Madam Speaker, as a Mennonite, I am pleased to support the motion put forward by the hon. member for Abbotsford, Motion No. 111, which proposes to recognize the second week in September as Mennonite heritage week.
Faith, persecution and the dream of a better life: these were the driving forces that brought thousands of Mennonites to Canada from the 18th century onward. Today nearly 200,000 Mennonites call Canada home.
In 2010, the largest concentration of urban Mennonites was found in Winnipeg, in my province of Manitoba, followed by Vancouver, Saskatoon, Kitchener and Waterloo. Each of these urban populations is fed by large Mennonite rural communities, such as those that exist in southern Manitoba. In fact, today Winnipeg has one of the largest urban Mennonite populations in the world, with more than 20,000 Mennonites and dozens of Mennonite churches.
As we consider the idea of designating the second week of September Mennonite heritage week, we naturally lean on the rich history of the Mennonite community in Canada.
Mennonites go back to the 16th century, as a people forged out of the Protestant Reformation. With the invention of the printing press the century before, faith was transformed. People were in a position to read and understand the Christian scriptures for themselves. The Anabaptist movement was born.
The movement spread throughout Europe. In northern Germany and the Netherlands, a man by the name of Menno Simons became an influential Anabaptist leader. Originally a Roman Catholic priest, Simons had concerns about infant baptism. He ultimately came to believe that baptism should be voluntarily chosen by mature believers. This was contrary to the widely practised tradition of infant baptism within mainstream Christian communities.
Simons wrote extensively, preached constantly and eventually turned a fledgling movement into an ever-expanding community of believers that came to be known as the Mennists.
The Mennists were peaceful, with a tendency toward self-sufficiency and isolation that produced a particularly unique social-religious culture, a culture that held a deep conviction of faith that was not simply a private matter but a way of life that expressed itself in every facet of one's being. Commitment to God and family was paramount.
Fierce persecution characterized the life of these believers. Many were imprisoned and executed. Being Anabaptist was considered a crime, so persecution led them to migrate throughout Europe and North America. Mennonites were looking for a place where they could truly and fully enjoy one of humanity's most basic and fundamental rights, the right to freedom of conscience and freedom of religion.
Much as it is today, Canada was a desired destination for many who were suffering at the hands of their persecutors. The first waves of Mennonites to arrive in Canada came from Pennsylvania in 1786, which eventually led to the creation of the Mennonite Conference of Ontario and Quebec, believe it or not.
The second wave of European immigrants arrived in 1822 and established a large Amish settlement that would become the Ontario Amish Mennonite Conference, in 1923.
A third wave saw more European immigrants from Russia and Prussia settle in the Canadian Prairies beginning in the 1870s. At the time, the Dominion of Canada was looking for European farmers to settle the new province of Manitoba. That led the government of the day, through the minister of agriculture, to issue an invitation known as a privilegium. The letter, signed by the secretary of the department of agriculture, made 15 provisions for Mennonites, should they choose to relocate.
Timing is everything. At that time, the Mennonite populations in Russia and Ukraine were particularly nervous about their future in that region. Changing legislation meant that Mennonites were required to teach Russian in schools. Moreover, they were losing their exemption from military service, which created a problem, given their adherence to the principle of pacifism.
A delegation visited Canada in 1873 and determined that Canada would be a suitable new home. The minister of agriculture, the hon. John Henry Pope, made an arrangement with the delegation, in view of their formal announcement to him of their intention to settle in the province of Manitoba. According to an order in council from 1873, the arrangement included an exemption from military service. Guarantees were also provided for the fullest privilege of exercising their religious principles and educating their children in their schools, as provided by law, without any kind of molestation or restriction whatsoever.
The order in council also reserved eight townships in southern Manitoba for Mennonite settlement and offered each Mennonite adult a free quarter section of land. What a bargain, and Mennonites love bargains. They saw it, recognized it and jumped on the opportunity. The option to purchase the remaining three-quarters of a section was given to them at a dollar per acre. This arrangement worked well for both parties. Canada would have farmers to settle the Prairies and unleash its agricultural potential, and the Mennonites would be free to exercise their religious freedom without fear of persecution.
Between 1874 and 1880, some 17,000 Mennonites left Russia, and 7,000 of those came to Manitoba. While they kept the new faith, these new Canadians were free of the persecution that had plagued them in Europe. Upon coming to Canada, however, there were still challenges to overcome, such as sickness, clearing the land for farming and building homes for their families. Nothing came easy. One writer called the region a “wilderness since time immemorial, wild and covered with forest”.
Another member of the group that arrived in Manitoba in late July humourously wrote about their experience with mosquitoes, “The misery that these numerous tormentors inflicted upon us in those three days and nights in the open flatboat was something extraordinary. We had never seen anything like this. If Pharaoh's plagues were similar, it is no wonder that he became pliable and yielded to Israel's departure.”
The condition of mosquitoes in Manitoba has not changed.
Facing the raw elements would be one of the enduring challenges of settlement for Mennonites. Settlers would come together regularly to accomplish significant tasks: removing stumps, building barns, cutting wood. However, Manitoba's first nations and Métis populations also helped the early settlers stay alive in those first few difficult years. They sold them fish, cattle, potatoes and other goods, and provided moccasins for footwear. They also showed them where to find sources of fresh fruit, like chokecherries and saskatoons. Thanks to the hard work of the pioneers and the kindness of Canada's first nations and Métis, Mennonites pulled through the most challenging years of the settlement.
A fourth wave saw Russian Mennonites come to Canada in the 1920s. These people settled in small communities stretching between British Columbia and Ontario, ultimately forming individual Mennonite conferences as the wave continued. It is this wave that saw all four of my grandparents come to Canada.
Prior to their departure from Russia, Mennonites had been invited by Catherine the Great to settle in her land. Catherine recognized that the Mennonites were skilled farmers, and the queen needed people to occupy recently seized territories. They were officially promised that they would never have to serve in the military and they could practice their religion freely. By the 1900s, Russia's Mennonite colonies had become the most prosperous and well-developed rural regions in the country. However, with the outbreak of war between Russia and Germany in 1914, the German-speaking Mennonites started to face increasing persecution. Mennonites were labelled agents of Germany and enemies of the state, but things got even worse when the Bolshevik revolution led by Vladimir Lenin erupted in 1917. With the emergence of a new communist government followed by a civil war, Mennonites faced an uncertain future.
My grandparents, like many others in the area, wondered whether they would be able to live, worship and farm as they had for generations. In the years following the revolution, my grandparents were forced to flee, walking away from their homes, their businesses, their farms—everything. Property was confiscated. Women were raped. Men were tortured and killed. Everything was lost. With the help of those already living in Canada, around 21,000 people arrived here between 1922 and 1930.
The Second World War also saw more than 12,000 Mennonites migrate to Canada from the U.S.S.R. and Germany. Not long after, another 8,000 Mennonites migrated to Canada. Driven by the core belief that through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God offers salvation from sin to all people, Mennonites have made their mark in modern Canada.
However, one of the most significant contributions that Mennonites have made to Canada is in the area of generosity. Stirred by their faith, Mennonites promoted peace, justice and genuine love for one's neighbours over generations. According to Statistics Canada, many southern Manitoba communities are the most generous charitable givers in the country. The city of Steinbach in my riding has the highest median donation for cities over 10,000 in population at $2,160 as the median donation, with the average Canadian's being $300.
One other point is on the community of Abbotsford. Abbotsford is the largest census metropolitan area for charitable givers.