Coming to Canada

Swiss Mennonites

Conestoga Wagon (34Kb): Mennonite Archives of Ontario (1988 - 7.4)
Conestoga Wagon: Hunsberger photo

At around the same time as groups of Mennonites were settling in Russia, many Swiss Mennonites were moving from Pennsylvania to "Upper Canada." Attracted by available, inexpensive land, as well as the prospect of living under British rule, the first few Swiss Mennonite families left Pennsylvania shortly after the U.S. War for Independence in 1776. Following what came to be known as the "Trail of the Conestoga," they trekked in covered wagons to settle in the Niagara Peninsula and along the Grand River of what is now Ontario. From 1785- 1825 more Mennonites from Pennsylvania crossed the Niagara River. Many settled in Waterloo County, where Benjamin Eby founded Ebytown (present-day Kitchener) in 1807. During this 40-year period about 2,000 people came to Ontario from the United States.

Beginning in the 1820s some Amish families also began to move north from Pennsylvania. In 1825 Amish families began to flow steadily into Upper Canada directly from Europe: from Alsace and Lorraine in France, as well as Bavaria and other regions of Germany. Landing on the east coast of the United States, these settlers set out for Ontario on horseback, by cart, and on foot. Many settled just west of Waterloo County in Wilmot township. By 1850 about 1,000 Amish people had arrived in Ontario. In fact, there were virtually no Amish left in Europe; discrimination and the Napoleonic Wars pushed them to migrate to North America.

There continues to be a significant Mennonite population in these areas. As of 1998, there were about 20 distinct groups of Mennonites active in Southern Ontario.  As a result of their dress and modes of transportation (horse and buggy, bicycle), the Old Order Mennonites of Waterloo Region are probably the most distinctive. The majority of Mennonites in southern Ontario, however, cannot be easily distinguished from the rest of society.

Russian Mennonites

Unlike the fairly steady trickle of Swiss Mennonites to Canada from the 1780's until the mid 1800s, the Russian Mennonites came to Canada in flash floods.

As Canada sought to settle and develop the Western Prairies, the government began to advertise and accept European immigrants - especially those with farming skills. At the same time, some Mennonites in Russia believed that new  regulations would threaten their exemption from military service. The possibility of cheap and even free farmland, along with guarantees of religious freedom and exemption from military service, were extremely attractive.

Jacob Y. Shantz Memorial Plaque (55 Kb): Mennonite Archives of Ontario (1992 - 4.1)
Jacob Y. Shantz Memorial Plaque

From 1873 to 1884 about 8,000 Mennonites migrated to Manitoba, with another 13,000 settling in the midwestern United States. Jacob Shantz, a Swiss-Mennonite from Berlin (present-day Kitchener), Ontario proved instrumental in this process. He scouted the land, negotiated with the Canadian government, and stirred up support from Mennonites in his area. Indeed, the migration would have been even more difficult if it were not for Mennonites already living in North America, who raised over $100,000 for the trip and initial expenses.

The second major wave of Russian Mennonites migrated to Canada soon after the Russian Revolution in 1919.  With the emergence of the new communist government, they faced an uncertain future. They did not know whether they would be able to live, worship, and farm as they wished. Also, during the period of chaos immediately following the revolution, roaming bandits and food shortages made life extremely difficult. Once again, many decided to move. With the help of those already in Canada, approximately 21,000 people moved to Canada between 1922 and 1930. In 1930 the Russian government stopped allowing people to emigrate.

Difficult terrain during the Great Trek (40 Kb): Mennonite Archives of Ontario (1992 - 3060)
Difficult Terrain during The Great Trek

A third wave of Mennonite immigrants came to Canada immediately after World War II. As the German army retreated, it took many of the German-speaking settlers in Western Russia with it. This grueling journey has come to be referred to as the Great Trek in Mennonite history. Although about 2/3 of the Mennonites involved in this movement  were taken back to Russia by force, about 12,000 remained in Western Europe. In addition, some Mennonite families had remained in Germany and Poland, and never moved to Russia. Many had relatives in Canada, and approximately 7,000 made their way to this country. 

Refugees during the Great Trek (21 Kb): Mennonite Archives of Ontario (1992 - 14.3059)
Refugees During the Great Trek

As a result of these mass movements, Russian Mennonites prove an important part of Canadian history, and especially that of Western Canada. In fact, Winnipeg, Manitoba continues to have one of the largest urban populations of people of Mennonite background in the world, as well as over 50 active Mennonite congregations!

Movement to Western Canada

Although the major destinations for Mennonite immigration were Ontario and Manitoba, Mennonites were also among those who settled land further to the west.

As early as the 1890s, Russian Mennonites began to settle in parts of Saskatchewan: Rosthern (early 1890s), Osler-Hague (1895), and Swift Current (1904). They were followed by other Mennonites from Manitoba, as well as some from Russia between 1923-30 and after WWII.

Jacob Shantz also arranged for a number of families from Waterloo County to settle in Didsbury, Alberta (1893). Another group from Waterloo County arrived in Alberta in 1901, which ended significant Mennonite immigration until the1930s.

Mennonites did not arrive in British Columbia until approximately 1911. Presently most Mennonites live in Vancouver and the Fraser Valley, and include a growing number of members of Asian background.

Created 1998 by Derek Suderman