German Russians in British Columbia, Canada

By H. Goerz, Vancouver

There were earlier Russian Germans in British Columbia, but they were usually scattered. Their actual immigration in larger groups first began in the 20's of this century. Most of these Germans came from the prairie provinces of Canada but after WWII, directly from Europe. The reasons for these wanderings are varied. For the most part it was the mild climate that attracted people to British Columbia away from the cold prairie, but there were also economic reasons. The Great Depressions that began everywhere in the early 30's struck the inhabitants of the American and Canadian West especially hard because a severe drought occurred at the same time, lasted several years and resulted in crop failures. Almost the entire south of the of the province of Saskatchewan changed into a gigantic dust bowl (staubbecken), where strong, hot winds swept the dry earth into sand dunes. What was then more natural than for the Germans in the area to move to British Columbia, where droughts were unknown and where for little money one could acquire a piece of land? When the conditions became more normal, a different reason convinced the Germans to move to British Columbia, namely, the change in farming methods through the mechanization of agricultural equipment. This drove many small farmers off the land and induced them to seek their fortune elsewhere. Many, including Germans, went to British Columbia. Then after WWII when vast numbers of expelled Eastern immigrants began to arrive in Canada, it was very natural that many were led back to British Columbia where their relatives and friends were already living. And that is the way it came about that British Columbia, for example, became the home of many Russian Germans who, indeed, live in various parts of this great province.

In this article we wish to briefly describe their settling in sequence. First in the south, then the north and east on Vancouver Island, and finally their life in the city of Vancouver.

Russian Germans in the Fraeser Valley

The largest gathering of Russian Germans, especially Mennonites, are found in the southwestern part of the province in the approximately 100 km long valley of the great Fraeser River that flows in a westerly direction toward the quiet ocean. The previous swampland in the eastern part of the valley has been changed into a beautiful meadow through irrigation. Farther west, hilly land is predominately covered with wavy, low forests. The climate is mild and moist (average temperature in January is 35 degrees Fahrenheit). Here in the spring of 1928 a group of Russian German Mennonites of the prairie bought a large tract of land near the small station of Yarrow from a certain Eckert. Sometime later an adjoining piece of land at the village of Sardis was bought by the Mennonites. There the two most prominent German settlements originated in Fraesertal and in British Columbia, especially Yarrow and Greendale. The land was divided into large and small farms. Since it was bought in large complexes, it was possible for the farms to be laid out side by side on both sides of the street, which gave the settlements, especially Yarrow, the character of a village as one knew it in the old homeland.

Very soon the land in both these settlements was all claimed. But attraction to the prairie grew and became stronger, so that in the middle thirties a definite British Columbia fever developed. Not only poor people but well-to-do farmers thronged westward and founded the settlements of Abbotsford, Clearbrook, Aldergrove, Matsque and Mission. There it was no longer possible to acquire large land complexes. Land had to be purchased in smaller units and for that reason settlements could no longer resemble village plans.

The settlement years brought many hardships. One had to adjust to the new climate, new types of soil conditions and a completely new domestic economy. Until now only grain had been raised. The new system of farming on a small scale included raising fruit and berries and chickens and, on the larger farms, producing dairy products. The small farms then and yet today consist of three to ten acres; the dairy farms occupy twenty to forty acres. In the beginning there were many disappointing results. It soon became obvious that some farms were too small to support a family, so outside income had to be sought. This was found in the hop fields nearby. Or work was found in the large city of Vancouver. There daughters of the settlers were hired by the hundreds in the homes of the rich and each month brought home a nice amount of money. These girls, through honesty and diligence, distinguished themselves and made good names for the settler families. Mentioned here must be the fact that relationships between the local population and the settlers was not very friendly at first. In the eastern part of the province there had been bad experience with the Russian Dukhobors and now again people identified as Russians were settling among them in great numbers. But it was soon learned that the newcomers were quiet, industrious people, not ill-bred and unfriendly as they had imagined. They sent their smaller children to the government schools without hesitation. For the older children they soon built private schools for higher education in Yarrow, Clearbrook and Greendale. The school at Greendale was closed in time, but both the others, especially Clearbrook, have been further developed. Clearbrook now has 400 students, excluding German teacher trainees. In the departmental government middle schools the German language is taught. Religion is taught in German.

Photo: Mennonite church in Vancouver, Canada.
Today approximately 10,000 Mennonites live in Fraesertal, where a blossoming religious life has developed. In the valley, besides those in Vancouver, twenty-one communities have been developing in both directions (Mennonite brotherhood parishes and so-called conference parishes), each with its church and its preacher. The German language, sad to say, is on the decline. About twenty-five percent of the population understands German, but only five percent speak it. The worship services are conducted in both languages in most churches, but in the Sunday Schools considerably more classes are taught in English. Since 1950 there is a strong tendency to move into the towns. Only sixty percent of the German Mennonite residents of Fraesertal are farmers. Some establish industrial and sales businesses in the smaller towns. Yarrow with a population of about 2500 souls supports six industrial businesses, nine shops, a printing office and a bank. Many of the Germans move to Vancouver and find work there. Many non-Mennonite Russian Germans live in Fraesertal. They came mostly from Wolhynien and the previous Russian Poland. Their number is unknown to me but could be several thousand. Since they live widely scattered, they have not formed parishes. They attend the English Baptist or other churches; some, the Mennonite.

