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Manitoba History: Review: Adolf Ens, Subjects of Citizens? The Mennonite Experience in Canada, 1870-1925

by A. Ernest Epp
Department of History, Lakehead University

Number 34, Autumn 1997

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Adolf Ens, Subjects or Citizens? The Mennonite Experience in Canada, 1870-1925. University of Ottawa Press, 1994. Religions and Beliefs Series, No 2. pp. x, 266, maps. ISBN 0-7766-0390-6.

Half a century has passed since E. K. Francis’s study of the Mennonite experience in Manitoba. That research, funded by the Manitoba Historical Society, led to the momentous publication, In Search of Utopia: The Mennonites in Manitoba. As Mary Kinnear reminded the Society at its annual meeting in 1992, this book was not published until 1955 and then appeared only because D. W. Friesen and Sons undertook to publish it in Altona. The delay, she suggested, may have resulted from Margaret McWilliams’ unhappiness about the strength of Mennonite society, the fact that Francis “had found Mennonites were not imminently about to submerge their identity into [the] ‘Canadian’ mainstream” (Manitoba History, no. 24, 5). Devoted as this leading citizen of Manitoba was to the assimilation of ethnic groups, Mrs. McWilliams might well react against Francis’s conclusion that “acculturation among the Manitoba mennonites had by no means led to any significant degree of assimilation” (as quoted in Ibid., 5).

This bit of institutional history is relevant to our subject because the book under review explores the strength of the assimilative pressures focused on the Mennonites of Manitoba and Saskatchewan during the first decades of this century. Ens surveys the history of the Mennonites, including their earlier flights from the assimilative policies of the Prussian and Russian governments, and lays out their settlement experiences in the East and West Reserves of Manitoba. The evolution of municipal institutions in the West Reserve is particularly interesting, as Gerhard John Ens has also shown us in his Volost and Municipality: The Rural Municipality of Rhineland, 1884-1984 (Altona: Rural Municipality of Rhineland, 1984). Although public schools were designed from their beginnings in Manitoba around 1890 to serve as the main assimilative instruments, its was only during the Great War and afterwards that bilingual education was outlawed and children required to attend public schools where they would be instructed in English. This book explores that cultural history in Manitoba and informs us that the Saskatchewan government was even more rigorous in carrying out the same assimilative program.

Adolf Ens has contributed to our understanding of the Mennonite responses to this assimilative program by carefully examining the energetic efforts of some Mennonite groups to find a more sympathetic jurisdiction for their German-language schools. Their search for a new utopia took them as far afield as Quebec in Canada and Argentina in the Western Hemisphere. Eventually, these Mennonites found new homes in Mexico and Paraguay. In September 1921, Reinlander from the West Reserve in Manitoba and the Swift Current district of Saskatchewan purchased adjacent tracts of 155,000 and 74,125 acres respectively in Mexico and over the next four years some 3,200 from Manitoba and 1,200 from Saskatchewan migrated to new homes in Chihuahua state. About 950 Reinlander from the Hague area of Saskatchewan settled during 1924-26 on 35,000 acres in the neighbouring Durango state of Mexico. Some 600 more emigrants, mostly West Reserve Sommerfielder, made new homes on 12,000 acres just north of the Chihuahua settlements. The final emigration—to a 138,000-acre settlement in the Paraguayan Chaco by about 1,800 Mennonites, two-thirds of them Chortitzer from the East Reserve in Manitoba—was delayed by financial problems until 1926.

These 7,735 exiles from the cultural policies of the Manitoba and Saskatchewan governments (whose departure was somewhat mitigated by the almost simultaneous arrival of thousands of Mennonites fleeing Bolshevism in the Soviet Union) constitute the blackest part of the picture that Ens sketches in this doctoral dissertation. The study is still very much a doctoral dissertation in its style, and books remain to be written about the experiences that Ens has surveyed. The title is misleading insofar as the focus is largely on the Mennonite experience in Western Canada, in fact primarily in Manitoba and Saskatchewan. Notes immediately following each chapter will strike many readers as obtrusive while they sometimes frustrate the scholarly reader by the omission of titles in later references. Flipping to the bibliography does not always answer the question, which book? when there are two by the same author (as in the case of the Gerbrandt reference in note 188 to Chapter IV). The book has, however, been provided with a useful index.

These criticisms should not deter the scholar nor the general reader from consulting this important contribution to both Canadian history and Mennonite studies by Ens, a professor of history and theology at the Canadian Mennonite Bible College in Winnipeg. (One of those contributions involves his clarification of the Privilegium that the Mennonites negotiated with the Canadian government in 1873, which promised them more autonomy in educational matters than the Dominion government could constitutionally provide.) As someone with a growing interest in West Reserve studies and himself related to both the migrants to Mexico and those who came from the Soviet Union, this reviewer appreciates the publication of Ens’s research in the National Archives of Canada, provincial archives, land titles and municipal offices, and Mennonite church records. Socmine the varied experiences of the Mennonites of Manitoba and Saskatchewan, some of whom clearly and decisively rejected the Canadian nationalism to which they were subjected in the first quarter of this century. Others made their accommodation to Canadian society, although they probably found it easier to be active citizens after Prime Minister Trudeau stated in 1971 that there was no official Canadian culture and enunciated the federal policy of multiculturalism. Integration into Canadian society was much easier to accept (or seek!) when assimilation to Anglo-Canadian culture was no longer required. The anglicization of church services remained a difficult process for many of the Mennonites, however, even when the faith was seen as more important than the language.

Page revised: 26 September 2012

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