoting peace and justice both at home and abroad."
The event is to occur in the second week of September.
Elton DaSilva, national director of the Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches, thinks it’s a good idea to celebrate and acknowledge the contributions of Mennonites to Canada. But as the leader of a multi-ethnic group of churches, he wonders if it might define what it means to be Mennonite too narrowly.
"I think it would further confuse the Mennonite theological banner, which is multicultural, with the ethnic Mennonite identity," he said.
Ken Warkentin, executive director of Mennonite Church Manitoba, echoed the sentiment.
"The focus seems to be on a historical European ethnicity that no longer reflects the Mennonite communion worldwide, and increasingly in Canada," he said, noting more than 30 churches in his denomination across the country use 14 different languages in worship.
"While I share the European ethnic faith heritage, I celebrate many diverse and faithful cultural expressions in the Mennonite branch of Christianity."
Warkentin said he hopes the week will also affirm the "faith that undergirds the many expressions of service, peacemaking and justice-seeking that are the public face of the Mennonite community."
Conrad Stoesz, archivist at the Mennonite Heritage Archives, is enthusiastic about the celebration.
"Part of the Canadian dream is that everyone is welcome in Canada, but can also celebrate where they are from," he said. "I welcome a week to help recognize the history of the Mennonite people."
While Stoesz agreed Mennonites have become more diverse, he noted: "There is no one body that can decide who is a Mennonite and who is not."
A week that recognizes Mennonites "could lead to more interest, awareness and support for Mennonite organizations."
Royden Loewen, chairman in Mennonite studies at the University of Winnipeg, is ambivalent about the designation. "I’m thrilled to hear Fast talk about non-violence, but appalled at what seems to be such an un-Mennonite thing, gushing at ‘our’ accomplishments," he stated, adding Canadian Mennonites might want to distance themselves from this "very un-Mennonite request for such an honour."
Karl Koop, a professor at Canadian Mennonite University who is especially interested in Mennonite and Anabaptist studies, said "this discussion in Parliament is quite an embarrassment."
Discussions about Mennonite identity are "quite complex," he noted, adding the motion "does not in any way recognize the Mennonite global reality, nor does it consider the growing multi-ethnic communities in Canada that would identify themselves as Anabaptist or Mennonite."
Koop said he would be more comfortable "if our parliamentarians would recognize all the various cultural groups that have made a contribution to Canadian society... for the government of Canada to single out one particular group does not seem appropriate."
Manitoba MPs who spoke in favour of the motion in the House of Commons included Liberals Kevin Lamoureux, MaryAnn Mihychuk and Robert-Falcon Ouellette, Tories Candice Bergen and Ted Falk, and Daniel Blaikie of the NDP.
Whatever Mennonites think about the motion, it sparked a rare moment of co-operation among the parties.
As NDP MP Sheri Benson of Saskatoon noted, it is rare for an NDP MP to "thank a Conservative member of Parliament, and it is even rarer that a politician stands in the House of Commons and acknowledges their ignorance. This evening, I am going to do both."
She thanked Fast for sponsoring the motion, noting it gave her "an opportunity to find out more about the Mennonite community and its history in my riding and my province."
John Longhurst has been writing for Winnipeg's faith pages since 2003. He also writes for Religion News Service in the U.S., and blogs about the media, marketing and communications at Making the News.
The Free Press acknowledges the financial support it receives from members of the city’s faith community, which makes our coverage of religion possible.
Updated on Tuesday, June 11, 2019 at 9:06 AM CDT: Updates list of Manitoba MPs who spoke in favour of the motion
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