Canada 150 – Anabaptism and sovereignty

By Kerry Saner-Harvey, Mennonite Central Committee Manitoba Program Coordinator – Indigenous Neighbours. This is the first in a series of reflections on Canada 150.

For many it’s a time for celebration. Others lean towards lament.  Either way, perhaps “Canada 150” can be for us an invitation to “re-imagine” our nation going forward in the next 150 years.

In the modern era, nation states are framed on certain assumptions.  One of these is that governance and authority stem from a centralized national structure which we identify as “Canada.” Even if there are various sub-levels of autonomy, we understand them as liberties “granted” by the state.  We assume that even in our valuing the diversity of human expression and opinion within our borders, there is somehow a pervasive Canadian identity towards which these expressions coalesce.

One of the threads running through Anabaptist thought that I have grappled with regularly has been the call to be “in the world but not of the world.”  This idea has taken a variety of expressions among Mennonites: from the politically disengaged—“This earthly world is not my home, I’m just a passin’ through”— to an engaged non-violent rejection of the structures of domination intertwined in the “principalities and powers.” We know that our forebears sought to distance themselves from political entities, whether it was the Rome of Constantine or the churches’ collusion with the state in the complexities of the Reformation.

Many of us today experience at least a bit of dissonance standing up for the national anthem or “celebrating” our national anniversary, because we feel the core of our Anabaptism is our identification with the “Kin-dom” of God, which alone deserves our allegiance. This is not just about whose “authority” we obey, it is about which set of sacred values we choose to centralize in ourselves. It is a critique of the unflinching patriotism that masks the undergirding hierarchies and militarism that upholds the state identity and boundaries.

Two Indigenous women, photographed by Alison Ralph, a former MCC Canada staff person.

Even while we appreciate the benefits of a stable, prosperous place to live, we also wish to reject the exclusion and systemic violence that have allowed us this bounty at the expense of others. I am very grateful for our Canadian public health care system, while at the same time am fully critical of the ongoing unjust colonial structures that keep many Indigenous communities from a flourishing, healthy life.  Many of us Anabaptists do identify as Canadian and happily so, even while fully embracing that we are followers first of Christ in the Anabaptist frame.  And perhaps it is possible to straddle this line, at least as long as we are actively seeking transformation.

I wonder if this Anabaptist thread also puts us in a vantage position to seek solidarity with Indigenous nations who are expressing their own sovereignty.  Quite frequently I have encountered Indigenous neighbours who reject the label of “Canadian” for themselves, choosing instead to identify foremost (maybe even exclusively) by their particular Cree, Anishnaabe or other nation.

When we hear this, can we as peacemakers appreciate that this may also be about choosing a different set of sacred, communal values than the ones represented in the violent, colonial national identity imposed onto them and the land? When a speaker refers to “this land that some people call Canada,” rather than being affronted by their distancing disassociation, can we rather embrace their need to articulate their own names for the places, people, and paradigms that encompass meaning in their lives?

When Indigenous rights movements remind us that autonomy over their lands and its benefits are their most pressing concern today, can we recognize how we have benefitted from being amongst those with control of land?  And when First Nations speak of their Nation’s sovereignty and their need to break free from the colonial net to find autonomous directions for their own future, can we as Anabaptists in fact celebrate this aspiration as similar to our own various manifestations of communal autonomy that we have struggled for (and been privileged to establish) over the last centuries?

Sovereignty is only a term to arouse fear if we have allowed Westphalian nationalism to limit our imaginations for how human life and communities are able to flourish and co-exist.

I think it is possible to celebrate the many wonderful developments in this country in the last 150 years, without reifying “Canada” as a sovereignty towards which all people herein must bend. Indigenous sovereignty might look different for each band, even each individual, depending on the context.  Perhaps we can be among those who both appreciate and support these as coming from the best of our human aspirations. To whatever extent we may see ourselves on the inside, “Canada” is a construct we collectively imagine and create.

And so we have the opportunity to continue to recreate Kanata, our village, our society, our relationships, our Nation(s) in the next 150 yet to come.