The Vietnam War and Ontario Mennonites

The Vietnam War had little direct impact on Canadian Mennonites, in contrast to their American Mennonite cousins. Mennonite young men in the United States faced military conscription, though most of them readily performed alternative service for two years instead of serving in the military. About fifty thousand American men and women fled the U.S. draft or deserted from the military, arriving in Canada in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Some Mennonite churches in urban centers actively helped them find refuge. Estimates suggest half eventually returned to the U.S., while the remainder stayed in Canada. Probably fifty or so of the thousands of U.S. draft dodgers were Mennonites; some resisters from other Christian denominations chose to became part of Ontario Mennonite churches. I was one of the fifty or so Mennonite draft dodgers, coming to Canada in October 1968.


Sam Steiner’s draft protest, April 1968.

Many Ontario Mennonite congregations chose a hands-off approach to draft dodgers. In 1968 the Ontario Mennonite Brethren conference passed a resolution opposing assistance to draft dodgers. Mennonites descended from immigrants who had experienced oppression in the Soviet Union were less amenable to helping American draft dodgers; they saw the Vietnam War as justifiable resistance to communism. In 1970, when the Scott Street Mennonite Brethren Church in St. Catharines refused to host an MCC Ontario consultation that included presentations by Frank Epp and Walter Klaassen and a number of draft resisters, the meeting was moved to the more sympathetic Stirling Avenue Mennonite Church in Kitchener. In his report of the April 25 meeting, Vernon Leis said many Mennonites were “fearful” of war resisters because their peace position was not theologically grounded, and their disobedience threatened the Mennonite relationship with the government and the special status that had been negotiated by Mennonites.

The greater impact of the Vietnam War on Mennonites, however, came through the multitude of refugees created in Vietnam and Laos, and the decision of the Canadian government to accept a significant number of these refugees into Canada. The Canadian government began to pay more attention to political refugees in the 1950s and 1960s, though without a formal refugee policy. Canada accepted 37,500 refugees after the Hungarian uprising in 1956, eleven thousand from Czechoslovakia in 1968, and seven thousand ethnic Asians from Uganda in 1972. Canada belatedly signed the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention in June 1969. A new Canadian Immigration Act was tabled in 1976 and came into force in 1978. Among other things, the act attempted to “fulfill Canada’s international legal obligations with respect to refugees and to uphold its humanitarian tradition with respect to the displaced and the persecuted.” It provided for the possibility of private sponsorship of refugees in addition to refugees selected and financed by the Canadian government. Canada’s sincerity in opening its land was immediately tested by the 1.5 million refugees of the Vietnam War who fled their homes by mid-1979. Some of these took to the sea in overcrowded boats in an effort to seek safer shores, but were refused entry by neighboring countries like Malaysia. The refugees become popularly known as “boat people.”

Mennonite Central Committee had operated programs in Vietnam since 1954, and it was one of the few relief agencies that remained in the country after 1975 when the Republic of Vietnam (South Vietnam) collapsed. MCC Canada signed a “Master Agreement” with the Canadian government in early 1979 (negotiations took place from January to early March when the agreement was signed). As part of the agreement MCC Canada accepted the financial liability for refugees privately sponsored by Mennonite churches. Even before the agreement was signed MCC began putting the refugee assistance program in place with its first efforts in Vancouver and Toronto. Overall, MCC-related Mennonite churches sponsored almost four thousand refugees in 1979 and 1980, over 10 percent of the thirty-five thousand private refugee sponsorships in Canada in those two years.

Lao Vang, 1979

Lao Vang, speaking to refugee sponsors in 1979. Lao Vang photo.

