Mennonites in train car en route from Russia to Canada in 1923. Credit: MAID CA MHC 744-2
Memories of Migration
The Russlaender 100 Tour
Beginning in 1923, 21,000 Mennonites from the Soviet Union left a land decimated by violence, famine, and epidemic. They were fortunate to find shelter in far-off Canada, where government, church communities and private businesses rallied to their cause. These migrants, popularly known as the Russlaender Mennonites, made Canada their home and for nearly 100 years they have prospered and found avenues for business, professional development and service.
The Russlaender Centenary Committee (RCC), a subcommittee of the Mennonite Historical Society of Canada, is planning a re-enactment of the initial train trip into Canada. In each of the provinces, from Quebec to British Columbia, events are being organized to celebrate the faith of these newcomers, to remember the loss of their former communities, to memorialize the challenges of resettlement, and to acknowledge race and displacement in Canadian history.
Train station at Lichtenau on June 23, 1924 when the Peter J. and Elizabeth Tiessen family left for Canada. The train had 47 cars and held 1,400 people.
Credit: MAID CA MAO Hist.Mss.1.291/12-13
As part of this commemoration, the RCC has established the “Russlaender Remembrance Fund” through Mennonite Central Committee Canada. As MCC was formed to help these Mennonites in 1920, this fund would have a historical connection to MCC’s beginnings and be divided to support three current MCC programs, each of significance to this migration.
To acknowledge race and displacement, this Fund will support MCC’s Indigenous Neighbours program. To remember the loss of their former communities, the Fund will support the MCC Ukraine program. To recognize the challenges of resettlement in our time, the Fund will assist the work of MCC’s International Refugee Settlement program.
Credit: Private collection
Read more about the centennial and how the tour became a reality in a Canadian Mennonite article by Nicolien Klassen-Wiebe
Memories of migration: Cross-Canada train tour to commemorate Russlaender centenary.
The Russlaender Memories of Migration tour starts in Quebec City, where the first of a large number of Mennonites leaving post-revolutionary Russia arrived in the summer of 1923. After exploring the immigrant Quarantine Station on Grosse Isle and visiting the old city, participants will take the train to Montreal, headquarters of the CPR. The Canadian Pacific Railway provided Russlaender Mennonites with transportation from Russia to Rosthern, where the first group of immigrants was billeted. An exploration of the connection between the railway and the Mennonites will be provided by Dr. Aileen Friesen at a gala dinner, sponsored by the CPR, in the Queen Elizabeth II Hotel.
Leaving the chaos and destruction of post-revolutionary Russia, many Mennonites from both the Molotschna and the Chortitza colonies emigrated to a variety of countries in the New World, including Canada. The first group of the approximately 21,000 Mennonites who emigrated to Canada in the 1920s arrived in Quebec in the summer of 1923. Immigrant ships had to stop at Grosse Île, an island in the St. Lawrence River, and were not permitted to land in Quebec City until their passengers had been checked for disease. A quarantine station on the island housed people sick with typhus, cholera, and other illnesses. Healthy immigrants proceeded to dock at Quebec City or Montreal, headquarters of the Canadian Pacific Railway, which had agreed to extend credit to non-paying Mennonite passengers due to the efforts of Aeltester David Toews and CPR commissioner Colonel John S. Dennis. This contract was based on trust, relying on David Toews’ word and the Mennonite reputation for hard work and honesty.
Approaching the city, Quebec.
Credit: Library of Congress LC-D4-8825 [P&P]
Current planning for the Ontario portion of the tour features a number of events of historical significance, starting with a reenactment of the 1924 walk (for those able and willing) from the Waterloo train station to Erb Street Mennonite church, followed by a ‘faspa’ dinner at one or more Swiss Mennonite churches. Overnight accommodation at the Walper Hotel.
The next day features a bus tour of the Kitchener-Waterloo area with educational visits to the archives and library at Conrad Grebel University College, Brubacher House museum, Woodside National Historic Site and other sites in the area. The evening features a multi-media event including a choir commission, hymn-singing, readings from historical letters and diaries, and a short talk.
