(This Was My Saturday Morning!) MHSC: Preserving A Past

(Feature photo: Q&A for the first session, chaired by Aileen Friesen. Seated, L-R: Jenna Klassen, Conrad Stoesz, Royden Loewen.)

You probably know this already; it’s pretty evident if you’ve read any Mennotoba post of mine, ever. But let me just say it here and now: I am NOT a scholar. And yet I still eagerly attended the Mennonite Historical Society of Canada’s 50th Anniversary Conference this past weekend. The theme was A People of Diversity: Mennonites in Canada since 1970. And I couldn’t help but get the very real sense that this entire conference was serving as a living, breathing Volume Four to the Mennonites in Canada trilogy.

First I must explain: Andrew and I are not yet retired, and we’ve run out of vacation days for the year, so we could only attend Saturday.

I took notes furiously! But all the listening and paying attention only mostly served to scramble my brain a bit.

I will now proceed to attempt to tell you about my experience and impressions and my messy messy notes.

I’m going to break this up into four posts… because I took a LOT of notes. And I apologize in advance for being somewhat incoherent.

Having missed so much of the conference already, Andrew and I hurried to get there in time for the 8:30 am start, expecting to see Sam Steiner of GAMEO speaking. Unfortunately he was unable to make it… and we were just late enough that we missed hearing the explanation, but it was immediately obvious that Royden Loewen was reading Sam Steiner’s paper, From Separation to Diversity: The Mennonite Historical Society of Canada, 1968-2018. It was interesting to hear about how the MHSC got off the ground. A lot of this had to do with Frank H. Epp beginning to write the Mennonites in Canada books. Epp had chosen the theme of separation, but the committee felt it was too negative; however, Epp argued that the theme of separation was unifying to Mennonites, as theological separation led to separation from the world… and in many cases, from each other. Sam’s paper also reflected that Epp had stated that his wife Helen had spent more time working on the book than he had, but she hadn’t wanted her name credited. Ted Regehr stood up during the Q&A to mention that he was pleased to hear about Helen’s contribution to the books. He remembered Helen carefully going over every enlistment card in order to gain data about Mennonite men who had enlisted in the army, an enormous task, and Regehr also mentioned Marlene Epp’s considerable contribution via databases and research reports.

Conrad Stoesz shared his paper, Corporate Memory and the Mennonite Archives: A Retrospective since 1967. He noted the archives ability to shape and preserve identity, that it exists as a sort of community memory trust, determining what future generations know about the past. Thresholds in time, providing an intergenerational consciousness. Archives possess the remarkable ability to provide a sense of identity, for those who otherwise can’t remember. He emphasized that Mennonites have a unique past worth remembering, but there is a need to educate people on the value of archives. During the Q&A, Conrad mentioned that what is saved is a reflection of community values… and furthermore, history doesn’t move in straight lines; it’s unpredictable, it can rise and fall, and artifacts are there for rediscovery.

Jenna Klassen spoke on Artifacts of Migration in the Memory of Immigrant Children. She opened with a story of a donation. In this particular family, the parents had been killed by anarchists. Their children were adults, and immigrated to Canada… taking with them, the very clothes their parents had been wearing when they were murdered. Those clothes… were donated to the MHV. Also… a child’s small pair of shoes, still encrusted with dirt from the family estate in South Russia.

Objects become symbols, embedded with memory and infused with meaning. Objects of migration help in constructing family identities, and can be used as symbols that tell stories about a family’s fate. A handmade wooden cradle held a 3-month-old on the migration to Canada in the 1920’s… literally carrying the family’s history. It’s a potent embodiment of lineage, connection to ancestors, and family narratives. Seeds sewn into the hems of dresses, hidden in corsets, to be planted in their new home; physical memories of place. Objects represent “home” for descendants, and meaning can be re-established as people rediscover, recreate, and reinvent their identity. I found Jenna’s talk so poetic, it made me gasp a little.

And this was just the first half of the morning! My mind was already whirling. More to come!

Coffee time! Will be back for the next session, entitled Contesting Convention.