141 Years in Canada

   Swiss Mennonites arrived in Canada long before Confederation. As far back as 1785 these Mennonites were making their way from Pennsylvania to present-day Ontario. The Russian Mennonites on the other hand arrived in Southeastern Manitoba in 1874, seven years after confederation. Life in Canada has been good for these people, as it has for many other people groups who immigrated around the same time, but many things have changed over the decades.

   Mennonites arriving from Russia at that time were covered by an agreement with the government of the day which made large tracts of land available to them and guaranteed them freedom to operate their own private schools and exemption from military service.

   During World War I new rules were imposed on all schools with respect to flying a flag, teaching only in the English language, and having teachers certified by the Manitoba Department of Education. Many Mennonites expressed their objection to these impositions by leaving Manitoba for Mexico and Paraguay in an effort to recover lost freedoms.

   During World War II exemption from military service was no longer guaranteed. Young men who were summoned to enlist for military duty had to defend their position as conscientious objectors to a judge. In some cases judges decisions did not favour the arguments of these young men resulting in some brief prison terms. Those who were granted Conscientious Objector status were expected to perform alternate service in areas such as health care, forestry and construction of national parks.

   The willingness of Mennonites to enlist for military service has also changed over time. During World War I very few Mennonite men agreed to this level of public service. During World War II, several decades after schools came under the authority and regulation of the Province, various reports indicate that anywhere for 30% to 50% of young Mennonite men enlisted. This change had a profound effect on many families, churches and communities.

   In the late nineteenth century many villages were established by Russian Mennonite settlers. This had been the pattern in Russia and was being duplicated in Canada. By the beginning of the twentieth century homes were being built on farms outside of the villages to allow farmers more ready access to their farm land. Many villages in southern Manitoba have since disappeared.

   For centuries Mennonites have sought lives of separation from the world which resulted in somewhat cloistered existence. Until the mid-twentieth century many Mennonite churches conducted worship services either entirely or predominantly in German. In the last half of the twentieth century many Mennonite churches have adopted English as their main language. This has made it easier for these churches to reach out to English speaking people of any cultural or faith background.

   Given the fact that many Mennonites still remember their own refugee experiences, or at least remember stories of the experiences of their parents and grandparents, there has been a concern for current day refugees in many Mennonite communities which has manifested itself in the hosting of significant numbers of refugee families.

   As Mennonite churches and communities have opened themselves to other languages and cultures, individuals have pursued involvement in many non-traditional careers and public leadership roles. Whereas a century ago Mennonites would have largely been involved in agricultural careers, today they pursue careers in multiple professions, including high levels of elected public service.

   These dramatic shifts in culture, faith and lifestyles provide us at Mennonite Heritage Village adequate reason to preserve and interpret our history for the benefit of generations to come.

Calendar of Events

July 13-17 – Pioneer Day Camp for children ages 5-8

July 31-August 3 – Pioneer Days (10:00–6:00 daily)

August 10-14 – Pioneer Day Camp for children ages 9-12

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About the Author

Barry is the Executive Director of the Mennonite Heritage Village. While he does not consider himself to be a historian, he places a high value on the preservation and interpretation of the Mennonite and pioneer stories that help people of all ages understand and appreciate their heritage. Learn more about the MHV.

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