That, in the opinion of the House, the government should recognize the contributions that Canadian Mennonites have made to building Canadian society, their history of hope and perseverance, the richness of the Mennonite culture, their role in promoting peace and justice both at home and abroad, and the importance of educating and reflecting upon Mennonite heritage for future generations, by declaring the second week of September as Mennonite Heritage Week.
Mr. Speaker, I rise in the House today to speak to my own motion that would establish the second week of September as Mennonite heritage week.
Why Mennonite heritage week? First, this is an opportunity for the Government of Canada to recognize the contributions that Mennonites have made in building our great country. The Mennonite community is incredibly diverse and has invested heavily in building a community that is tolerant and prosperous, where we care for one another and are generous with each other.
Let me start off by talking about who the Mennonites are. We are an understated and unassuming hard-working group of people. We try to stay out of trouble. We serve our communities. We serve our country and our fellow human beings.
It goes without saying that our modern Canada was built by immigrants, many of them fleeing war, strife, persecution and economic devastation. We are all proud of the men and women, and their families, who have risked everything to leave their homes elsewhere around the world and come to Canada to build a new life. The Mennonites are among those people groups who came to find a refuge in Canada. Their history and reputation for peacemaking, creativity and hard work speak to the hope and opportunity that Canada has always offered to the world.
I am a descendant of those people who fled fierce persecution in Europe and in Russia, and risked everything to move a vast distance to an unfamiliar land for an uncertain future. That risk was rewarded as my ancestors settled in an immeasurably rich land and became part of a community that is built, and continues to build, what is arguably the most desirable country in the world.
I am immensely proud of my Mennonite heritage and propose the motion to honour the role that Canada's Mennonites have played in building the foundation of the country we know and love today.
Who are the Mennonites? We have our roots within the Anabaptist movement that occurred in German- and Dutch-speaking parts of central Europe during the Protestant Reformation. The most distinguishing theological feature of the Anabaptists was their rejection of infant baptism and their firm belief in what is called the believer's baptism, namely baptism of adults who profess faith in Jesus Christ and his work on the cross.
This foundational element of faith ensured that the Anabaptists were persecuted by the church and government authorities of the day, both Catholic and Protestant. Many Mennonites were tortured for their faith and sent to their deaths. Despite strong persecution, the Anabaptist movement spread quickly across western Europe, primarily along the Rhine River.
Another key tenet of the Anabaptist confession is a commitment to non-violence and that included resisting all military service. This resulted in many smaller groups of Anabaptists being destroyed because of their conviction that all violence, even when used to defend themselves, was against God's teachings.
In the early days of the Anabaptist movement, a priest left the Catholic church after his brother and his companions were attacked and killed because of their Anabaptist faith and their refusal to defend themselves. This priest became a respected leader within the Anabaptist movement and became so influential that many Anabaptists began carrying his name. His name was Menno Simons and today we call the people that followed him the Mennonites.
In addition to their distinctive faith perspective, the consistent theme across the history of the Mennonite people has been their persecution. In fact, whether it was in Germany, the Netherlands, Prussia or even Russia, these industrious people have travelled much of the western world looking for a safe place to call their home.
Due to the severe persecution faced by the Mennonites, they were forced to flee their homes and seek refuge elsewhere in the world.
Some fled immediately to the United States, where they found freedom to practise their faith without interference from state authorities. Of these, a number of groups ended up migrating to Canada and establishing communities in our country, primarily in Ontario. Other persecuted Mennonites first fled to Prussia, seeking freedom to practise their faith and live in peace.
Then in the 1770s, Catherine the Great invited the Mennonites to resettle in Russia, promising them land and the right not to participate in military service. Therefore, many Mennonites moved to Russia, establishing communities and colonies cross western Russia, successfully farming previously infertile land and becoming successful business people. In fact, my great grandfather Cornelius Martens was among those who built and operated a large machinery factory in the town of Millerovo, a community in Russia that still exists and of which my brother and I have been made honorary citizens.
