Mennonite Rots

By Kroeger, Arthur | Queen's Quarterly, Summer 1996 | Go to article overview

Mennonite Rots


Kroeger, Arthur, Queen's Quarterly


In late September 1995, accompanied by my sister and two brothers, I spent ten days in the south-central Ukraine. Our quest was the former Mennonite village on the lower Dnieper River where our family had lived for 120 years until revolution, civil war, and famine led them to emigrate to Canada in 1926. We were part of a group of 160 from Canada and the US who had come in search of their Mennonite roots. Members of the group were predominantly in their 60s and 70s, which meant we had been born during or shortly after the large-scale Mennonite emigration from Russia in the 1920s, and therefore had no first-hand memories of it. It also meant we had been raised with the endless reminiscences of parents and grandparents about a past we could only partly comprehend.

WHEN I was 17 years old, making such a visit would have been the farthest thing from my mind. My main preoccupation was to become as much like my peer group as possible, which among other things meant forgetting that funny Plautdietsch we had spoken when I was growing up, attending a "normal" church, and eating "normal" food. While I respect the sincerity of those who earnestly explain to all comers that Canada is not a melting pot the way the US is, I have found that they usually have Anglo-Saxon names. To have been an "ethnic" is to know from first-hand experience the power of conformist pressures, and to have grown up on the prairies with a German name during World War II is to be in no doubt about the discomforts of being different.

I was well into my thirties before I began to develop a curiosity about my origins. Then, when my father died in 1971, I brought back with me to Ottawa a wooden box containing his personal papers. A retired Mennonite friend of our family generously translated a number of them for me, and gave me my first adult insights into what my parents' lives had been like.

For most Canadians, Mennonites are the people in the area of Kitchener, Ontario, who ride in horse-drawn buggies and wear black clothes. In fact, however, this group -- known as the Old Order -- are a fairly small, if highly visible, minority. Most Mennonites came to Canada from what at the time was Russia, some in the 1870s and a second group in the 1920s. Some live in communities with substantial Mennonite populations such as Leamington, Ontario, and Coaldale, Alberta, where they pursue the normal range of occupations, particularly farming and small business. People in such communities have had considerable success in preserving their Mennonite identity for some decades, while at the same time being fully integrated into the local community. Others live in large urban centres and in many cases, myself included, tend only to think of themselves as being of Mennonite descent. In the generation following mine, assimilation has been fairly extensive.

Contemporary examples of individuals whose forefathers and mothers were Russian Mennonites include the present Governor of the Bank of Canada, Gordon Thiessen, novelist Rudy Wiebe, Secretary of the federal Treasury Board Peter Harder, industrialist Don Reimer, soprano Edith Wiens, President of the Medical Research Council Henry Friesen, former Royal Bank executive Ed Neufeld, Lieutenant Governor of Saskatchewan Jack Wiebe, conductor and CBC radio host Howard Dyck, former Minister of Energy Jake Epp, and writer/historian Al Reimer.

The Mennonites were a branch of the Anabaptist movement that emerged in Switzerland during the Protestant Reformation. Their distinctive features were adult baptism, pacifism, and a rejection of any concept of state or official religion, and they moved from place to place in Europe, settling wherever they could find a sufficient degree of religious freedom to avoid persecution. In the latter part of the sixteenth century, the repressive regime of Charles V in the Netherlands led large numbers of them to migrate to Prussia and the Vistula delta, where they drained marshes, established a reputation as good farmers, and practised their religion in relative peace. …

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