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
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
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
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
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
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.