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
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.