German-Russians on the Canadian Prairie

Rußlanddeutsche in der Kanadischen Präire
Peters, Victor. "German-Russians on the Canadian Prairie." Globus Spezial, n.d., 191-192.
Translation from German to English by Claudia Müller, Halle, Germany


There are two main reasons for major immigration waves of the German-Russians to the Canadian and the American West. In the 19th century an enormous increase in population with a resulting price increase of acreage was observed in European Russia. A large majority of Germans in Russia were farmers. Impoverishment, taking up land in Siberia or immigration to America became alternatives for many of them.

Also in the 1870s, compulsory military service was introduced in Russia which was the last impetus for emigration. On the other hand, there had been no military conscription in America, Canada as well as in the USA and America had vast uninhabited areas in the West which made it possible for immigrants to purchase land for little money.

In some cases Germans had already moved from Russia to North America before 1870. The introduction of compulsory military service frightened especially Mennonites who reject military service as a religious principle. That's why they started the initiative for organized immigration. The Mennonites in Russia have always had connections to Mennonites in North America as the first Germans settling in groups in the USA (in Pennsylvania since 1683) as well as in Canada (in Ontario since 1875) were Mennonites. When they sent a scouting delegation from Russia to America in 1873, the delegates traveled to Manitoba and to the states of the American West. Their companions had been Mennonites from Ontario and Indiana.

After the Czarist government had made several concessions to the Mennonites, a great majority of them decided to remain in Russia. 18,000 Mennonites emigrated; 8,000 of them immigrated to the almost unpopulated new province of Manitoba. Their decision to settle in Manitoba was made because the Canadian government agreed to their demands to settle in groups and to manage their own German schools.

The first villages of Mennonites had been established in Manitoba in 1874; as early as 1877, the Canadian General Governor, Lord Dufferin, visited this eastern colony near Steinbach. Afterwards Lord Dufferin delivered a speech in Winnipeg before representatives of the government and entrepreneurs; he described his impressions. According to the then new paper, the Winnipeg Free Press, he said:

"Even though I traveled much all over Canada, I rarely experienced such a spectacle with such a very promising future as the colony of Mennonites. They've been in Manitoba for only two years but on a long ride I made through the prairie that only yesterday looked poor and scanty, inhabited only by wolf, badger and eagle, I rode from colony to colony, farm to farm equipped with all kinds of European conveniences and signs of highly developed agriculture; I saw cornfields ready for harvest and herds of cattle on meadows and pastures that reached all the way to the horizon."

Most German-Russians of non-Mennonite denomination preferred to settle in the Western parts of the United States. Only some Lutheran and Catholic families went to Manitoba together with the Mennonites frequently settling in close proximity to them. Only later when land in the USA became more expensive, did German Catholics from the area of Odessa settle in Saskatchewan (1886) and later yet, Lutherans moved to today's Saskatchewan and Alberta. (The western territories had been established as provinces only in 1905.) At the turn of the century, many German-Russians moved together with ethnic German- Americans from the [United] States to the "new West" in Canada.

The main contribution of the German-Russians to the development of Canada had been the introduction and cultivation of new grain cultures. The winter wheat of Kansas as well as the hardier spring wheat of Manitoba had been imported from Russia by German immigrants as well-tested grain.

For many years these types of wheat became major export products of Canada and the United States and gave these countries the reputation to grow the best wheat in the world.

Until World War II most German-Russians had been living in rural areas. Only after this war did they start businesses especially in industry and construction. German-Russian immigrants exhibited a spirit of enterprise which left their marks of achievement on all larger cities in the Canadian West. Nowadays, German-Russians are represented by all professions (physicians, professors, architects, lawyers, technicians, civil service, etc.), not so much in politics. However, at an event in Winnipeg in 1973 celebrating the 100th anniversary of German-Russian immigration, three opening letters were read: One by Premier Schreyer from Manitoba and one each by the governors of North and South Dakota. All three politicians were of German origin and were either German-Russian themselves or had family ties to them.

In the cultural domain German- Russians produced several writers such as Arnold Dyck, Fritz Senn, Gerhard Toews, Rudy Wiebe, Paul Hiebert, Jack Thiessen and others. Worth mentioning is also Hermann Rempel known for his Mennonite-Low German dictionary. In addition to them, there are historians such as Adam Giesinger (history of the Germans from Russia), Gerhard Lohrenz and Frank Epp (Mennonite history), Gerald Friesen (Canadian history) and others.

There are approximately 2 million German-Russians in Canada and in the U.S.; the same number is still living in the former Soviet Union today mostly in the republics of Central Asia. Even South America and Mexico are homeland to several ten-thousand German-Russians. Since World War II, Germany has become again home to many German-Russian refugees; many ties exist because of connections and visits to relatives, because of letters and newspapers. A few years ago an umbrella organization of German Russians with headquarters in Bismarck, North Dakota, was founded. The first honorary member was Dr. Karl Stumpp who died in Germany. This organization strives to preserve and to promote the cultural heritage of German-Russians.

Reprinted with permission of Verein für das Deutschtum im Ausland

Our appreciation is extended to Claudia Müller for translation of this article.

Permission to use any images from the GRHC website may be requested by contacting Michael M. Miller