Russlaender 100 Tour

“The Place of Memory” premieres

A full house in Waterloo, Ontario for the premiere of “The Place of Memory.” (Photos by John Longhurst)

A full house in Waterloo, Ontario for the premiere of ‘The Place of Memory.’(Photos by John Longhurst)

For many Mennonites in Russia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it was a “promised land,” a “place of memory,” a place where they grew crops, milled grain, raised families and built factories, churches and schools.

That’s how Marlene Epp, professor emeritus of history and peace and conflict studies at Conrad Grebel University College, began her opening remarks on July 10 at Knox Presbyterian Church in Waterloo, Ontario.

She was addressing a full house at “The Place of Memory: Reflections on the Russlaender Centenary,” an evening of music and readings that featured the premiere performance of “The Place of Memory,” composed and conducted by Leonard Enns and performed by the DaCapo choir with cellist Miriam Stewart-Kroeker.

Leonard Enns conducts congregational singing.

But the place of memory began to change to a place of trauma and horror in 1917 after the Bolshevik revolution for the 100,000 or so Mennonites who lived in 50 settlements in Russia.

That’s when that good and happy life for many began to disappear—they became targets, were “despised” by their neighbours because of their wealth and religion and were subject to attacks.

“There were horrific massacres,” Epp said, along with epidemics such as typhus and starvation.

From a place or memory, it became “a place of tragedy and loss,” she said.

That’s when they began to look for a new home. The U.S. was closed to them, but Canada opened its doors. About 21,000 came between 1923 and 1930 with most, about 15,000, coming from 1924 to 1926.

They came to a new “promised land,” she said, from a “lost paradise.”

The evening of music and readings was part of “Memories of Migration: Russlaender Tour 100,” which finds participants crossing the country by train to replicate the journey of their ancestors between 1923 and 1930.

In addition to the DaCapo choir’s performance, the congregation sang songs such as Ich weiss einem Strom (Oh, Have You Not Heard), So nimm denn meine Haende (Take Though My Hand) and Wehrlos und verlassen sehnt sich (In the Rifted Rock I’m Resting).

Donations were taken at the event for the Russlaender Remembrance Fund at Mennonite Central Committee.

The fund will support three programs at MCC: MCC’s Indigenous Neighbour’s program, MCC’s work in Ukraine, and its international refugee resettlement program.

For MCC Canada executive director Rick Cober Bauman, the fund is a link between what happened in the past and what is still the reality for too many people today.

“Just as they were welcomed in Canada, MCC will use the fund to welcome and support others who are refugees today, or who have been displaced,” he said. “There is a link between what happened then and what is happening now.”

To make a donation to the fund, go to is external).

There are three other public events during the tour: A Sängerfest in Winnipeg this coming Saturday, July 15; a performance of the Mennonite Piano Concerto by Victor Davies at Saskatoon’s Knox United Church on Tuesday, July 18; and another Sängerfest in Abbotsford on Monday, July 24.

John Longhurst is a freelance writer from Winnipeg who is blogging about the tour.

Drawings capture participant’s memories

Margaret Gissing’s drawing from the train trip. (Photos by John Longhurst)

Some people journal about their experiences on “Memories of Migration: Russlaender Tour 100.” Others take photos. Margaret Gissing is drawing sketches.

Gissing drawing.

Gissing, 29, is a communications associate at Conrad Grebel University College in Waterloo, Ontario. Wherever she goes she has her sketchbook in hand, chronicling aspects of the tour.

“I’m on the tour to learn more about my family history,” said Gissing, who is one of a number of young people sponsored to be on the tour.

At the same time, she is interested in hearing the stories of others as they share their family histories, she said.

As for why she is drawing, it’s because she likes to learn in a visual way, she said. “I like reading, but this is more engaging for me . . . I’ve always liked drawing and sketching.”

She also likes “being in places where things happened,” like the visit to Grosse Isle.

Through her sketching, Gissing is trying to “capture moments” she can go back and visit again to process the various experiences from the tour.

By day four of the first leg of the tour—the only leg she is participating in—Gissing had completed 10 pages of sketches, some of which she had gone back and coloured in with watercolours.

“It’s my scrapbook of the journey,” she said.

Margaret Gissing’s drawing from her visit to Grosse Isle, Quebec.

John Longhurst is a freelance writer from Winnipeg who is blogging about the tour.

