Arriving in the 1870s, the religious group immigrated to Manitoba to practice their pacifist faith in peace. But by not joining the WWI effort, they also lost the vote
Living according to their spiritual beliefs was essential for the Mennonites. Unhappy and under duress in their European and Russian homelands, they searched for a place where they could live in peace. At the same time, a young Canada was looking for prairie settlers, people who would create farms, build homes, raise children and become part of the new country’s fabric. The Canadian government promised the Mennonites that they could have their own communities, educate their children in their own schools and, since they were pacifists against violence and war, would be exempt from any military duties.
It was a long trip for the first 300 pioneer families. First was the ocean voyage by ship from Russia, more trips by boat, then cross country to the “reserve” south of Fort Garry, later named Winnipeg. Fifteen hundred men, women and children made the trek to their new homeland, finding, as the Manitoba Historical Society said, “eight townships of bush, swamp and some dry prairie land located east of the Red River… .” Over the next few years, settlers arrived by the thousands, purchasing additional blocks of land and establishing more townships in southern Manitoba. (Other early settlers had arrived in Ontario in the late 1700s from Pennsylvania, establishing communities mainly in what is now the Hamilton vicinity.)
Settlers used what was seen as poor soil to their advantage
“The ‘West Reserve’, as it came to be called was, according to one authority, ‘really the first permanent agricultural settlement ever established in the open prairies of western Canada without direct access to a major body or current of water,’” the Manitoba Historical Site noted. The Mennonite choice of acreage, seemingly poor to other settlers with its swampy, bushy quality, turned out to be green and productive for agriculture.
The Mennonites were capable settlers, constructing villages such as Blumenort, Rosenort, Reinland and Steinbach. Through sheer hard labour, they built sturdy first homes called “semlin”, using hay or straw to thatch thick, durable roofs and walls of mud and sticks. Bread was baked in outdoor ovens, clothing was crafted by hand and inside, homes painted in warm colours of lilac, red and gray were lit by candle. School classes taught their native tongue of German, and health matters were handled by local mid-wives and bone-setters. Later, log homes were built to withstand the prairie weather.
Well-organized, it seems towns were set up with firm government structures, using village assemblies, mayors, fire marshals, head farmers and an “oberschultze” who oversaw the whole district of villages. All residents were part of the community activities, sharing time and responsibilities equally.
The Canadian government took away the vote in World War One
But, while the Canadian government kept their bargain about land and peaceful worship in their own religion, they reneged on military duties in WWI. The Mennonites objected and were punished for refusing to fight by having the vote taken from them in the Wartime Elections Act in 1917. It was feared, noted historica.ca, that they “might use the franchise to vote against conscription.” The vote was returned to the Mennonite-Canadians in 1920, and they were again able to live their beliefs in peace.
Other groups also came to Canada about the same time: the Hutterites and the Doukhobors. Settling mainly in British Columbia, they also lost the vote for their pacifist beliefs. Regaining it in 1920, the vote was taken from the Doukhobors a second time for their strong resistance and not returned until 1956.
The Mennonite religion was established in Europe by Menno Simons in the 1500s. He was a Dutch priest who lead a rebellion in his church, eventually splintering off into the Anabaptist movement. (Anabaptist means “re-baptizing”.) Simons’ writings, noted the Menno Simon College, “reinforces the key elements of Anabaptism: complete discipleship, a strong sense of community and an absolute rejection of violence to solve problems in the church or society.”
This article first appeared on Suite101.com in 2007. Copyright Susanna McLeod