The Mennonite Heritage Village (MHV) is excited to be collaborating with the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in April, which is Genocide Remembrance, Condemnation and Prevention month in Canada. Mennonites have talked a lot about peace, non-violence, valuing the “other,” reconciliation, and forgiveness, but we have not talked a lot about human rights. Museums for that matter have not either. Museums and Mennonites have been mostly ambivalent about human rights issues in their world, but that is changing. As novelist and social activist Alice Walker said, “activism is my rent for living on the planet.” When we see great wrong being done to fellow humans, we must carefully consider what our role is.
Mennonites were born in a dark time when the common person had little rights. The systems of church and state had a monopoly on human life in the late medieval period. Mennonites wanted to humanize the way church was done, but it was too much of a threat to the system and its hold on power.
At many points over the last five centuries, Mennonites have endured hostile authorities, contempt for human dignity, and injustice in many geographical locations. However, they have also found ways to deal with oppressive systems. Sometimes, sadly, Mennonites joined the systems of oppression, but often they endured them peacefully and increasingly became advocates for peace and human worth. As Virgil O. Wiebe presented at the ‘Mennonites and Human Rights’ Conference at the University of Winnipeg in 2012, the three roles Mennonites have in human rights are:
Historically, Mennonites have endured significant seasons of persecution that often caused them to look inwards and hold firm. However, with the greater freedom and rights that they enjoy in Canada, Mennonites can and should focus outwards too, doing what they can to help others that now face violent aggression. I don’t know exactly what this looks like, but at MHV we know what a couple of our next steps could include. This year MHV is doing advocacy for well-being in our community and will be more intentional in providing our beautiful grounds as a place for people to roam as we all recover from a global pandemic. This month MHV is also helping the Canadian Museum for Human Rights to present a virtual event that will bring greater understanding and awareness of the Uyghur genocide that is now taking place in Xinjiang, China.
My wife Andrea and I had the privilege of living in the Uyghur Autonomous Region for ten years. We spent the first five years doing Mandarin and Uyghur linguacultural studies and the next five years establishing a social enterprise to help low-income farmers. During our last two years there, starting in 2017, we observed the beginnings of a genocide against the Uyghur people. Within months we noticed the streets of the villages around us become much emptier, we saw a re-education camp built ten minutes down our road, and we watched our friends became fearful and wonder if they would be one of the 2 to 3 million Uyghurs that were forcibly put into these camps. To our horror, we saw their already frail life and cultural situation being decimated and in 2018 we had to leave.
After living overseas for 18 years and working with other cultures, it is now my honour to be able to work with my own culture as Executive Director of MHV. I hope that many Mennonites and others will be able to visit our grounds this year and grow in their cultural understanding of themselves and others. I also hope many will be able to join us for ‘The Uyghur Genocide in Xinjiang, China’ virtual event on April 22nd at 1pm. This genocide is the largest incarceration of a people since the Holocaust and as Holocaust survivor Leslie Meisels, who is quoted in the Canadian Museum for Human Rights gallery, said, “silence helps the oppressors”. Please check out our website for more details: www.mhv.ca.