A Scattering of Seeds: The Creation of Canada
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General History

A History of Russian Mennonite Immigration to Canada

The first Mennonites arrived in Canada shortly after the American Revolution, in the 1780's. They traveled north from Pennsylvania. These first Mennonites settled in the Waterloo area of southern Ontario. They were German speaking Swiss.1 They left the United States to establish a new colony in Upper Canada. Although they came to Canada at the same time as the United Empire Loyalists, they were not Loyalists. The Mennonites had been pacifists during the American Revolution and had not fought for either side. The Waterloo settlement became the backbone for a large German community in Ontario, which would survive until World War I.

In the 1870's, Russia was suffering through an economic downturn. The Mennonite villages which had been self-contained entities in Russia, did not pledge allegiance to the Czar. They administered their own school system, elected their own council were exempt from military service. During the 1870's the Mennonite communities were under pressure from the Czar to swear allegiance.

During the same period, the Canadian Government was advertising for immigrants to settle "The Last Best West." The Mennonites were promised land, cultural and educational autonomy and exception from military service.2 They flocked to the Canadian prairies in the thousands.
One-third, or 18,000 of the Dutch Mennonites in Russian relocated to Canada, settling in the Canadian west during the 1870's and 1880's. A further 7,000 Russian Mennonites came to Canada during this 20 year period, settling in Manitoba.3 They represented the largest influx of white settlers in Manitoba's history. There were concessions made regarding political affiliation and schooling.

Two large tracts of property were bought by the Mennonites. On this land, they recreated two communities along the exact lines of the Russian communities they had left. The aim of the Mennonites was to remain independent from the rest of Canada, to elect their own leaders and not to have anything to do with the Canadian political system.4

Mennonite settlers were poor. They were trying to establish a new community, and worked hard at clearing the land. They wanted to create an autonomous community, but when the Provincial Government offered them financial aide for a school system, the community reluctantly accepted5. This led to nearly fifty years of political fighting with the provincial government.

The opening up of homesteads during the 1890's attracted Mennonites from the United States, Ontario, and Russia. Two new Mennonite colonies were established in Saskatchewan. They did not participate in active fighting during World War I, but contributed to the war effort in non-combatant areas of the military.6

Following World War I, there was widespread public resentment amongst the Canadians who had served in the war toward "enemy aliens," including the isolated Mennonite Russian-speaking colonies on the prairies. These colonies, which refused to acknowledge the King, sing the National Anthem or fly the flag at their schools were viewed as being subversive to the Canadian Government.

On May 1st, 1919, the Government passed an Order-in-Council, banning all immigration of Doukhobors, Hutterites and Mennonites. The Mennonite communities of Ontario and Manitoba petitioned the Federal Government to lift the ban. They did not have success until June 22, 1922, following a campaign by three Mennonite leaders of very different backgrounds: Heinrich Ewert of Gretna, Manitoba, Samuel F. Coffman of Vineland, Ontario and Abram A. Friesen of Halbstadt, U.S.S.R. The combined effort of these three leaders introduced a new period of cooperation between the different Mennonite communities. It also brought a new period of trust between the Canadian Government and the Mennonites.7

Following the lifting of the 1919 ban, there was an increase in Mennonite immigration to Canada from Russia, as the economic situation worsened following the Russian Revolution. Mennonites were being persecuted for not showing allegiance to the new Communist Government. Twenty thousand Mennonites settled on Canada's prairies in the 1920's. From 1929 through to the end of World War II, the doors to immigration were closed in Canada.8 Following World War II, and prior to the "Iron Curtain" coming down, in 1948, 12,000 Mennonites immigrated to Canada, settling in the established Mennonite communities in Ontario and the prairies. Today, there are an estimated 128,600 Mennonites living in Canada.9

Footnotes:

1, 3, 6, 8, 9, 10, 13, 14 The Canadian Encyclopedia, Year 2000 Edition, Editor in Chief: James H. Marsh, McClelland & Stewart Inc., The Canadian Publishers, Toronto, Ont. cp 1999.

2, 4, 5, 11, Subjects or Citizens? The Mennonite Experience in Canada, 1870 - 1925, by Adolf Ens, University of Ottawa Press, 1994.

7, 12, Mennonite Historian, Volume XIX, No. 1, March, 1993. Inter-Mennonite Cooperation and Promises to Government in the Repeal of the Ban on Mennonite Immigration to Canada 1917-1922 by Peter H. Rempel. http://www.mbnet.mb.ca

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