Mennonite Pioneer Missions had its roots in the Bergthaler Mennonite Church of Manitoba. In the 1930s, people from this church felt the need for their own mission program. In 1938, they held a missions festival. Two years later they formed the Bergthaler Missions Committee to investigate areas of need and potential service. Their first attempt was a school for orphans in Mexico called “The Home of the Good Shepherd”. This mission ended after a few years because of disagreements and problems with the Mexican government. Even while the Mexican school was nearing its end, the Bergthaler church was planning a new mission. This time, they looked closer to home. (Mennonite Pioneer Mission list of representatives.)
Twenty-seven Mennonite COs had chosen northern teaching as their alternative service. When they returned home after the war, they had told church leaders of the desperate situation. These communities, the COs said, needed for social and missionary help.
The Bergthaler Mennonite Church accepted the challenge and established six missions in northern Manitoba between 1948 and 1960. They were Matheson Island (1948), Pauingassi (1955), Loon Straits (1955), Cross Lake (1956), Manigotogan (1957), and Bloodvein (1960). Some of these communities had Anglican, United, or Roman Catholic churches, but they did not have regular services or resident priests. Historian Peter Fast describes what the COs had seen in these communities.
“After the war, these men saw the need for a true Gospel witness. Many were alarmed at the type of Christians produced on old established church mission fields. A form of godliness was produced, steeped in formalities and rituals. This situation gave these men all the more impetus to seek ways and means of challenging the neglected Indian and Métis with the Gospel of Christ.” (Peter Fast, “Mennonite Pioneer Mission: A Venture of Faith, p.3) (Read the purpose statement in the Mennonite Pioneer Mission publication).
Some of the natives were technically part of other churches, but they didn't see their religion as connected with their everyday life. For this reason, the Mennonites felt justified in sending missionaries to these people. Besides being an opportunity for spiritual witness, the Mennonite church also wanted to improve the living conditions in these communities.
Jake and Trudie Unrau started the mission on Matheson Island. In 1948, it was home to 175 people. They relied on traditional sources of income such as hunting, trapping, and fishing. The Unraus worked to improve the religious and social lives of the people. (see sample sermon notes) They organized the building of a church and started religious education. Mennonite Pioneer Mission also sent nurses to Matheson Island and encouraged teachers to volunteer. The Unrau's took interest in the host culture and used an English-Cree primer and vocabulary. (See sample pages).
In the 1973, the name of Mennonite Pioneer Mission changed to Native Ministries. The terms “pioneer” and “mission” were no longer acceptable. For many people, these words had unhappy connotations and implied a superior sender speaking down to an inferior receiver. This understanding did not accurately reflect the nature of the program, so the name changed to Native Ministries. This change emphasized the equality of all Christians.
Despite the name, this had been the intention from the beginning. Jake Unrau noted that he had much to learn from the natives. Even though he had more formal education, he found that he was learning as much as he was teaching. In Cross Lake, Ernie Sawatzky spent three weeks on a trapline and attended traditional native dances to try to understand the people better. This effort to understand native culture instead of condemning it earned Sawatzky the respect of the people. In Manigotogan, a Métis community, Jake Unrau organized the Wanipigow Producers Co-op in 1963. This allowed fishers to sell their fish at higher prices by presenting a united front.
Perhaps the most successful mission was in Pauingassi. This small community on Lake Winnipeg did not have formal reserve status. The government had not provided a school and the members of the community were isolated from the outside world. Only one person in the community spoke English. The rest spoke Saulteaux (pronounced Soto). Alcohol abuse was a problem, as was low employment.
Henry and Elna Neufeld, former students at Canadian Mennonite Bible College in Winnipeg went there to serve in 1956. Not only were they teachers and preachers, but they also dispensed medical and legal advice, and worked as mechanics and labourers. The most important reason for their success, however, was their willingness to learn Saulteaux so they could speak to the people in their own language. By 1976, the resident missionary presence had ended. A number of natives had been ordained as church leaders and now they were leading the church in Pauingassi and reaching out to other native communities.
Today, Native Ministries continues in a number of communities. It is committed to both spiritual and social transformation. Although the name has changed, the mission has remained the same from the time of the COs.