Canadian Mennonites participated in local politics long before Canada became a country in 1867. This involvement included service on the earliest school boards in Waterloo County, continued as members and reeves of township councils, and continues to the present as members of town and city councils and even as mayors of municipalities. John Erb, the founder of Preston (now part of Cambridge, Ontario), served as a justice of the peace in the early 1800s. Another early example was Jacob Y. Shantz, who served briefly as the mayor of Berlin (now Kitchener) in the 1880s at the same time his son was on the town council.
These roles were seen, at least by more assimilated Mennonites, to be compatible with the nonresistant peace position of Mennonite theology. More conservative groups would hesitate at more senior positions in municipal politics because legal action to defend town or city activity might be required. Traditionally Mennonites have tried to avoid courts of law when possible. Such political participation was impossible for groups that emphasized substantial separation from the world.
Seeking political office at even higher levels, such as provincial or national parliaments was another step again. Only the most assimilated Mennonites have pursued these positions, and only beginning in the mid-20th century, at least in Ontario. Previously, persons of Mennonite extraction who wished to pursue a political life, left the Mennonite Church before seeking office.
Some historians point to Isaac E. Bowman, son of Mennonite parents, who served in the Legislature of Canada beginning in 1864, and served as a Liberal Member of Parliament in the late 1860s and early 1870s, and again in the 1880s and 1890s. However his parents converted to the Evangelical Association in the 1840s, and I. E. Bowman was never himself a Mennonite.
Similarly, Dilman K. Erb, a Liberal MP for Perth South from 1896-1904, although born to Mennonite parents, was identified as a Methodist in the 1891 census. He was listed as Mennonite in 1881 when he still lived at home, but became a Methodist after marriage.
Ironically, during World War I, Mennonites lost the right to vote because they were conscientious objectors. Previously they had frequently voted in provincial and national elections, and supported political parties, even though they did not themselves seek high public office. Following World War I, even though they regained the vote, Mennonites became much more hesitant to vote, much less to seek prominent political roles, based on fears for the implications for their peace position.
The coming of the Mennonite immigrants from the Soviet Union in the 1920s changed this hesitation. These Mennonites had not shunned political office in Russia (Mennonites had been elected to the Russian Duma), and carried much less hesitation about seeking political office in Canada. After World War II, when they were sufficiently anglicized, Mennonites from this culture began to seek positions in Canada’s Parliament.
Ontario Members of Parliament in the 1970s and 1980s who were members of Mennonite congregations were William Andres (Liberal, 1974-1979, Lincoln riding), Jake Froese (Conservative, 1979-1980, Niagara Falls riding), John Reimer (Conservative, 1979-1980, 1984-1993, Kitchener riding). Andres was United Mennonite, Froese and Reimer were Mennonite Brethren.
A Liberal candidate in the 1979 and 1980 elections for the Waterloo riding was Frank H. Epp, an ordained Mennonite minister and former president of Conrad Grebel College. He lost, but enjoyed strong support from the Mennonite community. He was a member of Rockway Mennonite Church, a Mennonite Church Canada congregation.
Paul Steckle, a member of the Zurich (Ontario) Mennonite Church, a Mennonite Church Canada congregation, was a Liberal Member of Parliament for Huron-Bruce from late 1993-2008. He was known for taking positions sometimes at odds with his party, and at times it was thought he would cross the floor to the Conservative Party because of his conservative views on social issues.
There were about 14 Members of Parliament with some Mennonite or Brethren in Christ connections in the last Harper government (2011-2015). All 14 were members of the Conservative Party, and almost all were from Manitoba, Saskatchewan and British Columbia. Seven of them attended Anabaptist congregations, most of them Mennonite Brethren. The only one from Ontario was Harold Albrecht. He is a former Brethren in Christ pastor who resigned from his pastorate to run for political office. He was first elected in 2006 in the Kitchener-Conestoga riding, and in 2015 successfully won re-election.
A newly-elected Mennonite Member of Parliament from Ontario in 2015 is Jane Philpott, a Liberal in the Markham-Stouffville riding. She is a physician and a member of Community Mennonite Church in Stouffville, a Mennonite Church Canada congregation.
Over the recent history of Canada’s Parliament, Mennonites are grossly over-represented as a percentage of the House of Commons, since Mennonites in Canada are much less than one percent of the population. Does this over-representation speak to the high, and positive, profile of Mennonites in their communities? Probably not, since denominational backgrounds are not much discussed in Canadian elections.
It does speak to the comfort of assimilated Mennonite MPs in speaking to issues in harmony with their party’s position on matters like Canada’s military activity, or social conscience matters like abortion, legalization of marijuana, or assisted suicide. In some cases their views may be at variance with significant portions of the Mennonite community.
Maybe it simply confirms that assimilated Mennonites have “made it” in larger Canadian society.
I am indebted to J. Winfield Fretz’s Waterloo Mennonites for some of my information.
To learn more of the history of Ontario Mennonites and politics, read In Search of Promised Lands.