I like telling stories. And I like trains. So when organizers of the “Memories of Migration: Russlaender 100 Tour” asked if I would join the cross-country train tour as a reporter, it wasn’t a hard decision to make. Yes!
Through the tour, which ran from July 6-24—I was on the first and third legs—I was able to meet people from across Canada, the U.S., Ukraine and Japan on the trip and learn about their connection to the 21,000 Mennonites who left the Soviet Union for Canada between 1923 and 1930.
It was a privilege to hear and write about their stories of their parents and grandparents—stories of loss, pain, death and suffering, but also of hope, faith and resilience.
Through these blog posts, I have been able to tell only a few of those stories. There just wasn’t room for all of them! Thanks go to all who took time to share with me on the trip.
As I end this series of blog posts, here are a few thoughts.
First, although I have no connection to the Russlaender story from 1923 to 1930—I didn’t grow up in a Mennonite church—the visit to Grosse Isle, Quebec was especially meaningful to me.
My father’s parents came from England in 1912. Like all other immigrants to Canada, they stopped at Grosse Isle to be medically cleared for admission to this country. I have a photo of the purser’s manifest from the S.S. Megantic from that stop, showing their names.
Visiting Grosse Isle was, for me, a way of connecting with them—people I never met since they died before I was born. How did they feel, waiting for the doctor to say they could continue on to Canada? What did they think of this new country they were about to call their home?
I can’t know, but being there helped me imagine what things were like for them back then. It helped me feel connected in a way I hadn’t felt before.
Second, kudos to the organizers for creating opportunities for people to donate to Mennonite Central Committee throughout the tour—a way of paying the organization back for the kindness it showed their ancestors 100 years ago. About $90,000 was raised at four concerts in Waterloo, Winnipeg, Saskatoon and Abbotsford.
Third, more kudos to the organizers for ensuring tour participants were always reminded that the blessings their ancestors received in a new country sometimes came at the expense of Indigenous people who lost land to the newcomers.
That led to a meaningful and historic moment in Abbotsford when Richard Thiessen, president of the Mennonite Historical Association of B.C., apologized on behalf of the Society to representatives of the Semá:th First Nation for how the arrival of Mennonites in the 1920s coincided with the draining of Sumas Lake to create fertile farmland. That lake provided the Semá:th First Nation sustenance for living, but it was sold to new immigrants who took over for farming.
Fourth, kudos also to the organizers for their hard work. It was a complicated and complex task to organize a tour of this scope and size. They did a great job!
Fifth, it was great to meet the young adults on the tour. They provided energy, enthusiasm and hope for the future of telling the Mennonite story. Thanks also goes to those who provided the funds to sponsor their participation in the trip.
Sixth, as my post about Jason Ho showed, the migration story has expanded to include Mennonites from southeast Asia, along with those from Africa and Central and South America. How will those migration stories be commemorated and celebrated in the future? That’s a question that will require some thought.
Finally, thanks goes out to whoever provided the funds to sponsor me, as a reporter, on the tour. I hope tour organizers and participants—and readers—felt it was worthwhile. Thanks also to Canadian Mennonite, for publishing the posts.
John Longhurst is a freelance Winnipeg writer. His grandparents wanted to cross the Atlantic on the newest and best ship in 1912—the Titanic—but they couldn’t book passage for some reason (which you can read about here). Among other things, that meant John was alive to report about this tour.
Read John's previous posts about the tour:
MoM 100: Three generations take the tour
MoM 100: Other voices from apology to Semá:th First Nation
MoM 100: Witnessing history in Abbotsford
MoM 100: Young adults learn about their heritage on tour
MoM 100: Southeast Asian refugee migration remembered