And that’s it: The first leg of “Memories of Migration: Russlaender Tour 100” is over.
From July 6-11, 60 people travelled by train and bus from Quebec City to Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario, getting to know each other, sharing stories and learning more about the journeys taken by their ancestors 100 years ago.
The first leg ended with two days in the Kitchener-Waterloo area, where tour members learned about the migration of Russlaender immigrants to that area, and also about the Swiss Mennonites—people who had arrived in the area in the 19th century.
Those earlier immigrants from the U.S. and Europe welcomed the new arrivals, in some cases hosting them in their homes for weeks, months or even a year or more.
Tour participants had the opportunity to visit “Mennonite country” and the Niagara area.
They also stopped at Conrad Grebel University College where they toured the archives and saw an exhibit of paintings by Russlaenders Woldemar Neufeld and Henry Pauls about life in Ukraine before leaving for Canada.
They visited Brubacher House, a restored 1850s Pennsylvania German Mennonite farmhouse.
During a final gathering before the group split up, with some heading home and others making their way to Toronto for the second leg of the tour, participants shared what the experience meant to them.
For Barb Wiens of Calgary, the tour showed “no matter what tradition we come from, we are all under the Mennonite umbrella. There are so many unique expressions of Mennonitism. It was all very enriching for me and eye-opening to see how many branches of the tree there are. My prayer is we continue to work towards unity. We made a good start on this trip.”
Winnipegger Art DeFehr’s parents were not part of the Russlaender who came to Canada with help from the Canadian Pacific Railway.
While impressed by what happened through that mass migration, he noted there were “multiple streams” that brought the immigrants to Canada—and those stories also need to be told.
Carl Neustaedter of Ottawa knew the facts of the migration, but the tour provided “the feelings, the emotion” as people told their stories. “That was missing before this,” he said.
He was also impressed by the variety of stories, and also by the way the tour reminded participants those stories are being repeated today by modern-day refugees who are fleeing hunger, disease and war.
One thing that impressed Nataliya Venger of Ukraine was the singing. “It’s amazing,” she said, of all the times the group broke into song.
What she also appreciated was the story telling, and how people took time to listen to each other. “When Mennonites get together, they like to tell stories,” she said.
For tour organizer Ingrid Riesen Moehlmann of Winnipeg, the first leg of the tour “was a whirlwind,” but also an “inspiration.”
She was particularly taken by the visit to Grosse Isle, the island in Quebec that all immigrants had to medically pass through to be allowed entry into Canada.
“I can only imagine the anxiety they felt at having to once again pass a medical examination, not knowing if they would be able to continue on,” she said. “Being there in that place really brought it home to me.”
She also appreciated the mixing of people on the tour from across Canada, the U.S., Japan and Ukraine, and the Montreal celebration to thank the Canadian Pacific Railway (now Canadian Pacific Kansas City) for extending credit to enable their ancestors to come to Canada a century ago.
She hoped the tour can “be an inspiration to the entire Canadian Mennonite community, reminding us of what binds us together.”
For the second leg of the tour, participants will travel by train from Toronto to Winnipeg where they will take in a variety of tours, a community Saengerfest (concert) on July 15 and a July 14-15 academic conference titled “Russlaender Mennonites: War, Dislocation, and New Beginnings” at the University of Winnipeg.
John Longhurst is a freelance writer from Winnipeg who is blogging about the tour at canadianmennonite.org/blog. He is now taking a one-week break from the tour, but will post additional stories from the first leg in the coming days.