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Manitoba and its Mennonites

Peters, Victor. "Manitoba and its Mennonites." Manitoba 29, no. 6, 1974.


Many nationalities have contributed to Manitoba’s rich diversity of people. All have played a part in building the special industrial and cultural achievements that Manitoba offers today. The Mennonites, whose origins go back to the Reformation years of the early 16th century in Europe, have made their own special contribution.

The year 1974 marks the one hundredth anniversary of the immigration of Mennonite groups to Canada. Whether Mennonite brotherhoods or communities retain and live by the religious convictions of their storied past, whether many have become secularized and have, to a large extent, been assimilated to the business and cultural characteristics of their non-Mennonite neighbors, it is still true that the Mennonite tradition is strong and a living force among its adherents.

Mennonites are among Manitoba’s most noted agricultural, industrial, and professional leaders, especially in the light of their small number in the population. As an insight into their importance, Dr. Victor Peters, a resident of Winnipeg, but a professor of history at Moorhead State College, Minnesota has prepared the following on Manitoba and the Mennonites during the first Mennonite century in this Province. –Ed.

In the summer of 1873 the government of Manitoba headed by Lieutenant-Governor Morris and Premier Henry J. Clarke gave a banquet to a small delegation from Russia. The members of the all-male delegation were Mennonites who were looking for suitable land for settlement. The Canadian west was still empty of people. Winnipeg, which was incorporated as a city that same year, had a population of 1467-1019 males and 448 females. As a sign of goodwill to the ethnic background of the delegates the German flag flew side by side with the Union Jack over the Government House, and the delegates were assured that Queen Victoria often spoke German to her children.

The delegation, accompanied by the Canadian government agent William Hespeler, had arrived in Winnipeg by traveling the distance from Moorhead, Minnesota, on a flat-bottomed freight and passenger steamer, the “International”. The reason the delegation was here at all was a new law in Russia introducing compulsory military service. As conscientious objectors the Mennonites were prepared to leave their Ukrainian homeland rather than have their young men serve in the army.

At first it was anticipated that all Mennonites would leave Russia. When the Russian government in a conciliatory gesture offered them alternative forestry and medical service most of them decided to remain in their villages. But about 18,000 of the more conservative Mennonites were determined to leave. About half of them settled in the United States in Kansas and the bordering states, the other half coming to Manitoba. The
first party of 65 Mennonite families came in July 1874.

Altogether it was an eventful year for Manitoba. The Mennonites arrived; Louis Riel, sought by the police, was elected to the House of Commons for Provencher; his associate Ambrose Lepine was sentenced to be hanged for his part in the rebellion, this sentence was later commuted; and the Winnipeg Free Press made its first appearance as a daily newspaper.

Almost 8,000 Mennonites arrived in the 1870’s and they settled on two “reservations” the government had set aside for them, one east and one west of the Red river. They settled in villages similar to those they had had in Russia. Soon the landscape was dotted with villages with such Germanic names as Steinbach (stony brook), Gruenthal (green dale), Blumenort (place of flowers), Altona (named after the twin city of Hamburg, home of many Mennonites), Reinland (clean field), and Rosenort (place of roses).

Each Mennonite village had not only homes and barns but also a church and a school. An elementary school was regarded as essential as a church, for the Anabaptist-Mennonite faith was grounded in Bible-reading. Moreover the new settlers had not gained their reputation as the best farmers of Europe for nothing. They brought with them not only their farming skill but also seed grains and farm machinery.

In 1877, the Governor-General of Canada, Lord Dufferin visited Manitoba and the provincial government provided an itinerary which included a tour of the Mennonite East Reserve. On his return to Winnipeg, Lord Dufferin, in a public speech, paid unstinting praise to the new settlers:

Although I have witnessed many sights (said Lord Dufferin) to cause me pleasure during my various progress through the Dominion, seldom have I beheld any spectacle more pregnant with prophecy, more fraught with promise of a successful future than the Mennonite settlement. When I visited these interesting people, they had been only two years in the province, and yet in a long ride I took across many miles of prairie, which but yesterday was absolutely bare, desolate, untenanted, the home of the wolf, the badger, and the eagle, I passed village after village, homestead after homestead, furnished with all the convenience and incidents of European comfort, and of a scientific agriculture; while on either side of the road, cornfield ripe for harvest, and pastures populous with herds of cattle stretched away to the horizon. Even on this continent—the peculiar theatre of rapid change and progress—there has nowhere, I imagine, taken place so marvelous a transformation.