Japanese professor researching Mennonites

Japanese scholar Iyo Kunimoto with Canadian scholar Aileen Friesen on the ferry to Grosse Isle, Quebec. (Photo by John Longhurst)

There are people from across Canada and the U.S. on the first leg of “Memories of Migration: Russlaender Tour 100” from Quebec City to Kitchener, Ontario. But if there was a prize for coming the farthest, Iyo Kunimoto would win.

Kunimoto, 84, is a professor emeritus at Chuo University in Tokyo who specializes in researching Japanese migration to Central and South America. She is considered the top Latin Americanist in Japan.

While researching Japanese migration, she encountered Mennonites.

“I was doing field work in Bolivia when I met them,” she said, noting she also learned about ways the two groups cooperated.

Her discovery of Mennonites prompted her to start researching them, as well.

“Mennonites have migrated to so many countries,” she said, noting she decided to come on the tour to “learn more about Mennonites in general.”

One thing that mystifies her about Mennonites is their strong faith.

“I find it very difficult to understand,” she said, adding that most Japanese people, like herself, are very secular.

Culturally, she’s Buddhist. “But I never go to the temple,” she said.

During the tour—Kunimoto is taking in all three segments, from Quebec City to B.C.—she hopes to learn why “religion is so important” to Mennonites by talking to tour participants and hearing their stories.

“I want to learn how they live in a modern society but still have a deep belief in God,” she said. “I want to understand their hearts.”

Something else she wants to learn more about is why Mennonites have migrated to so many countries.

“Canada is such a rich country,” she said, noting she wants to find out why some left to live in places like Central and South America. “I want to explain that.”

To date she has written twice about Mennonites in South America: “The Mennonites in Argentina: State and Education that Nueva Esperanza Colony Confronted in the Province of La Pampa” and “The Mennonites in Belize: Establishment of New Colonies and their Changes in the Tropical Lowlands.”

Kunimoto’s goal is to write a book about Mennonites for people in Japan. “There are no books about Mennonites in Japanese,” she said. “Ninety-nine percent of Japanese don’t know about Mennonites.”

John Longhurst is a freelance writer from Winnipeg who is blogging about the tour.

Montreal celebration thanks CPR

Colonel Dennis of the CPR receiving thanks from Mennonite girls in 1937 in Coaldale, Alberta. (Photo courtesy of the Mennonite Archival Information Database)

The story of Mennonites coming to Canada from the Soviet Union between 1923 and 1930 is about hope and faith.

It’s also about money. $1,767,368.68 to be exact.

That’s what Aileen Friesen said July 8 in Montreal at a celebration to acknowledge the role the Canadian Pacific Railway (now Canadian Pacific Kansas City) played in bringing Mennonites to Canada 100 years ago.

People gathered in Montreal to acknowledge the CPR. (Photo by John Longhurst)

“We are here tonight to pay tribute to a moment in history special to both Mennonites and the former Canadian Pacific Railway,” said Friesen, co-director and associate professor with the Centre for Transnational Mennonite Studies at the University of Winnipeg and part of the organizing committee for “Memories of Migration: Russlaender Tour 100.”

Noting the railway loaned Mennonites “a lot of money” so they could come to Canada, she went on to say the story was also “about more than money. This is a tribute to the lives saved through this loan, the second chance given, the generations created, the contributions to Canadian society made.”

“After years of tragedy, after a civil war that confirmed humanity’s inhumanity, after a famine that swelled the bellies of children and after an epidemic that filled cemeteries, Mennonites carried scars, both seen and unseen,” she said of those who boarded CPR ships and trains to journey to new homes in a new country.

In particular, the CPR made a difference in the lives of the many children who accompanied their parents to Canada, saving them “from the Soviet deportations still to come, from another famine, from the fate of losing their fathers through terror, from living through another devastating war,” Friesen said.

The railway “gifted these children a future, which was not without its own challenges, without its own sacrifices.”

The railway also made it possible for the immigrants to create a “strong foundation for future generations,” including many of the 100 or so people in the room for the celebration, 60 of them participants on the first leg of the “Memories of Migration” tour.

“This is what the loan from the CPR made possible,” Friesen said. “This is the legacy that we are here to commemorate.”

She noted not everyone in the CPR was in favour of loaning the funds to the Canadian Mennonite Board of Colonization for the immigrants.

