German-Manitoba History Had Origins with Hudson Bay Co

Winnipeg Free Press, October 27, 2012 | Go to article overview

German-Manitoba History Had Origins with Hudson Bay Co


German immigrants, we believe, were born in Germany and speak the same language. But that belief is more myth than reality. Most German-Manitobans were born outside of Germany. They also speak a diversity of dialects that make communications at times difficult if not impossible.

German-Manitoban history began in 1670, when Prince Rupert of the Rhine became the first Hudson's Bay Co. governor. Then, 150 years later, Lord Selkirk's settlers included 100 German mercenaries who tilled the land along "German Creek" (today known as the Seine River). Two hundred more settlers arrived from the French-German borderlands of Alsace as well as from multilingual Switzerland, including the artist Peter Rindisbacher, whose drawings and paintings can be viewed in the Manitoba Archives.

Although St. Boniface was named after Winfried Bonifatius, the German patron saint, most settlers had moved away from the Red River Colony by 1826 and settled in Eastern Canada or the United States. They found the conditions for farming here to be poor.

The 7,000 German-speaking Mennonites who arrived in the late 1870s were more persistent. Over the next half-century, they were followed by a great diversity of settlers who had German roots: German-Russians, Austro-Hungarians, so-called ethnic Germans from Rumania and other parts of Eastern Europe, citizens of Germany, German-Americans and German-Canadians from Ontario and other parts of Canada. In 1916, 59 per cent of Germans in Manitoba had been born in Canada, 10 per cent in Germany, six per cent in the United States, and 25 per cent elsewhere, mostly in Eastern Europe.

German-Manitobans included a great diversity of religious groups, from Lutherans, Baptists, Hutterites, Mennonites and other Protestants to Catholics and Jews. Next to High German, they spoke a great diversity of dialects and various forms of Low German. These dialects were so different, Germans could not always understand one another.

Considering the great diversity among Germans, it is often difficult to figure out who actually was German. German immigrants themselves were at times unsure or changed identities. Not all German-speaking Mennonites, for example, identified as German, while third-generation German-Americans, who no longer spoke German, did identify as German. The anti-German hostility of the First World War led many to hide their identity. They stopped speaking German in public and when the government asked about their ethnic origin, the reported Dutch or Swiss rather than German. This explains why the number of Germans recorded in the Canada census plummeted from 35,000 Germans in Manitoba in 1911 to only 20,000 in 1921.

What did German-Manitobans do? The majority worked on farms, but one-fifth lived in Winnipeg -- many in the North End -- and worked in manufacturing, services, or as entrepreneurs. They founded churches and cultural clubs in order to maintain their ethno-religious heritage. …

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