Over the years the Mennonite contribution to Western agriculture has indeed been impressive. To commemorate the Mennonite arrival the United States this year issued a special stamp showing a wheat field and carrying the message: “Kansas Hard Winter Wheat, 1874-1974.” But then the U.S. postmaster-general is a Kansan of Mennonite background. The Canadian post office also paid tribute to the Mennonites together with other European immigrants with a suitable commemorative postage stamp.
Gerhard Lohrenz, a Mennonite historian, who this year was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Winnipeg, lists some of the Mennonite achievements. They were the first to build shelter belts on the prairie; they were the first to introduce acculturated fruit trees, the sunflower and the watermelon to Western Canada; they built windmills and later steam mills that ground the wheat to flour for home use and for the domestic market. The Mennonites were also the first to grow wheat on a large scale. Until their arrival, Winnipeg had to import flour; three years after their coming the first wheat was exported from Manitoba.

The Mennonites brought with them to Canada a system of local government which was very similar to our municipal government. Since their internal secular administration was fully democratic it required no transitional period for adjustment. The Mennonites also had communal institutions like the Waisenamt which not only acted as the custodian of the inheritance of widows and orphans but also functioned as a bank. This experience in common cause motivated a later generation to undertake cooperative ventures such as the Altona vegetable oil plant, and also accounts for the success of credit unions among them.

Until the 1920’s the Mennonites remained largely rural. Except for a few professional people who moved to Winnipeg the overwhelming majority remained diligent and thrifty farmers. A number of them did take teacher training courses and taught school, but there were not enough teachers to meet the needs of the secondary schools. A Mennonite teacher from Kansas, Heinrich Ewert, was invited to take over the duties of principal at the Gretna high school. Another educator who gained fame later as a novelist was Frederick Philip Grove. Grove taught high school at Winkler and married a Mennonite woman.

At the turn of the century towns sprang up. Since most Mennonites did not approve of trade and commerce as an occupation this function was often provided by people of Jewish background who had recently come from Russia—many of them to avoid religious persecution. They too spoke German and a not unfriendly symbiosis developed. Many of the prominent Jewish families of Winnipeg trace their early years in Canada back to such Mennonite towns as Winkler, Plum Coulee, Altona and Gretna.

By the time of World War I the Mennonites had extended their land holdings far beyond the original reservations. Some of them had moved to Saskatchewan and established Mennonite communities in the Rosthern and Swift Current areas. As pacifists, the war also had frightened some of them. They also felt that the new school laws which practically prohibited the use of their language would in time blot out their cultural heritage and destroy their way of life. About 9,000 of them left for Mexico and Paraguay. On the other hand, the Russian revolution threatened the survival of Mennonitism in that country, and in the 1920’s more than 26,000 more Mennonites arrived in Canada, most of them settling in the West. The aftermath of World War II brought still more Mennonite immigrants to Canada and to Manitoba.

The Mennonites who came to Manitoba after World War I had been separated from the Manitoba Mennonites for a period of about 50 years. While the Manitoba Mennonites had been engaged in the pioneering task of building new homes, the Mennonites in Russia had experience an unusual economic and cultural upsurge which completely affected their way of living. Their schools in Russia were excellent and many of the young men and women had studied at universities either in Russia or abroad. The Russian Mennonites had also branched out into industry. Their windmills had been replaced by large commercial flour mills; the former small breweries were greatly expanded; new factories manufacturing farm machinery had been built; and Mennonite import-export firms did a thriving business. Beyond this invigorating development they also had lived through the Russian revolution with its terror and its social and economic upheavals.

When these Mennonites came to Canada the conditions of immigration required that they settle on land. Some of them moved to the old Mennonite reservations, others took up land in any part of the province where land became available: Manitou, Boissevain, McCreary.

