Archives for posts with tag: Red River Valley

As a mini-series within my summer series of Canadiana blogs, I want to write about some “sacred places” in Canada. What makes a place sacred? In some ways I believe there is no such thing as one place on earth that is any more sacred than the rest. Divine encounter transcends political boundaries, religious temples, and geographical barriers. The ancient people of Israel learned this in their wilderness wanderings and even “the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” The mission of Jesus, God incarnate, was to bring together heaven and earth for whomever and whenever and wherever. Yet sometimes places become sacred because of repeated divine encounters there. In the Bible a pile of stones was often set up to mark a divine encounter and so the place itself took on spiritual significance—it became a holy place. More recently, the ancient Celts believed that there were “thin places” where the line between things of earth and things of heaven was a bit “thinner” than elsewhere. One of these places that I have visited is the Isle of Iona; and indeed, I experienced it as a thin place where I encountered God in a new way. Is it perhaps that it is remote, stark, barren, and away from the distractions of centres of power and commerce?

In a world of rapid mobility and human displacement, there is new interest in the importance of place [See Leonard Hjalmarson’s No Home Like Place]. Perhaps this is especially true for Europeans who are known for global exploration and colonialization, and even truer for my ancestors, the Dutch Mennonites, who moved from the northwestern lowlands of Europe to the Danzig delta of Poland to the steppes of Ukraine to the plains of North America. What is a sacred place for people on the move? We are learning the importance of place from the indigenous people of North America who became displaced due to the occupation of their land by European conquerors and settlers.

Are there sacred places in Canada? My blogs will focus primarily on places that have become sacred for me because of my experience there but often my experience is only one layer of many spiritual experiences of generations before me. I was reminded of that this summer as we celebrated 100 years of my wife’s family farming the same piece of land in the Red River Valley. The place has fed and sheltered—with the planting of trees—five generations of Penner families. It has become sacred space for them as they have depended on God and the weather for their sustenance: from the first Penner who lost his wife at 46 and farmed the land as a widower with ten children to the present generation who face huge debts in uncertain economic times. Yet it was sacred space long before it was divided into English style section, township, and range which now define the farm. It is Treaty 1 territory, the home of Dakota and Ojibway nations who hunted bison here for thousands of years before a European plow carved up the land. They also depended on the land for food—and also had to shelter themselves from the cruel winds of a prairie winter.

In the spirit of this connection to the land, to place, and to the recognition of God’s often mysterious work in those places, I will present most of my blogs in the form of poetry written while at a place, about a place, and experiencing God in that place—a geography of the Canadian soul, so to speak. After all, poetry is heart language; it is language that uses metaphor: something that is known, tangible, and sensual to speak about something that is less known, intangible, and often mysterious.



The election was called in the midst of our annual trip to Manitoba—and probably in the midst of the vacation travels of many Canadians. We chose to travel the Yellowhead Highway through Jasper, Edmonton, and Saskatoon on our way to Winnipeg. I read a few books about Louis Riel to transport my mind to pivotal events that happened in the Saskatchewan and Red River valleys near this route. Not only were they an engaging read, they refreshed my perspective on the place of the Prairie Provinces within confederation. These events are also related to what I believe is the most important issue in the upcoming election.

I agree with Rex Murphy, when he stated in his CBC opinion piece on June 4, 2015 that the most important issue of the election is how the prospective government will act on the report of the TRC. The apology by PM Harper in 2008 was good and necessary but it is only a beginning. We need to continue to understand the truth about what happened in our history and continue to work at reconciliation between our gracious hosts and subsequent settlers.

The background to the Riel saga was the mass killing of the bison on the plains in order to systematically and intentionally eliminate the indigenous people who relied on the bison for their livelihood. This should be named for what it was—genocide. Although the Museum of Human Rights which we visited in Winnipeg acknowledges the contributions of indigenous people in Canada and lists genocides that have occurred around the world, it neglects to name the genocide of indigenous people that happened on our own soil in the 19th century.

Louis Riel was not only the founder of Manitoba—as finally acknowledged in 1992—but he could also be said to be the father of Saskatchewan and Alberta as well. At his best, he represented the interests not only of the Metis and indigenous people but the French in all of Canada and all settlers on the western prairies and forests [ironically, “Rupert’s Land” was given to the Hudson’s Bay Company by the king of England and sold to the Canadian government by the HBC with seemingly little thought of the residents of the land]. At his worst, Riel was tortured by a combination of mental illness and religious delusion later in his life but the man was a true visionary who saw modern day Canada before it was. He saw Indigenous Peoples, Metis, British, French, and other settlers sharing the land together in mutual peace and goodwill. For his resistance of English Canadian domination he was hanged a week after the last spike was nailed on the Canadian Pacific Railway in November, 1885. In fact, these events are tied together: The push for the completion of the railway was so that troops could be sent west to put down the “rebellion.”

(A sad reality that Mennonites will have to deal with is that we benefitted from land giveaways by the Canadian government in the Red River Valley shortly after the Metis resistance in 1869-70 and again after the resistance in 1884-85 on the land between the North and South Saskatchewan Rivers. Were we given land so as to be a “buffer” between desired settlers and undesired native peoples similar to the Ukraine a few centuries earlier?)

The putting down of the resistance movements led by Louis Riel accompanies the oppressive residential school policies initiated by the Canadian government that finally ended only in 1996. This chapter is what the Truth and Reconciliation Commission [TRC] most directly dealt with. We need to speak the truth and name the residential school policy as cultural genocide. What will our leaders have to say about this in the election campaign? As a Christian who values truth and reconciliation, the way I vote will be influenced by the responses on this issue.