This article was originally published by Mennonite World Review

Mennonites once were the banned refugees

A forgotten piece of Mennonite immigration history has gone viral on social media.

“Banning travel or immigration into a country is not new,” begins the post by archivist Conrad Stoesz on the Facebook page of the Mennonite Heritage Centre Archives in Winnipeg, Man.

The post is accompanied by two photos. One shows Mennonite newcomers to Canada at a train station in 1933. The group is pictured under a sign that boldly reads, “Danger.” The other is a newspaper headline from the June 9, 1922, edition of The Daily Record newspaper in Kitchener-Waterloo, Ont., that reads “Mennonites Now Free To Come Into Canada.”

Mennonite newcomers to Canada at a train station in 1933. — Mennonite Heritage Centre Archives
Mennonite newcomers to Canada at a train station in 1933. — Mennonite Heritage Centre Archives

In June 1919, the Canadian government bowed to public pressure and banned Mennonites, Hutterites and Doukhobors from entering Canada. Prior Mennonite immigrants had been invited by the government for their farming skills to help develop agricultural lands. In exchange, they negotiated for their own schools and exemption from military service.

But during World War I, fear of German-speaking immigrants grew rampant. Newspapers reported that the newcomers had plans to “hog the best available lands” in order to “force Canadian settlers out.” Mennonites were called “dirty shirkers . . . without doubt no asset to any country.” Mennonites in Russia were by now themselves victims of terrorism executed by a guerrilla group headed by Nestor Makhno in a revolt against any external authority in Southern Ukraine.

However, in June 1922 a friendly relationship between the newly elected Liberal Prime Minister, William Lyon Mackenzie King, and the Mennonites of the Kitchener-Waterloo area, paved the way to lift the ban.

Within hours of posting this story on Feb. 21, it had been viewed 5,000 times. Stoesz was shocked.

“I was hoping to better the previous record for a post, which was just under 10,000 views for an item about Mennonite New Year’s cookies,” he said.

In the first four days, he watched the immigration story views grow in increments of 25,000 per day. By Feb. 27 it was approaching 125,000.

In perspective, Mennonite World Conference puts the total number of baptized Mennonites in Canada at 138,900. Mennonite Church Canada has about 32,000 members.

Stoesz said the purpose of the MHC Archives Facebook page is to bring awareness to Mennonite history and the role the archives plays in helping our communities remember.

“Society in general lacks awareness of the role of archives,” he said.

But more important, the story benefited from timing, as the U.S. government’s ban on incoming travelers from seven countries was still a growing media fireball.

Drawing a parallel, Stoesz observes that during World War I, some Mennonite families fled anti-pacifist sentiments in the United States. In 1918, some families crossed the border at Emerson, Man., where they acquired harvest-worker tickets as a basis for entry.

“I wanted to raise awareness that Mennonites have suffered prejudice in Canada because of the language they spoke and for some of the values they held dear,” Stoesz said. “Hopefully people will then think about this past and ask themselves how that informs their views on current situations in our world. . . . The mirror of our past can help humble our views.”

The story has been shared more than 1,000 times and generated rigorous discussion, with about 60 comments among readers. Most comments favor support for refugee asylum seekers entering Canada under cover of night, citing the welcome Mennonites received after the 1919-1922 ban. A few expressed fear that some newcomers could bring with them the most extreme expressions of Islam.

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