They had come to Canada on credit and owed a sizeable debt to the railway companies, especially the Canadian Pacific which had provided transportation from various ports of embarkation in Europe. In order to liquidate this debt Mennonite widows and girls took up housework in the more affluent Winnipeg homes. The Mennonite church established two Maedchenheime (girls’ homes) in Winnipeg which had the twofold function of providing a placement service for the women and also of looking after their spiritual and cultural needs.

Among the Mennonites in Manitoba the women were thus the first to be exposed to the process of urbanization, and this on a massive scale. It was only a question of time before young Mennonite men, especially those of marriageable age, began to visit Winnipeg regularly. While some of these men took their brides home to their farms, others found employment in the city, usually as laborers.

Women always have played an important role in Mennonite society. The traditional Mennonite economy had two bases which assured economic diversification: self-sufficiency and full employment. The man’s primary responsibility was the farm land and the field crops. The work on the fields was usually done by the man and his older sons. The woman, usually with the help of the younger children, was in charge of the farmyard enterprises such as poultry, cattle, including the milking, pigs and the vegetable garden.

The decisions associated with the planning and operations of all the enterprises, whether they concerned the marketing of butter and eggs or the purchase of additional land, were reached mutually by man and wife on the basis of full equality. The community was directly concerned with the economic success of a household. If a man died and his children were still minors the village community appointed three men as custodians to assist the widow with the continuation of farm operations until the eldest son reached maturity.

As indicated, the women working in the city households contributed quite by accident to the urbanization of Mennonite society. There were, of course, other factors which also accelerated the move to the city. One of them was the depression of the 1930’s, when young men went to work in Winnipeg in order to subsidize the family farm. The work was usually of the most menial type. Even city homes used wood for heat. So, for example, with a small investment young Mennonites could buy a buzz-saw and cut cordwood. Others found employment in the meatpacking industry.

Then there was an increased interest in the “service” professions—teaching, medicine, and nursing. Among the more recent Mennonite immigrants there were many teachers. They were anxious to learn English, obtain certificates, and teach school. They were joined by native Manitoba Mennonites in such numbers that soon there were enough Mennonite teachers not only to staff their own public and high schools but also many other schools in the province. Teaching, after all, is a respected occupation, so much so that Mennonites who have a lay ministry often elect their church ministries from the ranks of their school teachers. Some of the immigrant teachers felt they were too old to undertake the formal study of a new language or they considered the monetary rewards of teaching too meager. It is to such “frustrated” teachers that Winnipeg owes the existence of some of its more important enterprises, among them Monarch Industries, a multi-million-dollar concern founded by John J. Klassen.

Except for such related activities as milling, blacksmith work and carpentry the Mennonites originally confined themselves occupationally almost exclusively to agriculture. When the railroad went through the Mennonite settlement before the turn of the century it became evident that the railway stops would become small commercial centers with grain elevators, implement dealer and general stores. Many Mennonites were concerned at this invasion of an alien outside world. Wiens, a Mennonite farmer on whose land the Canadian Pacific proposed a siding, hurriedly exchanged his land for land belong to Valentine Winkler, after whom the new town was named. Later Winkler became Minister of Agriculture for Manitoba.

Winkler developed into a healthy business, educational and medical service centre. Like Steinbach it has an exceptionally strong and enterprising Credit Union society, and like Altona it has pioneered in home-based industries such as seed and grain, commercial canning and garment manufacturing. Currently work is in progress on an iron foundry and ductile iron and steel plant, the most modern of its kind in Western Canada.

Altona is the business centre for the municipality of Rhineland, which is settled almost exclusively by Mennonites. Its largest industry, the Coop Vegetable Oil plant, this fall merged with Manitoba Pool Elevators. Altona has in D.W. Friesen & Sons one of the largest school and office suppliers in Canada. The same firm also publishes an excellent regional newspaper. The town has a popular radio station which, with its sub-stations at Steinbach and Boissevain, covers the southern portion of the province. South of Altona, near Gretna, are the crude oil pumping stations from which Alberta oil is pumped to Winnipeg and to the United States.

