A tale of two ethnic groups

Why Mennonite descendants of immigrants to Canada a century ago have no right to oppose the arrival of Syrian refugees today

October 7, 2015 | Feature | Volume 19 Issue 20
Kira Olfert |

To start, a little bit of history.

The Mennonites evolved out of the 16th-century Protestant Reformation. As Anabaptist pacifists who practised adult baptism, they often held themselves apart from the surrounding communities, and in turn often had trouble finding safe havens. They were persecuted by Catholics and Protestants alike, but in this persecution they found strength of conviction.

By the mid-1700s, a large group of Mennonites had settled in Prussia, where they were granted a military exemption by Frederick the Great. His son, Frederick II, intended to end that exemption. Thankfully, at around the same time, Tsarina Catherine the Great of Russia invited the Mennonites to come and settle the large swaths of agricultural land in the area around what is now Ukraine. According to historian Frank Epp, 10,000 Prussian Mennonites moved to Russia in a 60-year period. Both sides of my father’s family were among those numbers.

For almost the next 100 years, Mennonites farmed and prospered. But in 1870, the Tsar began to rescind the Mennonites’ military exemption, and a small group left for the New World. Most stayed behind. During the First World War, most Russian Mennonite men chose alternative service, rather than take up arms. During the Russian Revolution, Mennonites supported the White armies, and as such were made targets by the Red armies and anarchist troops. In particular, Nestor Makhno and his bandits terrorized the Mennonites, raping, robbing and murdering people and destroying villages.

Mennonites found themselves dispossessed. During the ensuing Soviet years of collectivization, Mennonites were marginalized and starved. Those who spoke too loudly of opposition were arrested and disappeared in the Siberian Gulag, never to be heard from again.

My great-grandfather, Peter Warkentin, was a Mennonite minister in the village of Karpowka, in the Memrik settlement in what is now Ukraine. He watched his peers and family members being tortured, killed and taken away.

At around the same time in Canada, David Toews was working to get the federal government, under Tory Prime Minister Arthur Meighen, to lift restrictions concerning Mennonite immigration. Canadians did not trust the pacifist Mennonites. The fact that they were German and Canada had just come through the First World War did not help. When Meighen was replaced by William Lyon Mackenzie King’s Liberal government in 1921, the restrictions were lifted. Eventually, 21,000 German Mennonites from the former Soviet colonies would emigrate to Canada.

My great-grandfather and his family were among the lucky ones. After being questioned in his home about his feelings toward the Soviet government in 1927, Peter, his wife Helena, who was six months pregnant, and the first five of their 10 children fled in the middle of the night. They left with what they could carry. My own grandma, who was four at the time, remembers that her job was to carry the chamber pot. It was a horrible journey.

For years after they got here, the Mennonites and “the English” did not mix. The Canadians did not trust the strange, German group and the Mennonites did not trust their worldly neighbours.

Assimilation did not come easily, especially for the immigrants from the 1870s. In his study called “Group settlements: Ethnic communities in Western Canada,” as quoted in Frank Epp’s Mennonites in Canada, Carl Addington Dawson found that those Mennonites who wanted better farming opportunities went to the United States. Those who wanted “religious liberty at any price” went to Canada.

So the Mennonite communities insisted on keeping their own language and their own religions. They insisted on their own schools and kept to themselves. They refused to swear on the Bible, instead affirming that what they told was the truth. They would not baptize their children. Both Canadian Catholics and Protestants were wary of them.

During the Second World War, the vast majority of Canadian Mennonite men declared themselves conscientious objectors, although some did serve their new country. Still, the community was viewed with mistrust. During the war, my great-grandmother received a photo of her younger brother, Daniel, in the uniform of the German forces he fought and ultimately died for. She hid the picture behind the stove pipe, so afraid someone would see it and report her, and the family would be arrested . . . or worse.

My dad has 61 first cousins. When he and my Anglican mom married in 1972, he was one of the first of those 61 to marry outside the faith. It was “a big thing.”

