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Russian Germans on the Canadian Prairie
Die Russland-Deutschen in der Kanadischen Prairie

By Victor Peters, June 8, 1990

Translation from German to English by Alma M. Herman


Two principal factors caused the massive waves of emigration of the Russian- Germans to the Canadian and American West. In the 19th century there was an enormous increase in population in European Russia that resulted in increased prices of arable land. The majority of the Germans in Russia were farmers. For many, the alternatives were impoverishment, taking up land in Siberia, or emigration to America.

Besides that, in Russia in the 1870's universal military service was introduced, which was the ultimate incentive for emigration. In America, on the other hand, Canada, like the USA, had no military service and, in addition, America had large uninhabited regions in the west that made it possible for the emigrants to buy land with little money.

In some instances, Germans had migrated to America from Russia before 1870. The introduction of military service alarmed the Mennonites, who consider it contrary to their religious principles. Therefore, they undertook the initiative for an organized emigration. The Mennonites in Russia had connections with those in America but were the first German Mennonite group settlers in the USA (in Pennsylvania since 1683) and in Canada (Ontario about 1785). In 1873 they sent a delegation from Russia - a sort of lookout gang - to America, where the delegates traveled through Manitoba and the states of the American West. Their escorts were Mennonites of Ontario and Indiana.

After the Czarist government had made several concessions in favor of the Mennonites, a large majority of them decided to stay in Russia; however, 18,000 Mennonites did emigrate. Of these, 8,000 went to the almost uninhabited province of Manitoba. The decision to settle in Manitoba was made because Canada agreed to allow group settlements and the maintenance of Mennonite German schools.

The first Mennonite villages in Manitoba appeared in 1874, and as early as 1877 the Canadian General Governor, Lord Dufferin, paid a visit to the east settlement at Steinbach. Later, Lord Dufferin in Winnipeg made a speech to the government representatives and business people, giving his impressions. According to the then new newspaper, the Winnipeg Free Press he said:

"Although I have traveled around much of Canada, I have seldom seen a showplace with such a promising future as the settlement of the Mennonites. They have been in Manitoba only two years; yet, as I took a long ride through the prairie that only yesterday lay poor and scanty, inhabited only by wolves, badgers and eagles, I rode through settlement after settlement, past household after household equipped with all the comforts of Europe. Added to that, is a highly developed domestic economy. I saw grain fields ripe for harvest, herds of cattle in fields and meadows reaching to the horizon.”

Most of the Russian Germans of non-Mennonite confession preferred to settle in the western United States. Only a few individual Lutheran and Catholic families went to Manitoba with the Mennonites, settling in the immediate area. Only later, as the land in the USA became expensive, did German Catholics come from the Odessa region and settle in Saskatchewan (1886), and sometime later the Lutherans moved into present-day Saskatchewan and Alberta. (The western territories were first established as provinces in 1905.) At the turn of the century many Russian Germans, together with Americans of German descent, moved out of the States to the Canadian "New West."

The main contribution of the Russian Germans to the development of Canada was in the introduction and cultivation of new fruit and grain cultures. The Kansas winter wheat, as well as the harder Manitoba summer wheat, were brought as proven seed by the German immigrants from Russia. These wheat varieties were the main exports of Canada as well as the United States for many years and gave these lands the reputation of developing the best wheat.

Until the Second World War most of the Russian Germans were landowners. Only after this war did they establish themselves as entrepreneurs, especially in industry and construction. Russian German immigrants showed interest and eagerness in such fields.

This is clearly evidenced in the larger towns of the Canadian West. Today Russian Germans are found in all callings (doctors, professors, architects, lawyers, technicians, public officials, etc.). They are less represented in politics. However, at a conference in Winnipeg in 1973 on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the Russian German immigration, letters of greeting were read: one from Premier Schreyer of Manitoba; one from each of the governors of North and South Dakota. All three politicians were of German origin and were either themselves Russian Germans or had family connections to them.

In the cultural field the Russian Germans have produced several authors. Among them would be Arnold Dyck, Fritz Senn, Gerhard Toews, Rudy Wiebe, Paul Hiebert, Jack Thiessen and others. Also worthy of mention is Herman Rempel, known for his Mennonite low-German dictionary. Added to them is Adam Giesinger.

(Discontinued. Original copy is incomplete.)

Our appreciation is extended to Alma M. Herman for translation of this article.

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