Before the first meeting there was a lot of apprehension on both sides. It was 2006 and a group of Mennonite farmers with land around Laird, Saskatchewan were meeting with representatives of Stoney Knoll First Nation to talk about their land claim. Tensions were high around land claims in Canada at the time, with volatile and public confrontations taking place in Caledonia, Ontario and with Sun Peaks resort in B.C.
Mennonite farmers, like Barb Froese (1970) and Wilmer Froese (1966), didn’t know what to expect and many in the community feared losing the land they lived and farmed on. And on the other side, Gary LaPlante, a headman of Stoney Knoll First Nation, says they too were nervous about how the conversation would go. “We were really apprehensive. We felt uncertain and kind of like, ‘Oh, what are we doing? Should we be doing this? Can we trust them,’” he says.
But to everyone’s surprise the first meeting went well. “We went away feeling okay about it,” says Wilmer. “Somehow, meeting them face to face was the first step and it lessened our anxiety.” That meeting was the first of many between the two groups that helped those feelings of anxiety turn into a relationship built on respect and the desire for real reconciliation.
Over the years, the two groups held other gatherings and participated in cultural exchanges, playing traditional Indigenous hand games, listening to Mennonite music and sharing foods from their different cultures. And each group brought their own spirituality to the table, each praying in their own ways. They shared about their experiences and learned from each other.
And as their relationships grew, and as the First Nation’s representatives assured the Mennonites and Lutherans they weren’t trying to take the land back, the farmers ended up becoming some of the strongest advocates for the claim and shared what they knew with others, says Gary. The land claim with the government is still in progress, in August of 2022 the Government of Canada stated that it met the minimum standard to proceed, which is the first hurdle in having their claim to the land fully recognized.
While the land claim itself, and the compensation. is important in its own right. Gary, Wilmer and Barb also feel strongly that sharing their story is important to help future generations learn the history and work towards reconciliation.
To help future visitors learn that history, Wilmer initiated a project to put together an interpretive path with storyboards that tell the history of the place and the journey of reconciliation over the last 17 years. The path and storyboards were developed by the Stoney Knoll Historical Committee, a group with Indigenous, Mennonite and Luthern representation, in collaboration with the office of the Treaty Commissioner. The site opened in the summer of 2022. Over the last few years RJC has brought students to the site to learn more about the history of the land that’s just a 20 minute drive away from their school. “Taking our students to Stoney Knoll allows them to see that the work of reconciliation is close to home,” says Alex Tieseen, director of development at RJC. “This is a story that is right on their doorstep, and has impacted many people that they might know.”
Walking the interpretative parth and reading the story helps the history become real for visitors. “I feel like when you walk along that path that all of a sudden you become part of the story, because this is where it happened,” says Barb. She believes that when you read the story in the place where it happened you’ll remember it better.
For Wilmer, he hopes that when people come to the site they can see the real possibilities for peacemaking and reconciliation in their own lives. “It tells a story of reconciliation, it tells the story of how our differences can be overcome, and how two different peoples can come together, and actually come to a peaceful resolution of an issue,” says Wilmer. “This whole thing of peacemaking, which has been so strong in the Mennonite church, never have I experienced that personally like I have here. This is the first time I’ve realized, yes, peacemaking can work.”
This is the lesson that RJC also hopes students will take away when they visit. That peacemaking isn’t just an idea, it’s something we can practice in our own lives.
Gary also wants this story to serve as a model for other communities on what true reconciliation can look like. “When I say ‘We could be an example or model for others in Canada.’ I’m not talking about how to settle a legal claim…I’m talking about people coming together to try to collectively resolve some difference that happened,” he says. “This is what reconciliation is, you know, that’s true reconciliation. Money is not reconciliation. Money could help, but the real reconciliation is between peoples. Honestly, like plain and simple, the ability to be good neighbours.
Photo: Kendall Amendt, Orion Cleland, and Arielle Perrault at the Stoney Knoll interpretive site with the RJC Grade 12 EXLORE class.