People from across the country have started a nearly three-week train journey from Quebec City to Abbotsford, B.C. as part of the Russlaender Memories of Migration Tour. The three-part train tour from July 6th through 25th, is re-enacting the historic migration of 21,000 Mennonites from Russia to Canada beginning in 1923.
The tour is a collaborative effort among Canadian Mennonite historians and heritage enthusiasts, one of those is Aileen Friesen, the co-director of the Centre for Transnational Mennonite Studies at the University of Winnipeg.
"Quebec City, for many people, was the original port, not everyone, some people came through St. John's, but Quebec City, for many of them, was the original port that Mennonites arrived to," explained Friesen. "They came by ship. They came into that port, and they were sent to the immigration stations where they were processed, and then sent along their way by train to find their new farmland.."
Friesen will be riding the rails for the entire nearly three-week journey and has a personal connection to the Russlaender migration.
"I am, of course, a descendant of the Russlaender," she shared. "My maternal grandparents came on that migration. My grandmother came through the port in Quebec City, and so personally it's nice to take time to think about their journey, think about their experience and just be grateful for the life that decision to come to Canada created for me."
The first leg of the journey will see the group travel from Quebec City to Kitchener, Ontario. Leg two is from Toronto to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, with the final leg from Saskatoon to Abbotsford.
"I think it's really exciting when the general public can think about history," Friesen noted. "In our day-to-day lives, we don't consider history a lot. We sometimes tell personal stories about our own families, but we don't actually think about the broader picture and how we fit into it. It's really exciting for me, as a historian, for the community to want to think through this migration and want to think through what Mennonites went through during this experience of leaving the Soviet Union, of deciding to leave, then coming to Canada, and having to start again in a new land with a new language, new culture and all those sorts of things."
Friesen notes the experiences for participants will have a different context because they are seeing these places in person, just like the Russlaender did a century ago.
"It makes it so much more real when you're actually there," she said. "We can read about all the stories people have written down about their family. People have visited the (Mennonite Heritage) archives, which is a very important aspect of this, but it's something different when you're actually touching the place these events happened. I think it's going to be very moving for people to just be in that experience with other people who are also in this process of reflection, and to experience not only as individuals but as a group."
The tour will be arriving in Winnipeg July 13th, and will be spending several days in the city to give participants the opportunity to attend the conference "Russlaender Mennonites: War, Dislocation, And New Beginnings", and the Singing Our Journey Sangerfest at the Winnipeg Centennial Concert Hall.