Toronto filmmaker Dale Hildebrand has always been interested in his Mennonite roots, which go back to the 1870s when thousands of Mennonites left South Russia (modern Ukraine) for new lives in the United States and Canada.
But it took his wife encouraging him to explore those roots deeper to lead him to create a documentary about the arrival of those Mennonites 150 years ago.
Last fall, Hildebrand, who was born and raised in southern Manitoba, started work on the documentary, focusing on the journey of the Mennonite emigrants in 1874.
“I want to focus on all the trials, tribulations, suffering and loss it entailed,” he said of how they traveled by trains across Europe, ships across the ocean and then by steamboats up the Red River from the U.S. to their new homes in Manitoba.
Hildebrand wants to show what it was like for them to set up their new homes and communities.
To help him tell that story, Hildebrand is using diaries and journals.
“I want to tell real people’s stories,” he said, including stories of children dying on the journey. “I can’t imagine the hardship and heartache.”
He is being aided in his quest by Conrad Stoesz of the Mennonite Heritage Archives in Winnipeg.
“The early years were very difficult,” said Stoesz of the newcomers’ arrival in Manitoba. “The first winter was brutal. They were not used to that kind of cold.”
In addition to the challenges of starting over in a new country, they experienced illness and death, Stoesz said. One group that arrived in 1875 spent six weeks at Fort Dufferin, near the U.S. border, before they could move to their new homes.
“They called it a place of mourning,” he said, since a child died nearly every day there from various diseases. “We’ve looked, but we still don’t know where those graves are.”
Beginning in 1874 and continuing for a decade, about 17,000 Mennonites from South Russia emigrated to North America because the Russian government broke its promise to let them have their own schools and be exempted from military service.
About 10,000 came to the United States (about half of these settled in Kansas), and 7,000 went to Manitoba.
“They left established farms and businesses, homes and family and friends, knowing they would never see them again,” he said.
Along with telling the story of their journey and arrival in Manitoba, Hildebrand intends to explore the impact on Indigenous people in the province at that time.
“I don’t want to whitewash anything,” he said of how Indigenous people lost land to the newcomers.
Hildebrand intends to premiere the documentary this summer to mark the 150th anniversary of Mennonites arriving in Manitoba.
The film is supported by private foundations and a $65,000 grant from the Manitoba government.