The Mennonite Heritage Village has sent out a traveling exhibit, something that does not happen very often.
“To my knowledge, I'm not sure if MHV has sent traveling exhibits on the road before, but that’s what we’re doing,” says Senior Curator Andrea Klassen.
This traveling exhibit is called Leaving Canada: the Mennonite Migration to Mexico, which is a smaller version of the exhibit last summer at the museum in Steinbach.
The first stop is at Mennonite Heritage Center gallery on the Canadian Mennonite University campus. It opened Friday evening and will remain in that location until April 29.
“Then from there, it goes to Hague, Saskatchewan, which is really neat because that's another major sending society,” she says. “And then from there, it'll crisscross Saskatchewan, Alberta, head to BC I think before the winter, and then spend the winter in Ontario.”
Klassen says the plan is that the exhibit will be available for the next two years to a lot of the communities where this story is actually really central to their history.
“Either the sending community, so in Manitoba and Saskatchewan where the Mennonites left in the 1920s, or the communities in northern Alberta or southern Ontario where the Old Colony Mennonites have moved back from Mexico and other places in Latin America to create new communities in Canada.”
One of the artifacts included in this exhibit is key in helping to understand why this migration took place.
“It's a replica of the privilegium is what it's typically called,” notes Klassen. “It's a letter from the Canadian government written in 1873. It's in German and in English so there's two copies on display there. This is an exact replica that we actually commissioned for this exhibit. The original is held by Mennonite Heritage Archives and it's too fragile and too important to head out on the road, so we made a replica of it.”
She says this letter is central to any Russian Mennonite experience in Canada.
“This letter outlines all of the promises made by the Canadian government to Mennonites,” Klassen explains. “And it really paves the way for Mennonite immigration from Russia to Canada, parting in 1874. So, very broadly it's the basis for Russian descendent Mennonite life in Canada, I would say. But very particularly to this topic, the 10th clause in there deals with schooling and education. And this was then the document that when Saskatchewan and Manitoba introduced legislation to make public schools mandatory and shut down any other form of education, they really relied on this document and said, ‘but we have this promise, we should be exempt from this’.
“This was the premise of that argument for them,” she adds. “And they did take it to court. They took it to the highest Court of Appeal in the country, the Privy Council in England at the time was the highest court. And they ended up losing.”
Klassen says that losing the appeal in 1919 led many Mennonites to feel there was no option for them in Canada and they started making plans to leave the country.
She thanks the many volunteers who worked hard to put the traveling exhibit together. Klassen notes this project is a partnership between Mennonite Heritage Village with the Mennonite Historical Society of Canada and the Plett Foundation.
“Each of those partners has a unique role in this story,” she says.
-With files from Michelle Sawatzky