In the span of three years (1874 to 1876), 6000+ Mennonites arrived in Manitoba. It was the first large group migration to the recently formed province. It was also one of the largest and most profound influxes of Mennonites to North America. For over 300 years, Dutch and German Mennonites were looking for a permanent home where they could live in freedom and without oppression. Manitoba is that place. Today there are approximately 200,000 Mennonites (culturally and faith-wise) in Manitoba. We are grateful for the land we live on, our Indigenous neighbours, and for Canada’s values of democracy, multiculturalism, and peace.
In the 1870s, it took Mennonites months (not hours) to travel from Imperial Russia through Europe to Canada and America. They traversed by foot, train, ship, and wagon. In Manitoba, there was little infrastructure to support these early settlers. They quickly built sod-houses (semlins) in the ground to survive the first winters until they had enough funds and lumber to build log houses. A large reserve was set aside by the Canadian government and by 1923, there were two large reserves that contained fifty Mennonite villages. Most of them still exist and several are also celebrating 150 years since their founding.
With the new ‘postage stamp’ of Manitoba formed in 1870 and the young village of Winnipeg incorporated just months before their arrival, it was still feared that Western Canada was in jeopardy of being overtaken by others. The arrival of the Mennonites was the first major successful initiative of the Canadian government in finding settlers to help establish their stake in this land. With a population of just 3700 in Winnipeg in 1874, the arrival of 6000 Mennonites to southern Manitoba was dramatic and made a significant impact on the commerce and development of Winnipeg.
Dozens of villages were established, land was cultivated, and ever since then thousands more immigrants have found hope and community again in this region. During these first years there were some good relations with the Métis and Indigenous neighbours, but this mass immigration also caused their displacement. Under the pretense of allowing these settlers to develop freely and without fear, the government established reserves for the Anishinaabe, while the Métis did not receive land they had been promised.
There is beauty and tragedy in each of our histories. As neighbours, what better way to start this anniversary year by learning the history of those who preceded us on this land, the troublesome outcomes our ancestors arrival and the lack of concern for the welfare of others besides ourselves? This Saturday, February 3, Mennonite Heritage Village (MHV) will be hosting a free Kairos Blanket Exercise that will explore all of this. It is an engaging two-hour event for 14+. Ambivalence and ignorance to our history helps no one. Sign-up today as space is limited!