Almost 7,000 Mennonites arrived in Manitoba from Russia between
1874 and the end of the decade, among the first beneficiaries
of Louis Riels( initiative to create a new province. [Riel
was a prominent leader of the Metis in Manitoba.] During the
1890s and early 1900s, relatives of the first settlers and others
from Russia joined them in Manitoba, or continued on westward
to pioneer in the Northwest.
The areas reserved for bloc settlement by Mennonites in Manitoba
were meanwhile filling up. Sons and daughters of the pioneer
families, seeking to become farmers on their own, began to look
westward. The leadership of the Manitoba communities negotiated
with Ottawa---Saskatchewan did not become a province until 1905---to
found new bloc settlements, first between the North and South
Saskatchewan Rivers in 1895, and then in the Swift Current area
in 1904. Smaller groups moved into southern Alberta and even
into the interior of British Columbia.
The urgent need felt by the Liberal government of Wilfrid
Laurier to fill the empty prairies with European
agriculturists led to a widespread policy of block settlement.
This allowed pioneers to help each other get started on their
farms. It created some continuity with life in the old country
and made it easier to establish community structures, school
and church. At the same time, it encouraged the perpetuation
of the language and culture of the immigrant community.
As more and more of these immigrant communities began to dot
the prairies, older Canadians from the east increased their efforts
to Canadianize them. Some viewed with alarm the fact
that as few as a third of them were of British extraction. Protestant
missionaries were concerned to Christianize sectarians,
like Mennonites and Doukhobors, as well as Orthodox and Catholic
groups form Eastern Europe. In DAlton McCarthys words,
the goal was to make the people Manitobans and Canadians,
not French or Mennonite, nor Poles or Polish Jews.
In Manitoba, Ontario anglophone pressure led to the abolition
of French as an official language in government and schools in
1890. A six-year legal and political battle resulted in the famous
Laurier-Greenway compromise, allowing Manitoba schools to be
bilingual. Where at least ten children in a rural district spoke
a language other than English as their mother tongue, school
could be conducted in that language alongside of English.
The passions of World War I disrupted this gradual process
of assimilation. The Mennonites had been assured at the time
of their immigration that Canadas laws provided for exemptions
from military service for pacifist groups like Quaker, Dunkards
and themselves. However, as the war dragged on, they faced increasing
pressure to participate in purchasing Victory Bonds and making
special donations to the Red Cross. Their German language newspapers
were suspended from publication. The bilingual provision the
School Act was abolished in 1916. And finally, as the war ended,
their church-run schools were forcibly replaced with government-regulated
public schools flying the Union Jack.
For many of the Mennonites, these developments had too many
parallels with their experience in Russia fifty years earlier.
They feared for the future and began to search for alternative
places to settle. The Quebec government was sympathetic, but
agricultural land there was scarce. The southern states were
inviting but could not promise exemption from military service.
In the end it was Mexico and Paraguay that offered the right
The governments of both countries assured Mennonites of the
right to their own schools, the free exercise of the faith, and
exemption from military service. Large blocks of land could be
purchased fairly cheaply from huge ranches. Agricultural conditions
were not ideal, but appeared manageable.
In 1922 the first trainload of emigrants left for Mexico from
the station in Altona. The move to Paraguay was delayed until
1926. By 1927, almost 8,000 Mennonites had left Canada for Latin
America, almost 5,000 of them from Manitoba. They went disappointed,
but not bitter. Many retained their Canadian citizenship and
registered their children with the Canadian government.
In Russia, World War I brought other consequences for the
Mennonites who had remained there. The Communist revolutions
of 1917 and the overthrow of the Imperial government brought
about enormous upheavals throughout the realm. Civil war, anarchist
bandits, typhoid epidemic, crop failure might have been enough
to drive them from their adopted Russian homeland. When economic,
social, cultural and religious oppression were added, many decided
Ironically then, just as some 8,000 were in process of leaving
the country, a new wave of Mennonite immigrants from the Soviet
Union began arriving in 1923. Equally ironical: in 1919 the Canadian
government, under tremendous public pressure, issued an order-in-council
identifying Mennonites as Undesirables because, owing to
their peculiar customs, habits, modes of living and methods of
holding property, they are unlikely to become readily assimilated
or to assume the duties and responsibilities of Canadian citizenship
within a reasonable time. By the time the first refugees
from the USSR began arriving four years later, there was widespread
support for them and they were seen once again as a desirable
class of settlers.
Obviously, the departure of 8,000 of the most uncompromising
settlers and the arrival of 20,000 new immigrants, who saw Canada
as a haven of freedom from atheistic communism, greatly altered
the character of the Canadian Mennonite community. However, the
severity of the great economic depression of the 1930s and the
renewed anti-German and anti-pacifist attitudes in the Canadian
public, slowed the process of assimilation. Among some, indeed,
the threat to faith and future was severe enough that a second
wave of emigration to Latin America followed in the late 1940s.
Again, there was countervailing immigration of new refugees from
the USSR. The numbers involved in both of these movements were
much smaller than they had been in the 1920s.
Beginning with the 1950s, Canada has experienced a small but
steady trickle of reverse immigration from Mexico and Paraguay.
Some of these returning Mennonites have joined the
labour force in Winnipeg and in southern Manitoba towns. Others
have resettled in the very villages, which their grandparents
vacated in the 1920s.
( Metis are descendants of marriages between French fur traders
and indigenous spouses. In 1870 Riel formed a provisional government
in Manitoba after the end of the Hudson Bay Companys charter.
The Canadian parliament accepted his proposal to create a new,
self-governing province. This was in contrast to the rest of
the Canadian Northwest Territory that was governed by an appointed
This article was first published in a commemorative special
insert in the Winnipeg Free Press, July 24, 1999, and was prepared
by the Steinbach Hanover Historical Society and the Mannitoba
Mennonite Historical Society. Reprinted with permission.
Adolf Ens is a professor of history and theology at Canadian
Mennonite Bible College.
Mennonite Historical Bulletin, July 2000