For 150 years, the Mennonites prospered and lived in peace in Russia. Then everything changed. By the end of the 19th century, in other words, the end of the 1800s, and beginning of the 20th century, the flames of revolution were beginning to be fanned across Russia and the Mennonites felt less and less welcome in their adopted country. More and more of them were again leaving their homes and seeking refuge in a place that would offer peace and freedom. That place was Canada.
As Bolshevism and Communism inflicted more and more horrors upon Russia, thousands upon thousands of Mennonites fled their adopted home and landed in Canada, first settling in the inhospitable prairie provinces and then in British Columbia and Ontario. They worked hard, they cared for their families and communities and made the difficult sacrifices, which is the hallmark of immigrant life.
At the very heart of their communities was their church and their faith. Different Mennonite denominations sprang up across our country, including the Mennonite Brethren, Mennonite Church Canada as it is now known, the Amish, the Old Order Mennonite church, the Holdeman Church of God in Christ and others. At the heart of each were the core tenets of faith in Christ, a belief in the adult believers baptism and a commitment to non-resistance and peacemaking.
Let me talk about the Mennonites today.
Since their journey to Canada, Mennonites have become an indispensable part of the Canadian fabric, distinguishing themselves in a broad range of endeavours, from the arts to the sciences, from sports to politics, from business to music and everything in between.
Indeed, the Canadian Mennonite community has done more than just promote outstanding human values. It has also given Canada not one, not two but innumerable talented athletes, including, for example, five-time Olympic medalist, speed skater Cindy Klassen.
Other Mennonite athletes of note include NHL players such as Jonathan Toews, Dustin Penner, Robyn Regehr, James Reimer and former St. Louis Blues great, Garry Unger. There are many others either in the NHL today or formerly in the NHL.
There are also football players such as former CFLers John Pankratz and Matthias Goossen.
There are other notable Mennonites who have left their mark on Canadian society, including authors David Bergen, who is a Giller Prize winner, and Miriam Toews, a best-selling author and winner of the 2004 Governor General's Literary Award. That list also includes Canadian conductors Howard Dyck and Glen Fast, and well-known artist Gathie Falk, whose artwork hangs in Canada's embassy in Washington, D.C. Incidentally, Gathie Falk was one of my Sunday school teachers when I was a young child.
Members might be surprised to know that there are at least 15 members on this side of the House who trace their roots back to the Mennonites.
The history of the Mennonites and their ability to constructively contribute to building a tolerant, welcoming, healthy and prosperous Canadian society stands as a testament to the fact that our Mennonite values are Canadian values. They are values such as compassion and loving each other, including the vulnerable and marginalized. They are values such as hard work, forbearance, forgiveness, reconciliation and peacemaking. These, as well as other values such as thrift and generosity, are the values that arise out of our Mennonite faith. Maybe that is why the Mennonite MPs in the House are on this side, not that side.
However, I digress. These values I have articulated were strung out of the Mennonite culture and faith, a deep, abiding faith in God and his providence. Throughout Mennonite history, those values have been tested within the crucible of persecution, conflict, war and famine. We would do well as a country to reflect upon that history and the values that have sustained the Mennonites, as a guide to direct us as we stand on guard for the true north, strong and free, our wonderful country called Canada.
Therefore, by dedicating the second week of September to our Mennonite community, we are not just highlighting one people group's history. We are highlighting the refuge that Canada has provided to so many people groups, vulnerable people groups around the world, persecuted people groups. We can be very proud of that legacy that Canada has left behind.
I talked about the Mennonites fleeing persecution in Europe and finding new places all over the world. I mentioned the United States and Canada. However, today we find Mennonites in places like Paraguay, Uruguay and Brazil. Do members know that the largest population of Mennonites is actually found in Africa? Africans have very much embraced the faith values that Mennonites have espoused for so many years.
I want to wind up by saying that I am very proud to be a Mennonite. I am very proud of our country for embracing the Mennonites. I am pleased that we have a motion today that will declare that every second week in September will be known as Mennonite heritage week.