Steinbach, formerly a quiet Mennonite farm village, has developed into what may be considered commercially the most aggressive town in Manitoba. It ranks high as an automobile distribution centre. In the last election it sent one of its auto dealers to the provincial legislature. Some of the Steinbach enterprises, among them a transport firm and a tire distributor, moved to Winnipeg for better province-wide service. They continue to draw their personnel and manpower largely from their former home base. In their operations Steinbach business, trade and industry, according to Eugene Derksen, has its eye not only on the regional but often on the provincial or national markets. Derksen publishes a newspaper that repeatedly has won national awards for excellence.

The Mennonite economic undertakings are usually marked by a combination of enterprise, hard work, technical know-how and aggressive advertising and marketing. In some ways the emphasis on individual success is a departure from the traditional communal ideal. The more reflective segment of the Mennonite community, which includes successful businessmen, has at times expressed concern over the loss of a Gemeinschaftssinn (spirit of community). Among the leaders of this latter group must be listed the late Jacob Siemens of Altona.

For those interested in statistics the 1971 census shows that Canada has a Mennonite population of 168, 150. The provincial breakdown reads: Manitoba, 60,000; Ontario, 40,000; Saskatchewan, 26,000; British Columbia, 26,000; Alberta, 14,600; and the rest are distributed among the other provinces and territories. Almost all of them, or their ancestors, came from Russia; only Ontario and Alberta have German-Swiss Mennonites whose ancestors came to Canada from the United States after the American Revolution. In Manitoba one-half (30,000) of the Mennonites live on farms or in farm-villages. Except for the Hutterites they have remained more rural oriented than any other ethnic group. About 12,000 Mennonites pursue trades or occupations or live in retirement in Manitoba towns classified as urban; another 18,000 of them make their home in Metropolitan Winnipeg.

Among the urban Mennonites practically every profession and occupation is represented. They still show a marked tendency to go into social work, medicine, nursing and teaching, with many of them, men and women, teaching at the college and university level. There are also Mennonite lawyers, magistrates, politicians, actors, artists, writers and musicians. In the area of choral work and serious music the Mennonite contribution has been most generous. Singing and music-making is regarded by them as a rewarding and recreational pastime. Their musical heritage encompasses not only hymns and German folk songs but also the music of Russia and the Ukraine and of the classical and contemporary world.

Over the centuries, Mennonites have retained ethnic characteristics which readily distinguish them from other Germans or the more remote Dutch. They speak their own Low German. They have their own traditional Frisian costumes. They have developed their own kitchen cuisine such as Plumenmos en Schintyeflesch (sweet fruit soup and ham); borsch or vareniky, for which they acquired a taste in Ukraine; and best of all, Roakworscht (smoked sausage)—a better aperitif than tossed salads and cole slaws. They also have their own low-keyed humor best captured and preserved in the writings of Arnold Dyck.

Beyond some common doctrinal beliefs, Mennonites as individuals and as congregations differ widely. Traditionally, Mennonites do not object on religious grounds to smoking and moderate drinking. In Danzig and in Russia they even owned taverns and had breweries and distilleries. Much later some congregations condemned smoking and drinking. Only one congregation of Mennonites in Manitoba requires that their members wear beards. In general, Mennonites cannot be distinguished from other Canadians in appearance.

Some maintain that the ethnic identity is the chief ingredient that binds Mennonites together: and they are of course a religious group, heirs to an Anabaptist heritage that dates back to the early part of the 16th century. They believe in adult baptism, in brotherly love and in non-violence. The last mentioned article of faith makes them conscientious objectors to war. When the Mennonites originally came to Manitoba the federal government granted them exemption from military service. During the Second World War the Mennonites consented to do alternative service which took the form of forestry work, and work as medical personnel in hospitals and psychiatric wards. Mennonite belief in brotherly love finds expression in such public institutions as hospitals and senior citizens’ homes or abroad. During the Vietnam War the Mennonites were one of only two organizations permitted to engage in relief and medical work in both North and South Vietnam.

The Mennonites have been part of the province of Manitoba almost from the beginning of its formation. The people and the province have undergone change. In a commemorative year it is appropriate for a people and a community to assess its resources and examine values and goals. Such an assessment and evaluation will unquestionably affirm that Manitoba and Mennonites go well together.

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