Today, those “weird German Mennonites” are just another part of Canadian society. Through all of the mistrust, pain and confusion, Mennonites are now proud Canadians. They learned to trust the society around them. They are Cabinet ministers. They are farmers. They are doctors, nurses, lawyers, teachers and social workers. They contribute to the society they are now part of. They melded their history with their present and their future.


Mennonites must do the ‘right thing’

This is part of my origin story. It has been resonating strongly with me lately.

It hums in me when I hear people of Mennonite origin scoff at the idea of Syrian refugees coming to Canada, because when I look at those huddled masses I think to myself, “that was us 100 years ago.”

They, too, are dispossessed.

Like the Mennonites, the Syrians are different. Different religion, different way of doing things, different language. They are also fleeing from people who destroyed their homes and marginalized them, a group whose ideology does not allow for dissent or opposition. They were starved and terrorized. They are desperate. They are afraid.

Like the Mennonites, the Syrians are from a region that Canada has recently been at war with. Like the Mennonites, the Syrians just want a chance to live a safe and free life.

They are us 100 years ago.

“But,” you are saying, “how do we know there aren’t Islamic State members hiding among the refugees? We need to screen them!” And absolutely, we need to do that. But let’s do it here. Let’s bring them over here and then screen them, and anyone who is proven to have a dodgy history, ship them back.

But how can we in good conscience make children wait for safety while we screen the adults in inhumane conditions? My grandma’s family was stopped at Halifax and had to wait there until a sister’s illness got better. But even during the uncertainty of waiting in a strange place, they knew they were safe. Similarly, I know that Mennonites were viewed as Nazi sympathizers during the Second World War. And I’m sure some of them were. It must have been a confusing time for many of them. But they were still given the chance to prove themselves.

“But we’re at war with the Syrians,” you might say. Well, no, we’re not. We were at war in Afghanistan against Muslim extremists. At the moment, we are at war with Islamic State, not Syria. And in case you missed it, most Syrians didn’t exactly roll out the carpet for Islamic State. And if the number of dead Syrians is any indication, the feeling was mutual. As Canadians, we don’t like Islamic State. Neither do the Syrians. Hint: That’s why they’re fleeing. That and the bloody civil war.

For those who have lost friends, as we have, and family at the hands of Islamic extremists, I think you’d be hard pressed to find someone who would be better than the Syrians at commiserating with you. As a Mennonite, I am grateful the Canadian government let those German Mennonites into the country so soon after the war. If they hadn’t, I wouldn’t be here. I wouldn’t exist. Likely, neither would you, fellow Mennonite.

For these reasons, and because this was us 100 years ago, Mennonites need to lobby everyone we can lobby in support of these Syrians. We need to tell our origin stories to all who will listen so that people know that being different is nothing to fear. And while the transition will be difficult, different can become part of our normal. We need to do this, not just because many Mennonites call themselves Christians and this is the Christian thing to do, but because it is the right thing to do. Because we owe our own good fortune, and our existence as Canadians and as humans, to a country that welcomed us in our time of need, even when it wasn’t the popular thing to do.

If you, as an ethnic Mennonite, one who is alive and prosperous in a free country, do not support the Syrian refugees, I don’t understand you. If you don’t think that Syrians don’t deserve the exact same chance as we do, I don’t understand you, and I think you need to take a long, hard look at why you believe this. Ask yourself if you would have let your grandparents or great-grandparents into Canada 100 years ago. If the answer for that is yes but still no for the Syrians, I hope that someday you are forced to answer for that to the ghosts of those who died waiting.

Originally published on Kira Olfert’s Facebook page (on.b.me/1KBsHYR) on Sept. 18.


For discussion

1. When and how did your forebears arrive in Canada? What were their challenges of language, housing and employment? What assistance did they receive in getting settled? How well have these stories of migration been retold and passed on through the generations?

2. Kira Olfert points out similarities between Mennonite immigrants of the 1920s and Syrian refugees today. Do you agree with her analysis? Do these similarities put people of Mennonite origin under an obligation to help other refugees?

3. How do you think Jesus would have responded to refugees? What are some things Jesus said to his followers to encourage them to help others in need? How would you respond if asked why you help others?

