Last week in Part I we looked at two early examples of inter-Mennonite cooperation in Ontario — in the Russian Aid Committee that assisted Russian Mennonite immigrants to Manitoba in the 1870s, and the cooperation in communicating with the Canadian government about Mennonite pacifism in World War I.
This week we’ll look at a cooperative relief effort that began at the end of World War I, and later, the assistance provided to Mennonite refugees from the Soviet Union in the 1920s.
Non-Resistant Relief Organization
At the end of 1917, the Mennonites in Ontario thought they had achieved a breakthrough with the government, and that Ontario Mennonites had the same status as Manitoba Mennonites who came in the 1870s and were “excepted” from military service, meaning they had no military obligations at all.
Unfortunately their understanding was wrong, but this view influenced S. F. Coffman of Vineland, Ontario and L. J. Burkholder, a Mennonite leader in Markham, Ontario to discuss the possibility that Mennonites as a group make a contribution to the relief of war sufferers.
An exploratory meeting was held on November 17, 1917 and included participants from the Mennonite Brethren in Christ, the Mennonite Conference of Ontario, the Old Order Mennonites and the Brethren in Christ. Samuel Goudie, a Mennonite Brethren in Christ elder (similar to bishop) was elected chair.
The Non-Resistant Relief Organization (NRRO), as it became known, formally organized in 1918, and included all the groups from the November meeting plus the Amish Mennonites. It did not include the Old Order Amish or the Reformed Mennonites. This group chose S. F. Coffman as the primary contact with government officials, because of his experience in communicating with the government about Mennonites and non-resistant views.
In addition to raising over $75,000 for war relief, the NRRO advised their congregations about purchase of war bonds, and worked with sympathetic Members of Parliament to help with difficult cases of individual men who were detained in military camps. Ernest J. Swalm, later a Brethren in Christ bishop who became very well known in Mennonite Central Committee circles, spent a brief time in prison during the war.
The Non-Resistant Relief Organization almost disbanded in 1920, but then stayed in place until 1924 when the first Mennonites from the Soviet Union began to come to Ontario. It then went dormant until 1937 when the threat of war began again.
Mennonite Immigrants from the Soviet Union
Because of S. F. Coffman’s earlier work with the NRRO and his familiarity government officials, in 1921 he joined a small delegation of Mennonites from western Canada and the Soviet Union seeking to meet with the new Prime Minister, Arthur Meighen. They failed in that attempt, but did meet with the Liberal opposition leader, Mackenzie King.
King pledged, if he became Prime Minister, to remove a ban against Mennonite immigration that had come in after the end of the war. Coffman and Samuel Goudie were part of another delegation in 1922 that finally saw the ban lifted in June 1922.
Immigration from the Soviet Union began in 1923, though these refugees all went to western Canada. The immigration to Ontario began in 1924. The work of matching immigrants to host families in Ontario was done by a four person committee at the Erb Street Mennonite Church chaired by Ira Bauman.
The number of immigrants who arrived in July 1924, shown walking up Erb Street here, was 40% larger than anticipated (850 persons instead of 600), which meant some families took extra immigrants, and additional families were solicited.
All Mennonite groups participated in hosting, from Old Order Mennonites to Amish Mennonites to Mennonite Brethren in Christ. The Bethany Mennonite Brethren in Christ church in Kitchener alone took about 100 persons.
Next week we’ll look at Mennonite immigrants after World War II, and the Canadian office of Mennonite Central Committee which began during that war.
To learn more about the pre-history of Mennonite Central Committee read In Search of Promised Lands.
Read Part I
Read Part III