An Essay about the Mennonite Immigration to British Columbia
Mennonites are a close knit family. Mennonites in Canada are all related, at least in their eyes. A favourite past-time is figuring out how far back you have to go in the family tree to find out if you are related to someone. You are considered cousins if you are 1st, 2nd, and even 3rd cousins.
Potlucks are a big thing in Mennonite culture. A potluck is a gathering where every family brings a dish, and a desert if they want to. That harkens back to the days when everyone shared in order to survive. Even now Mennonites share. When a family in the community is hurting, you can count on the others to help. They donate food, clothing, and work, anything that is needed, in order for that family to keep going. Mennonites are strong. They survive even when they are persecuted.
In the 1500’s Europe was going through reformation, but even though the reformers following Martin Luther’s teaching were in the majority, the other reformers were not liked. Out of the reformation came a movement that believed that children shouldn’t be baptised, that a person should wait until they were old enough to decide for themselves to be baptised. The people of that movement became known as the Anabaptists.
One of the branches of Anabaptism was the Hutterites, which started in Prussia, but included a lot of people who had immigrated to Prussia from England, Ireland, and Poland during the Catholic purge of Protestants. The Lutherans’ still held on to the tradition that babies should be baptised. This created conflict with the Anabaptists. Since the Lutherans were in power they tried to force everyone else to believe the same way they did.
One of the beliefs of the Mennonites was that they shouldn’t fight. And so they went to the Russian government and were able to be exempt from being a part of the Russian military in the name of religious freedom. But their peaceful life was soon going to be shattered. In the 1870's, Russia was suffering through an economic downturn. The policies of the Russian government changed how the Mennonites lived. 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, and were exempt from military service.
The Hutterites were persecuted again. They were hunted down, and when they wouldn’t recant they would be burned and many other types of killing that the Lutheran church had just been forced to go through. To escape persecution, they moved to Russia, and created their own villages, where they stayed, obeying their laws, and keeping their traditions. During this time a man named Menno Simons lead a branch of Hutterites, and changed a few things from the Hutterite beliefs, but his group was close with the Hutterites, and they did not argue about beliefs, as the core beliefs were the same. When Menno Simons died his group took his name, and became the Mennonites.
During the 1870's the Mennonite communities were under pressure from the Czar to swear allegiance. The Czar didn’t want anyone who wouldn’t fight for him in his country. The Russian government also made a law that said that the Hutterites had to speak Russian in their schools, even though the Mennonites had always spoken their own language that was a combination of Polish, German, and a few other languages the Hutterites had collected and merged into theirs on their journeys, called Low German, or Plautdietsch.
Even though the Mennonites liked their life in Russia but once again persecution forced them to move. And the promises of land, cultural and educational freedom, and guaranteed exemption from military service attracted about 7,000 of them to Canada. They traveled by boat from Russia to Canada, facing difficulties like speech barriers, poverty, and people’s general fear of strangers. Sea sickness was rampant, as most of the Mennonites had never been on boats before.
They sailed to England, then from England to Nova Scotia, Canada. They traveled by train to southern Manitoba, and set up their own settlements, trying as hard as they could to make it seem like the settlements they left back in Russia. They built the houses the same way, they situated everything the same way, and pretty much just built their own little countries in Canada.
They actually tried to do that, but soon the costs were too much, and the Canadian government offered to pay for the schools if the Mennonites would be a part of Canada, pay Canadian taxes, and have the schools teach the Canadian curriculum as well as the Mennonite curriculum. After thinking it over the Mennonites decided that officially becoming a part of Canada would benefit them in the long run.
At first the Mennonites were accepted by Canadians, as they kept to themselves and didn’t bother anyone. But that acceptance was short lived. During World War I the Mennonites were allowed to not fight in the war, in exchange for working the land for Canada, but some Canadians didn’t like that. They believed that since the Mennonites were now a part of Canada, then they should fight for Canada.
The Mennonites were also hated by the Canadians because they spoke German, which was the country Canada was fighting against in World War I. The Canadian government forbade the children to speak German in school. In Manitoba, where the parents had taken their kids out of the schools, the Mennonites were fined. Those who didn’t pay the fine were put in jail. Some Mennonites who were too poor to pay the fines had their farms taken from them.
The backlash and resentment of Canadians caused the Mennonites to retract even more into their own communities. Some of them even moved on again, this time to Mexico and Paraguay. It was during this time that the Mennonites in Canada banded together even more. During the times when they were persecuted, the Mennonites stayed strong.
After the war the Mennonites were kind of left alone, people forgot about them after the hype of the war went away. Mennonites just kept going, staying by themselves, not changing many things in their lives. Even while everyone else was getting electricity and television in their homes the Mennonites continued to use kerosene lamps and entertaining themselves with quilting bees, social events, and just working on their farms.
But again, the Mennonites’ peaceful state was disrupted, this time by World War II. And once again, the Mennonites received backlash and hate from people for speaking German and not fighting in the war. The Canadian government was a little more helpful this time around, and allowed the Mennonites to stay by themselves, the only thing the government was asking was that the Mennonites work the ground, so that Canada would have food.
The Mennonites were happy to do that, and were thankful that the government wasn’t making them have their kids in the schools at all time. The Canadian government may have been nicer to the Mennonites this World War, but the people of Canada once again were resentful of the special treatment the Mennonites were getting.
At the end of World War II, some of the Mennonites decided to move to a different location, somewhere not filled with lots of people, where they could do what they wanted, but still be a part of Canada, because they and the government had come to agreement about their lives, and they didn’t want to have to do that all over again. And so they moved to northeastern British Columbia. Some of the people who moved from Manitoba to British Columbia were my great-grandparents, Martin and Nettie Loewen, and along with them my grandma, their child.
They, along with some of their friends and family, moved to a corner of British Columbia which hadn’t been farmed by anyone, and so the government agreed to sell the land to the Mennonites for cheap-$70 for a quarter section- if they would clear the land. The Mennonites liked those terms, and went to live in the area of BC the Natives called “Prestpatou”. The Mennonites got along quite well with the Native Americans, because they both wanted to be left alone. About an hour from Prestpatou was a small town called Fort St. John, which was growing due to the oil industry.
The Mennonites stayed in their community, but soon the younger generation wanted to have some things that the “English” people had. Some resist the idea of modernization as chasing after worldly – or “Weldich”- things. This caused a fissure in the community and split family and friends apart.
I am a grandchild of the Mennonites who wanted to modernise. My parents took it a step further and moved to the city of Fort St. John. My parents even got married in an “English” church instead of a Mennonite church, a decision that caused one of my mom’s best friends to refuse to come to the wedding. It has been several years since then, and my mom has forgiven her, and more and more of the Mennonites are allowing their kids to do more “English” things.
You’ll notice the word “English” is used to describe things that the Mennonites didn’t want to use or have at first. “Deitch” is something that is Mennonite. I am considered “English” by some of my 2nd and 3rd cousins because I cannot speak Plautdietsch as well as they can. But I am still Mennonite. I make too much food to bring to potlucks. If something is on sale I buy it. I love telling stories. I like to have a good time. I am proud of my heritage.
I am Mennonite, and this is my history. My heritage. My story.