The current dismay over President Donald Trump’s decision to temporarily stop the entry of refugees into the United States reminded me that xenophobia (the fear of people who are “foreign” to us) in not limited to time and place. It has also affected Mennonites in Canada.
At the end of World War I, over 1,000 Mennonites and Hutterites from the United States began to immigrate to Canada, partially in response to the harsh treatment some of them experienced during the war, including imprisonment and the death of several Hutterites. Initially Canada welcomed them as good agricultural settlers, but this welcome changed almost overnight.
Charges were made that Hutterites and Mennonites from the United States were getting the best land, and that veterans of World War I were unable to get similar prime land. Popular media like the Ottawa Citizen claimed they were draft dodgers “on a wholesale scale.” The Calgary Eye-Opener said in alarm that 2 million Mennonites were headed to Canada, buying up blocks of land. (We are only approaching that number of Mennonites in the world today.)
Rumblings of discontent from conservative Mennonites in Manitoba contributed to the reaction against Mennonites. Some of these Mennonites were discussing the possibility of leaving Canada for another location because western provinces were trying to force their children into English-language public schools. Many of these Mennonites did leave for Mexico in the 1920s, and became of the ancestors of the Low German Mennonites who have returned to Canada, including Southern Ontario, beginning in the 1950s.
Soon even Members of Parliament called for restrictions on Mennonites as they prepared to amend the Immigration Act in 1919. John W. Edwards, a Conservative M.P. from the Frontenac riding in eastern Ontario referred to Mennonites and Hutterites as “cattle” during a debate on immigration on April 30, 1919.
The next day the government issued an Order-in-Council prohibiting Mennonites, Hutterites and Doukhobors from entering Canada because they were:
…undesirable, owing to their peculiar customs, habits, modes of living, and methods of holding property, and because of their probable inability to become readily assimilated to assume the duties and responsibilities of Canadian citizenship within a reasonable time after entry.
This order-in-council affected not only immigrants. For a time it also made it difficult for American Mennonite ministers to visit Canada for revival meetings, or American Mennonites who wanted to come and work at places like the Toronto Mennonite Mission.
In July 1921 Bishop S. F. Coffman from Vineland, Ontario, joined a Russian Mennonite group seeking to meet with the new Canadian Prime Minister, Arthur Meighen, whom Coffman had previously met. However, Meighen was out of town, as was deputy prime minister George Foster. They finally met with opposition leader Mackenzie King, who promised that if he formed the next government, the restriction on Mennonite immigration would be lifted. The following afternoon the delegation was finally able to meet George Foster, who pointed out the irony of some Mennonites seeking to leave Canada while others petitioned to immigrate.
In February 1922 S. F. Coffman wrote to the new prime minister, Mackenzie King, about lifting the ban against Mennonite immigration and allowing Mennonites from Russia to come to Canada. After further meetings between Coffman, western Canadian Mennonite leaders and the government, the restriction on Mennonite, Hutterite and Doukobor immigration was finally lifted on June 6, 1922 and officially announced on June 22, 1922.
Mennonites in Canada felt a sense of urgency in getting this ban lifted because of the plight of Mennonites in Russia after World War I and the Russian Revolution. The large Mennonite immigration to Canada from Russia began already in 1923.
So we see that Canadians have not been free of fear of the “other” in their history. Even more grievous accounts from Canadian history could be given about African-Canadians, Chinese, Jews and Japanese. And most recently we have seen expressions of fear and violence against another minority faith group — the Muslims.
I am indebted to Frank H. Epp, Mennonites in Canada, 1786-1920: the history of a separate people. Toronto: Macmillan of Canada, 1974 for some of this information.
The John W. Edwards quote comes from Official report of the debates of the House of Commons of the Dominion of Canada, Second Session-Thirteenth Parliament, p. 1929.
For this and many other historical items of Mennonite interest, read my In Search of Promised Lands: a religious history of Mennonites in Ontario.