The final day offers a choice of two bus trips: through the area surrounding Kitchener-Waterloo, visiting Old Order Mennonite country; or to the Niagara Peninsula where many 1920s immigrants eventually settled (Vineland and Virgil/Niagara-on-the-Lake) with a scenic side trip to Niagara Falls.
Mennonite immigrants from Russia make their way up Erb St. to the Waterloo Mennonite Church to meet their hosts, July 19, 1924. Credit: MAID CA MAO 1988-1 4
The first 1920s Mennonite migrants from Russia/Soviet Union arrived in Canada in 1923 and proceeded to settle in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta. In 1924, a second group of 5,000 arrived at Quebec City and of this number, approximately 1,500 were settled in Ontario.
Ontario Mennonite leader S.F. Coffman agreed to try and arrange immediate housing for 1000 immigrants coming to Kitchener/Waterloo, but after his appeal to the various Swiss/Pennsylvania German Mennonite groups in the area including the Old Order Mennonites and Amish, housing for 1,340 persons was pledged. On July 19, 1924 the first train of immigrants arrived at the Waterloo train station and then they walked up Erb Street to the Waterloo Mennonite Church to meet their hosting families. A newspaper report of that event noted:
“Practically every Mennonite in the county was in Waterloo and their rigs and autos were crammed to capacity with humans while baggage was tied on in every conceivable place” (Kitchener-Waterloo Daily Record, July 21, 1924).
Taken into the homes of Ontario Mennonites, the Russlaender immigrants found employment on farms and in gardens, in factories and as domestics. Eventually many of these Russian Mennonites moved on to Essex County (Leamington, Kingsville and Harrow) and to the Niagara Penninsula. About 30 families established a settlement at Reesor in northern Ontario to homestead and work cutting pulpwood. Another immigration wave in 1925 became a reality through the substantial financial help of A. R. Kaufman, the rubber goods manufacturer in Kitchener. In addition, to those settled in this area, Kaufmann donated a free pair of rubber boots to each immigrant.
When the 1920s settlement process was complete, of the 6,127 households (or family units) established in Canada, 972 or 16% remained in Ontario.
To commemorate the arrival of the 1920s Mennonites from Russia, the Manitoba committee is planning several events. The Centre for Transnational Mennonite Studies will be hosting an academic conference exploring themes of war, revolution, and loss in the experiences of the Russlaender. A Saengerfest at Centennial Concert Hall will allow Mennonites to ‘Sing our Journey’ as they remember the process of migration that brought them to Canada. Mennonite Heritage Village is restaging its Russlaender exhibit, and the Winnipeg Mennonite Theatre Society will be performing an original one-act play. Visits to Mennonite Heritage Archives to see family records within the Mennonite Board of Colonization records are also planned.
With a new Prime Minister in Canada in 1921, doors for Mennonite immigration to Canada were again open. Negotiations with the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) forwarded credit to immigrates to use CPR ships and rail lines to start new homes in Canada. Under these arrangements, the first immigrants arrived in 1923. Some took up established farms vacated by Mennonites leaving for Mexico and Paraguay because of the Manitoba Government’s instance that their children attend government schools in spite of federal promises to the contrary. In other places new Mennonite communities were established. In the early years some Mennonite and Mennonite Brethren worshipped together but when they became more affluent formed their own churches again. The travel costs (Reiseschuld) for some families were extremely burdensome, especially during the economic and agricultural crisis of the 1930s. In some families, the young adult women moved to Winnipeg to work as domestic servants in wealthy homes so that funds could be sent back to the family. The travel debt was finally paid off by the community in 1946. Urbanization happened at a fast pace after the Second World War and Winnipeg grew to have one of the largest Mennonite populations per capita.