Russian Germans North of British Columbia

We turn to the north of the province now where the climate is the opposite of the southwestern part--cold and similar to that of the prairie. But still, the cheap land prices, the profitable earning possibilities in the highly developed lumber industry and the mining works have enticed many Russian Germans, mainly Mennonites. They are predominantly the so-called "Old Colonists," the most conservative element of the multi-branch Mennonite family. Since 1940 many of them have returned from Mexico to which they emigrated fifteen years earlier from Manitoba and where, for several reasons, they were dissatisfied. The people live on scattered farms where the land is not suitable for grain farming. Therefore they engage in milk and beef production. Their main income is from work in the lumber industry. These people, although scattered, keep in close contact, have formed parishes and built their own churches. The language in the worship services is in high German mixed with low German words. Their lay preachers posses no higher learning. They are honest and industrious people. Low German is spoken in the family, but the young people are beginning to speak English since they are attending the public schools. They are, without exception, descendants of the Mennonites who in 1874 emigrated from Russia to Canada. The most prominent centers are Vanderhoof, Burns Lake and Prince George. Other Germans live throughout this area, especially in the industrial centers, Kitimat, Terrace and Ocean Falls. Among them are also some Russian Germans but they are not closely joined in parishes.

Totally independent is the settlement of Fort St. John, northern German settlement in British Columbia. This distant region of Peace Rivertal is an open rolling steppe of fertile soil. Although it lies far north and the climate is cold, it is well suited to raising grain. Wheat totally ripens in the hot summer days. Since 1950 Germans also migrated there. Mennonites and others are engaged in profitable agriculture on the larger farms. The Mennonites have formed parishes. To the north about 3,000 Mennonites have formed communities of about 600 around Vanderdorf; 700 around Burns Lake; 550 at Prince George and 750 at St. Johns. Some in other regions of the north. I was unable to learn anything definite about the Russian Germans in that area, but their number could be notable.

Russian Germans in the Central and Eastern Part of British Columbia on Vancouver Island

Russian Germans live here also in large numbers. In Kelonna in the Okanagan Valley there are two small Mennonite and one Evangelical Lutheran parish. Farther south is a Mennonite community at Oliver. Farther east is an Evangelical Lutheran community at Nelson. In the vicinity of Reneta there are fifteen Mennonite families at present. Russian Germans live at Kimberly and Trail, where they have vegetable gardens or work in the saw-mills and mines. The climate there is somewhat colder than in Fraesertal and considerably dryer. This region is famous for its MacIntosh apples and other fruits. Some of the large fruit gardens are in the hands of Germans.

Russian Germans live also in the capital city of the province of Victoria and are scattered over the southern part of Vancouver Island. Located about 110 km from the harbor city, Nanaimo is a small united settlement of Mennonites at Black Creek. The farm places stretch in long rows along the streets, giving the settlement the appearance of a village. The Mennonites, about 300 in number, maintain two churches there. The residents farm on a small scale and support a dairy. What makes this settlement interesting is the fact that it is the farthest west German settlement in the world. There beyond the unending distances of quiet ocean begins the Far East with Japan, China and Soviet Russia.

Russian Germans in Vancouver

Lastly, the city of Vancouver. Greater Vancouver has among its three-quarter million residents about 50,000 Germans. A large number of them are Empire Germans who immigrated after WWII. But a very notable number are Russian Germans (then from Wolhynien, the Black Sea area and elsewhere).

The number of Mennonites in Vancouver is estimated to be about 5,000. Of these, about seven percent are West Prussian and southern German Mennonites who emigrated after WWII. On the farms in this area the percentage is perhaps smaller. The number of other Russian Germans--Evangelical, Catholic and especially those of Baptist faith--is in total considerably larger here in the city than that of the Mennonites who have six churches in Greater Vancouver. A large number of Germans live in South Vancouver in the Fraeser district, where a number of their churches are located. The occupations of these people, as one might expect in a large city, vary greatly. Most of them work in industry and business. Some are in professions of various kinds-- doctors, teachers and lawyers.

Here in the large cities with their many secondary schools, attended also by Germans, the assimilation process is stronger than in the country. The young people speak English exclusively, although nearly all understand German. Yet here in spite of all one often finds a delightful festival in the German language and German ways. So German prevails in the large Mennonite communities where the writer of this dissertation served as minister in charge of the worship services and the entire Sunday School. Continued also in this community is a Sunday Evening School in German where 140 children are instructed by seven men and women teachers. But this is an exception. Not by far is it so favorable in all communities, including Mennonites. In many churches both languages are used; in some, only English.

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

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