Friesen credited Colonel John Stoughten Dennis with persuading others at the railway to loan the money, including one vice president who described it as one of Dennis’ “crazy ideas.”

Some Canadian Mennonites also questioned the wisdom of the contract, considering the requirement to pay six percent interest and follow a stringent repayment plan.

For them, Friesen said, the plan “demonstrated fiscal recklessness,” with some raising concerns about the judgement of Bishop David Toews, who spearheaded the plan from the Mennonite side.

“They weren’t wrong,” Friesen said. “This was a bad deal, and Toews knew it. For him, it was lives, not money, that held more sway. The cost of inaction far outweighed the burden of debt.”

With support from only part of the Canadian Mennonite community, Toews signed the contract, effectively starting the migration movement of Mennonites from the Soviet Union to Canada.

Moving that many people across the ocean and then across Canada was not “straightforward or uncomplicated,” Friesen said, noting the Mennonite Heritage Archives has “stacks of correspondence” about a “succession of crises” involving the trips.

Jason Ross of Canadian Pacific Kansas City speaks. (Photo by John Longhurst)

“Every train travelling across Canada with Mennonite passengers represented a hard-fought victory,” she said, involving outbreaks of disease, spats between Soviet Union and Canada officials over visas, changes to Soviet protocols, and border officials who strictly interpreted Canadian regulations.

All these things “created a constant flow of problems requiring patience,” Friesen said.

Dennis, “ever the steady hand,” continued to support this project despite its many obstacles.

“During tense moments of conflict between the Board and the CPR, and there were many, he calmly defused the situation, often reminding Mennonites that they were not the only ones with integrity,” Friesen said.

Dennis also had to reprimand Mennonites on a number of occasions, she said, “even halting the flow of immigrants until Mennonites could find more funds to lower their debt.”

But instead of shutting down the enterprise, the CPR “continued to extend credit as fast as Mennonites could make repayments,” she said.

In 1937, Mennonites in Coaldale, Alberta held a celebration, much like the one in Montreal in 2023, to thank the CPR and Dennis.

As Mennonite church leader B.B. Janz put it then: “Not just one generation was saved, but also their children and the generations to come. In the midst of a world full of suspicion and ill will, the act of trust on the part of the Canadian Pacific Railway, which they have shown towards our people in recent years, will be outstanding for all times.”

Of Dennis, Janz said his work on behalf of Mennonites from the Soviet Union was “an act of Christian charity unequalled in the history of today.”

While not forgetting how Indigenous people were displaced by Mennonites and other settlers who came to Canada a century ago, “we can be eternally grateful to the CPR for the deliverance of our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents,” Friesen said.

Without its help, “many of us would not exist . . . we can honour this deliverance by remembering the full story, learning from the past to forge our future.”

In response, Jason Ross, vice president for operations of the eastern region of Canadian Pacific Kansas City, said he was “humbled” to acknowledge the work of his predecessors at the railway. “Because of them, the company is what it is today,” he said.

The celebration, held at the Queen Elizabeth hotel in downtown Montreal, also featured music by Karl Stobbe, violin, Godwin Friesen, piano and Karis Wiebe, soprano.

John Longhurst is a freelance writer from Winnipeg who is blogging about the tour.

Not your grandparents’ railway journey

The Quebec City train station where the Russlaender departed for new homes 100 years ago. (Photos by John Longhurst)

After days of touring in Quebec City and Grosse Isle, participants in the “Memories of Migration: Russlaender Tour 100” boarded a VIA Rail train at Quebec City’s Gare du Palais (Palace train station) on July 8.

It was the first leg of their cross-Canada train trip, organized to replicate the journey taken by their ancestors 100 years ago as they journeyed to new homes across Canada.

Singing together at the train station.

Before boarding, tour participants gathered in the main concourse of the station, built in 1915—the same place their ancestors may have waited for their trains between 1923 and 1930 after arriving by ship from Europe.

Built by the Canadian Pacific Railway (now Canadian Pacific Kansas City), the two-storey station is similar in design to the Château Frontenac hotel. It was designated a Heritage Railway Station in 1992.

While in the concourse waiting to board, the group sang together, led by Karis Wiebe of Winnipeg—songs like Amazing GraceGott ist die Liebe and Grosser Gott wir Lieben Dich, the notes reaching to the high ceiling.