Russian Mennonites arrive in Rosthern, 1923. Credit: MAID CA CMBS NP029-01-12
On the morning of Thursday, July 20, board a bus in Saskatoon for the Ukrainian Cultural Heritage Village just east of Edmonton. Participate in a tour of the village followed by a full course Ukrainian dinner. Afterwards, travel to Red Deer to spend the night. On Friday, July 21, the coach proceeds to Bergthal Mennonite Church, Didsbury for Russlaender stories and to view an interactive map of Mennonite Churches in Alberta. After lunch, the coach travels to Evergreen Farms in Linden to learn about Mennonite/Holdeman history in the area and to enjoy entertainment by a cowboy poet. After a western barbeque supper, the bus returns to Edmonton to meet a late evening train to Abbotsford.
A Family History
When the Rev. Abram H. and Maria (Wiebe) Kroeger family arrived in Canada from Russia in 1923 they were taken in by the Simon and Margaretha (Loewen) Ratzlaff family of the Sunnyslope/Swalwell/Linden area of Alberta.
1. Rev. Abraham Heinrich Kroeger
2. Son Johann Kroeger
3. Maria (Wiebe) Kroeger
4. Daughter Maria (Mary) Kroeger
5. Daughter Helen (Kroeger) Toews, mother of Dave Toews
On April 16, 1925, Simon Ratzlaff writes to his friend Abram H. Kroeker who has by now moved to Dundurn regarding the shipping of some harness, a sewing machine and the fact that the kitchen stove has not yet been shipped. The roads have been impassable for the last four weeks!
April 16, 1925
I must write you a short note tonight. I forgot to take one along from home so I must write one in Sunnyslope and as I am in a hurry I cannot write yesterday from Swalwell. I sent those harness and sewing machine yesterday from Swalwell. I did not send the stove as I did not know what to do with it. Toews got one stove and left some part of it. The water reservoir was not cased so if you want me to send it I will do so the next time I go to town. I should have sent it sooner, but the roads were impossible to travel for nearly 4 weeks. I hope you are coming along fine and write soon.
Your friend, Simon Ratzlaff.
Participants on the Russlaender Centennial tour will have an opportunity to visit the three original Russlaender Mennonite villages in the Fraser Valley – Yarrow, Greendale, and Arnold, and gain an understanding of the challenges and the rewards of what pioneer life was like in the Fraser Valley. An essential aspect of the story is the impact of the draining of Sumas Lake in the 1920s. This undertaking of the provincial government made the establishment of these three villages possible, but also had a devastating impact on the Indigenous people of the Fraser Valley – the Stó:lō people. The tour hopes to recognize the complexity of this story with a public event of acknowledgment.
Tour participants will also enjoy a visit to the Mennonite Heritage Museum in Abbotsford. Here they will have the opportunity to gain a deeper understanding not only of the Anabaptist-Mennonite story, but the story of those Mennonites who settled throughout the Fraser Valley and not only transformed the land on which they settled but were themselves transformed by their environment. Tour participants will also have an opportunity to tour Mennonite agri-businesses in the area and for general sight-seeing.
The story of the Russlaender Mennonites in British Columbia is unique among Canadian provinces. Unlike other provinces, Russlaender Mennonites have been the dominant Mennonite group in the province for most of the history of Mennonite settlement in the province. Mennonites from the Prairie provinces and the US Midwest, descendants of those who had arrived in Canada and the USA from Russia in the 1870s, initiated settlements in places like Renata, Needles, and Vanderhoof throughout the first two decades of the 20th century. However, these settlements were either short-lived (Needles and Vanderhoof) or did not attract large numbers of settlers (Renata).
Russlaender Mennonites first arrived in British Columbia in the winter of 1927-28 and settled in the Fraser Valley. They established the village of Yarrow and created a village that looked very much like a typical Mennonite village in Russia. Soon the villages of Greendale and Arnold were also established by the predominantly Russlaender Mennonites. Most had initially settled in the Prairie provinces, but after a few years were attracted to the mild climate of the west coast. Another aspect of the story that is unique is that unlike all other provinces, the Mennonites who settled in British Columbia were predominantly Mennonite Brethren. That remains the case today.
Some of the first settlers in Yarrow, 1928.
Credit: MHSBC 053-135
Settlers gathered in front of their newly built church in 1928.
Credit: MAID CA MHSBC 133-13-5-2011.003.144