One hundred years ago, the first of 21,000 Mennonites who left the Soviet Union boarded a train in Quebec City for new lives across Canada. Some of their descendants and others will replicate that journey when they board a train July 6 for a trip that will conclude in British Columbia as part of “Memories of Migration: Russlaender (Russian Mennonites) Tour 100.”
The cross-country tour is the brainchild of Ingrid Riesen Moehlmann. She came up with the idea when her father made a last request to her before he died to find a way to celebrate the arrival in Canada of Mennonites who experienced civil war, famine and disease in revolutionary Ukraine and Russia.
“That story was an all-consuming passion for him,” she said. “He was afraid it was being lost and forgotten.”
Participants will re-enact the historic migration of the thousands of Mennonites who left communities decimated by violence and tragedy in the Soviet Union to come to Canada between 1923 and 1930.
The tour will include stops in Montreal, Kitchener, Winnipeg, Saskatoon, Rosthern and Edmonton before ending July 25 in Abbotsford, B.C. It is organized by the Mennonite Historical Society of Canada, together with Canadian Mennonite scholars and heritage enthusiasts.
In addition to lectures and music along the way, the tour will include a gala sponsored by the Canadian Pacific Kansas City Railway in Montreal and tours of Mennonite-related sites along the way. Some presentations will address the migration’s impact on Indigenous communities in western Canada.
“Canada saved these Mennonite families from the horrors of Stalinism but also made them part of the settler colonialism system. This element of the story can’t be ignored,” said Aileen Friesen, co-director and associate professor with the Centre for Transnational Mennonite Studies at the University of Winnipeg and part of the organizing committee.
For Friesen, keys to the tour’s success are the young people who have been sponsored to be involved. “For many, this is part of their heritage that they may not be aware of, so it’s important to pass along this history to younger generations,” she said.
About 123 people have signed up for one or all three segments of the tour.