I Wish I'd Been There: Negotiating with Ottawa
by Peter Dyck
Yes, indeed, I wish I'd been there when David Toews negotiated
in Ottawa with the Canadian government and the Canadian Pacific
Railway Company(CPR) for immigration of Mennonites from Russia.
David had been a boy of twelve in my community in Russia when
his family followed the misguided Claas Epp in 1880 to the east
to meet the return of the Lord. (See The Great Trek by
Fred Belk.) When his parents realized that they had made a big
mistake, they left the visionary Epp and immigrated to Kansas.
Knowing no English, children in school made fun of David, singing,
"Dutchman, dutchman, belly full of straw, can say nothing
by ja, ja, ja!" Little did they know what was in that boy.
He not only learned the English language, but he became a teacher,
a minister, and the founder of what is today Rosthern Junior
College in Rosthern, Saskatchewan, Canada.
Meanwhile Communism had come to far-away Russia and Mennonites
wanted to leave. The United States closed its doors, but the
Canadian doors were open, thanks to the efforts of Toews and
his good relationship with the Prime Minister of Canada, William
Lyon Mackenzie King. This good news was offset by the bad news
that there was not money for transportation. Toews negotiated
with the CPR to bring the Mennonites over on credit. When asked
who would guarantee that the money would be repaid, he didn't
know. When asked how many people he was talking about, he was
unable to give a precise figure. Understandably no deal could
be struck under those circumstances.
But Toews would not give up. He went back to Ottawa, and
this time when asked who would guarantee that the loan would
be repaid, he responded, "I guarantee it!" And nobody
laughed, although they all knew that he was poor as a church
mouse. They also knew by this time what kind of man he was,
and that he could be trusted.
The ships began bringing the Mennonite immigrants to Canada
in 1923 and stopped in 1930 when the "iron curtain"
came down, making further leave from Russia impossible. Over
20,000 of us, including my family, had the great fortune of leaving
the land of terror.
It became the lot of my brother-in-law, C.F. Klassen, to collect
that enormous travel debt of over two million dollars. Our people
had not only come to Canada with nothing, but soon after arrival
the country was plunged into the Great Depression of the 1930s.
It took Klassen 25 years to collect the entire travel debt,
but at last the day came when J.J. Thiessen, the man who ordained
me, was able to go to the old and tired David Toews with the
good news. "The entire travel debt and all the interest
has been repaid," he said. At first Toews would not believe
it. He chided Thiessen, saying that they were all sorry for
him, knowing that he had given his word that the debt would be
paid and that he couldn't die until it was. When Thiessen cupped
his hands to the ears of the hard-of-hearing dear brother and
repeated the good news once more, David Toews sat back in his
rocker and with tears soaking his beard, kept saying again and
again, "Gott sei Dank!" Thank you, God.
Peter J. Dyck, at home in Scottdale, Pennsylvania,
is well known as a storyteller and advocate of Mennonite Central
Peter J. Dyck was born in Russia, moved to Canada with
his parents at age 12, and graduated from Goshen College and
Bethany Theological Seminary. Peter is now in active retirement
in Scottdale, Pennsylvania, and with Elfrieda attends the Kingview
Mennonite Historical Bulletin, July 2000