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Mennonite Immigration to Alberta

Mennonites are members of an Anabaptist sect who believe in pacifism and plain living. They have traditionally abstained from what they called worldly pleasures such as dancing, smoking, or drinking alcoholic beverages, preferring to dedicate themselves to farming. Although the Mennonite sect originated in Holland, its members soon separated into various groups as they were forced to flee from religious persecution. Many Mennonites settled first in Germany and then later in Russia. During their time in Germany, most Mennonites began speaking Low German, a combination of German and Dutch. They continued speaking this language in Russia, although some also learned Russian.

In 1872, the tsar in Russia told the Mennonites that they would no longer be exempt from military service. As a result, more than one third of the Mennonites in Russia moved to the United States or to Manitoba. People from these settlements began moving to Alberta when the Canadian government started encouraging migration west.

The first Mennonite settlement was set up in 1891 in High River. In 1892, a settlement was begun in Didsbury and later settlements began in Tofield and Duchess. By 1911, there were 1,500 Mennonites in Alberta, and, in 1920, there were 15 Mennonite settlements. These Mennonite settlers did not live in large bloc settlements.

Within the Mennonites, there were numerous groups, adhering to varying degrees of conservatism. The Holdeman Mennonites living near Linden did not want to change their ways and maintained their social separateness and conservative dress. The Mennonite Brethren in Christ living in Didsbury, however, did adopt some Albertan practices.

The Mennonites experienced persecution during World War I because they continued to speak Low German and were conscientious objectors of the war. In the hope of pacifying their persecutors, they eagerly gave up their right to vote under the Wartime Elections Act of 1917. In 1919, however, an Order-in-Council was passed which barred Mennonites’ entry into Canada because it was felt that they were not assimilating quickly enough.

The Bolshevik Revolution took place in 1917 in Russia. The tsar was overthrown and the country was plunged into civil war. Much of the fighting occurred on Mennonite lands. These Mennonites were desperate to emigrate to escape the turmoil in their country. In 1923, Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King agreed to let them into Canada on the condition that they become farmers. They were also no longer exempt from military service.

In 1925, the Railways Act was passed and 2,000 Mennonites were brought to Alberta. The Canadian Pacific Railway also organized loans for these immigrants and sold them railway land. Many of these Mennonites settled in Coaldale where they set up a church, a German Saturday School, a library, a Bible school, a cheese factory, and a hospital. The Great Depression made it especially hard for many Mennonites to adjust to life in Canada. They had poor crop yields and therefore had problems paying off their debts.

World War II presented many Mennonite immigrants with a dilemma: they had to decide whether to keep their pacifist beliefs or to fight for their adopted country and prove their loyalty to Canada. Over 50 percent of the eligible Mennonites in Alberta served in the army. The conscientious objectors were sent to work in national parks and a few were imprisoned. Other Mennonites participated actively in relief projects and war-bond drives.

The end of the war left Europe in a state of upheaval, and many people were displaced from their homes and countries. Between 1947 and 1961, 1,348 Mennonites immigrated to Alberta. Many of these displaced people settled in Alberta’s cities in Alberta, especially Calgary. With the continued influx of Mennonites, Low German continued to be spoken in many of Alberta’s communities.

While many Mennonite immigrants have completely adjusted to Albertan life and adopted modern advances in technology, some have continued to live a very traditional lifestyle. One such group is the Old Colony Mennonites who live in La Crete, near Fort Vermilion. They continue to wear traditional clothing and remain farm labourers. They do not have televisions, radios, or computers, nor do they read newspapers. These Mennonites also continue to teach Low German to their children. Other Mennonites have begun to intermarry frequently with other groups, and very few continue to speak Low German. As of the 2001 Census, there were 22,785 Mennonites living in Alberta and there were 17 Mennonite Churches. Many people are also actively involved in the volunteer sector and work with the Mennonite Central Committee, a charity organization that works to help people suffering oppression, conflict, poverty, and from natural disasters. Many also work for the Edmonton Mennonite Centre for Newcomers which helps new immigrants adapt to Canada.

Audio

As part of the CKUA's Heritage Trails radio series, host Cheryl Croucher discusses the Mennonite people and their immigration to Canada based on European persecution. (Running Time: 2:54 minutes)

For more information on the CKUA Heritage Trails, see the Audio section.

LISTEN (requires RealPlayer® available free from Real.com)

Sources

Great Alberta Law Cases: Regina vs. Wiebe

Alberta Arts Heritage profile

Congregations of Mennonite Churches, Alberta, Mennonite Church Alberta

The Mennonites, article from the University of Alberta

Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online: Alberta

Palmer, Howard. Land of the Second Chance: A History of Ethnic Groups in Southern Alberta. Lethbridge: The Lethbridge Herald, 1972.

Palmer, Howard, and Tamara Palmer, eds. Peoples of Alberta: Portraits of Cultural Diversity. Saskatoon: Western Producer Prairie Books, 1985


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