But the station itself is the only part of the journey that actually replicates the trip taken by Russlaender Mennonites a century ago.

For one thing, the tracks the tour will follow are not the same as the ones their forebears travelled on.

Canada’s national passenger train carrier no longer runs on tracks owned by the Canadian Pacific Railway. Instead, the journey will be on tracks owned by Canadian National Railway, which has hosted VIA Rail since its inception in 1977.

Callum Rempel and Carl Neustaedter settle in for the trip.

For another thing, tour participants are travelling in much greater comfort! In the Quebec-Ontario corridor, they will ride in the most modern Renaissance equipment.

Later in Toronto, for the second segment of the trip, participants will board classic refurbished 1950s Budd cars that make up the Canadian for their trip to Winnipeg and points further west.

This is quite unlike how Mennonites travelled to new homes between 1923 and 1930. The trains they boarded were made up of what were called Colonist Cars(link is external)—passenger cars especially built for poor immigrants. (Click here(link is external) to see the interior of a Colonist Car.)

Designed to provide inexpensive long-distance transportation for immigrants, the cars were noted for their very spartan accommodations.

This included pull-down sleeping berths and simple kitchens where immigrant families could cook their own meals. Passengers had to provide their own food and bedding—not like the good accommodation and meals on VIA Rail.

Ultimately, the CPR had a fleet of over 1,000 colonist cars, transporting about 3 million immigrants from places like Quebec City and Halifax to new homes across Canada. Each car could hold 60-70 people.

By the 1960s, most colonist cars were taken out of service as demand for immigrant trains fell. One car that has been preserved is No. 1202, built in 1905 in Montreal. It can be found at Heritage Park in Calgary.

Who knows? Maybe some of the Mennonites who came between 1923 and 1930 travelled to their new homes in that car!

Marjorie Wall Hofer and Eileen Gratrix visit on the train from Quebec City to Montreal.
Henry Schroeder of Winnipeg reads on the train. Wonder if it’s a book about Mennonite history?

—With files from Heritage Rail Alliance

John Longhurst is a freelance writer from Winnipeg who is blogging about the tour.

A visit to Grosse Isle

Four million newcomers were processed at Grosse Isle, an island located in the St. Lawrence River in Quebec. (Photos by John Longhurst)

When Mennonites came to Canada by ship between 1923 and 1930, their first stop in their new country would have been at Grosse Isle, located in the middle of the St. Lawrence River about an hour east of Quebec City.

Mennonite tour participants at Grosse Isle.

That’s where all ships coming from Europe anchored so doctors from the island could board and inspect passengers for communicable diseases like smallpox and typhus.

Passengers who were ill were disembarked to be quarantined on the island until they were well enough to continue on to Quebec City.

Grosse Isle is sometimes called “Canada’s Ellis Island,” but the comparison is not correct.

Unlike at Ellis Island in New York Harbour, Grosse Isle was not the place where immigrants were processed and admitted to their new country. That happened in Quebec City, where the ships docked.

Grosse Isle was created as a quarantine and medical inspection facility in 1832 to keep diseases out of Canada. It operated until 1937.

During that period of time, four million people were processed at the island, with one million spending time in quarantine there.

Sadly, more than 7,500 died on the island, including about 6,000 Irish immigrants who died in 1847-48. At one point, as many as 60 were dying each day. They were interred at a burial site called the Irish Cemetery.

Their deaths are commemorated by a large Celtic cross, erected in 1909, that looks out over the St. Lawrence River. A plaque in English, French and Gaelic states it is in “sacred memory” of those whose “sorrowful pilgrimages” ended in death on Grosse Isle.

“Memories of Migration: Russlaender Tour 100” participants toured Grosse Isle yesterday.

The tour took them to the disinfecting and shower building—including a mock medical inspection that involved sticking out one’s tongue—the hospital, a church, bakery and hotels for quarantined passengers. (Separated into first, second and third classes, of course!)

A few tour members had memories or records of parents or grandparents passing through Grosse Isle.

Some of the guides were dressed in period costume, including one who played the role of a music teacher. After teaching tour participants a short local ditty, she was asked if the group could sing a song of their own: The Doxology.

When the last notes wafted to the rafters, all the music teacher could say was: “Wow!” 

Some guides were dressed in period costume.

Mennonite tour participants at Grosse Isle.

John Longhurst is a freelance writer from Winnipeg who is blogging about the tour.