4. Has your congregation assisted refugees in the past? What were the joys and the challenges of sponsoring refugees? What should be Canada’s policy toward refugees? What action could your congregation take to help a refugee family today?

—By Barb Draper

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Hello Barb Draper. I read your article today. Most done from Kira Olfert. What I find lacking in the article is, our forefathers and foremothers, arrived in Canada, and were sent west to apply for land, they did not arrive with a house to live in, nor food for the trip. How they proceeded West as instructed at the landing on Canadian soil, it on ?had to buy a horse and buggy, ?livestock train that only that only went to a certain point, walking good distance. They upon securing land that was unbroken - had to make a way to get to the obscure place on the map given, and break the land and make it productive, to support their families. And without the families coming to Canada in groups with other siblings, to assist each other to break land, buy their own chickens, cows and other livestock, and to grow their own vegetables to sustain their families, how could our forefathers have done this solely and only on their own? I am very glad, my forefathers were wise enough to come to Canada, make the grueling journey, without food served to them in a galley, but each to their own for water and food supply, or sharing with another kindly people.
I am not against immigration in this century, though I don't see to correlation you are proposing, for this day and age. Immigrants come to Canada and get government assistance and services - they get to have shelter and food, services provided by all kinds of organizations, Christian organizations even, and they haven't produced anything for our nation yet. Not as our forefather have done.
As you know, the Mennonite that came 100 years ago, and offspring since then, which you and I come out of, we shed off having to wear a dress (past the knee) and stockings each day, and a scarf covering our hair. What further kind of ridicule would our forefathers back 100 years ago, have received, if also, the women (customary) covered their face, that would not be allowed, that would have been shunned.

The comparison is just not fitting from one century to another.

Another question. If a person who has immigrated to Canada in this century, commits a crime and their 'custom' is to wear a face covering. Stands in front of a judge, but hey, they can't be identified. Unless a accuser is very persuasive to positively identify and have perhaps have DNA evidence. And lets say this person who must wear the face covering, is convicted and sent to prison. Do they get to still wear the prison uniform, with face covering allowed? Or they can wear their whole 'customary' garb in our prison system?
I think the questions you pose at the end, are not the right questions to be asking. My opinion.

While I had difficulty in following Jean Fehr's commentary due to poor grammar, I was much more concerned by her seeming whole-hearted adoption of the current mania against anything connected to Islam. The nonsensical hatred that seems to be promoted by our currently governing federal political party is not worthy of anyone who considers him/herself a Christian, let alone a Mennonite. Yes, there are differences between the circumstances of Mennonite immigration almost 100 years ago and the circumstances of the present Syrian immigrants. But to focus on differences in clothing styles (and yes, our Mennonite forebears were also ridiculed for the clothes they wore) and the 0.001% of the immigrants who might be inclined to criminal activity (and yes, some of our Mennonite forebears also committed criminal acts after they arrived in Canada) is unfair, unbalanced, ill-informed and bigoted. These new refugees are terrified, not terrorists. They need help. If we cannot give them that help, then we assist the dictatorships from which they flee. When they die, we have the blood of these refugees on our hands.

Woops - a bit more history Kira please. Lets not forget those immigrants who left post war Germany. They were not Nazi, but because Germany had lost the war every government was afraid to let them in. Please research how many women with young children were accepted only in South America, not Canada. Those who wanted to come to Canada were only allowed in via a sponsor, were usually accepted to the west, worked manually in fields and farms, given shack like homes and very limited furnishings etc.. etc. I was two years old. my family was involved in the sugar beet harvest (manual labour in bitterly cold weather). My day care was a "hut" made out of sugar beet leaves, every day until harvest was over.
Many years later my Opa came to Ontario, alone to seek a warmer life. Even in 1950 he received more advice, help and support from strangers than from those who had immigrated in 1923 from prosperous Russia because they also were afraid of a Nazi under every bush. Oh weh - my Opa bought a bit of land, with a chicken coop structure and sent for my Oma. They lived there until they both got jobs, etc etc. When I went to school, even at age 9 I was still called DP. that is a displaced person, which I knew very little about.. However now every word and act becomes politically correct. Bah humbag ! So Kira, a little more history please. who now comes to Canada without hand out expectations?

Firstly Mr Warkentin, how rude, not everyone is blessed with your skills of correct grammer. It takes courage to speak out, you are no better then a bully.
My grandparents were proud and ever thankful for the opportunity to live in a country that was free. At the same time they also a simulated, they did not ask for laws to be changed before they became Canadians, and they abided by the laws of the Country. Repeat is my biggest concern is respect,. My grandparents worked hard to know and become as one with the community, and to them I will be forever thankful. With that being said let's get to the Refugees, there are time we must say, if you would like to live in country that opens there are to give you safe refuge, then be thankful for that compassion. I have worked in a high security area and when they want me to turn a blind eye to the fact that I need to see more then their eyes to verify the passport I just cannot do that, or the fact that men will not take instructions from a female boss, and then put me down I have difficulty with that. Our forefathers did not look for hand outs, and they paid the government back every penny. They lived within there means many nights they went Hungary, but we're proud of that. They also gave me my freedom. Which I treasure each day.

Why are we so eager to run down the decissions of our current government? It is the government's job to protect & care for & run the nation. It is the Christian's job to obey & respect the governments(difficult? Who ever said being a christian would be easy-with Christ all things are possible, not easy), and to pray for the government. Thank you Mr. Harper for doing a very difficult job. I pray your spirit to be guided & trust all will work together for the glory of God. ) It is also our responsibility to carry out the Great Commission "Go ye into all the world & teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of God the Father, Son, & Holy Ghost." How about leaving politics to politicians and, if you claim Jesus as your Saviour, then reach out to another soul with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Pray for the ones who will be elected today. Resolve to be obedient in all things not contrary to scripture. Seek to spread the Gospel of love, for God is Love.
If it's history you are talking about, how about the reputation that the Mennonite peoples had of being hard working, thrifty, able to work with & improve marginal land. The Mennonites brought their skills & willingness to work with them. They made a contribution to the countries they moved to by providing much food from the land. I'm not sayimg Canada should or shouldn't bring in more immigrants, but that it is a serious decission for the government to make, & Christians to pray about, not grump about. We can love these people, & care for them in Jesus name even if they aren't on Canadiam soil.

What a well written article. It has identified what the differences between those refugees from 100 years ago and equated them with the refugees of today. My own family traces their roots from Switzerland and they came over when Napolean was rampaging across Europe (forced consciption, et. al.) Those trials have been forgotten to history and the events upon arrival are different. This does not change the fact that we as Christians supposedly operating in the name of Jesus need to remember the story of the Good Samartian. Do we welcome these strangers and care for them or do we take up the mantle of hatred similar to the teabaggers south of the border and loose our integrity as a faith of peace and justice. We need to regain our reputation as peacemongers to the world.

Your article was forwarded to me and I have read and agree with its message of the desperation of refugees to find a better life, like every immigrant who has come to Canada. I also agree with our collective obligation, both as Christians as well as as citizens of one of the wealthiest , well-off countries in the world to help our brothers and sisters in their darkest time of need.
HOWEVER, why have you forgotten/failed to mention the 2 MILLION refugees living in the same desperate situation as the Syrians, without hope, safety or decent living conditions? This huge number of refugees have lived 20, 30 even 40 years in refugee camps in the Middle East (the Palestinians), Africa and South East Asia.
Why do so many journalists (you included) only hop on the bandwagon of "help they brother like Christ did" when playing to the popular media and current media attention?
Do you realize that in promoting the obligation to accept Syrian refugees, that you have pushed all the other equally deserving, but forgotten, refugees to the back of the line? On what basis does your Christian conscious justify that? And justify speaking only for the Syrians and not for all the other forgotten refugees throughout the world at this terrible time?
It's easy to follow the crowd, but where have you been the past 20 years while you did nothing for all the other forgotten refugees who also deserve a new life in a country like Canada.

Mary Kelly
Victoria, BC

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