The involvement with Southeast Asian refugees had begun the previous year, however, when the Toronto United Mennonite Church (TUMC) became involved. In September 1978, the United Mennonite Conference’s mission and service committee appealed to its congregations to send relief goods via TUMC to the Evangelical Church of Vietnam in Canada, located in Toronto, for distribution to newly arriving refugees. MCC Ontario soon appointed Tinh Huynh, a member of the Vietnamese church, to head its refugee assistance program. Tinh Huynh assisted newcomers with basic needs and helped to find lodging and employment. Lao (Peter) Vang later worked for MCC Ontario as a refugee resettlement worker from 1981 to 1983. By December 1980 eighty-six Ontario Mennonite congregations sponsored Southeast Asian refugees. The highest participation rate came from the more assimilated Mennonite congregations. These included the Mennonite Brethren (fifteen of twenty-one congregations), United Mennonites (twelve of fifteen congregations), Western Ontario Mennonite Conference (eleven of fifteen congregations), and Mennonite Conference of Ontario (twenty-seven of thirty-six congregations). It made sense for urban Mennonite congregations to participate since the refugees usually migrated to the cities where public services for newcomers were available. But the sponsoring congregations also included at least one Midwest Mennonite Fellowship congregation, five groups from the Markham-Waterloo Mennonite Conference, and one Old Order Mennonite congregation.

In a later blog we’ll discuss the Ontario Mennonite congregations that emerged from these refugees as well as refugees from Central America.

To learn more about Mennonites and refugees, read In Search of Promised Lands.

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Mennonite Refugees after World War II

After World War II Ontario Mennonites helped displaced European Mennonites to immigrate to Canada or South America. These new arrivals helped to preserve traditional marks of Mennonite separation, such as use of the German language, but they also brought with them difficult issues concerning missing spouses, unwed mothers, victims of rape, and people who had been forced into active military service or into difficult ethical decisions under wartime conditions.

Agatha Schmidt's "Exodus USSR - 1943"

Agatha Loewen Schmidt with her painting, “Exodus USSR – 1943.” Photo courtesy Milton Good Library, Conrad Grebel University College.

Agatha Loewen was a native of the village of Gnadenfeld in the Mennonite settlement of Molotschna in the Soviet Union. Her father, a minister, had died of typhus in the early 1930s, leaving his wife and three surviving daughters. Agatha had joined the Young Communists as a teenager in order to receive more advanced education. As a young woman she became a village schoolteacher. When the village was occupied by the German army in 1941, she explored the possibility of becoming an interpreter. When it became clear the German officers were looking for interpreters who would also serve as mistresses, she decided to stay in her teaching position.

Agatha married a young Mennonite soldier in September 1943, but since his unit immediately began to retreat toward Germany they had very little time together. Agatha joined the “Great Trek” of German-speaking residents who retreated with the German army in fall 1943. Agatha and Aaron last saw each other in July 1944 when he was on leave. After a last letter dated August 26, 1944, from the western front, she never heard from him again. After the war, Agatha eventually found her way to Canada as one of many Mennonite refugees seeking a safer land.

Initially she worked at a canning factory on the Niagara Peninsula, and later she worked for a dentist. A widower ten years her senior asked Agatha to marry him. She consented, but the minister at the St. Catharines United Mennonite Church refused to marry them because the fate of Agatha’s first husband was not certain. The church decided they could be married if she was able to have her first husband declared dead. They were finally able to marry in 1951. Agatha went on to become an active lay leader in her congregation. She wrote and published several historical works, and she became a painter, documenting some of her experiences in the Soviet Union and on the Great Trek.

Agatha’s story was one of many. The post-World War II immigrants had a profound impact on the Mennonite congregations begun by the 1920s immigrants. Over the next five years, of the total of 8500 Mennonite refugees who arrived in Canada nearly 1300 stayed in Ontario. This increased Ontario’s “Russian Mennonite” population by at least 25 percent.

The circumstances of the post-war immigrant refugees created tension within Mennonite churches for decades. Families had been splintered and the fate of many husbands who disappeared into exile or military service left many poverty-stricken families headed by women with small children. There were also unmarried mothers who had suffered rape in the course of their wartime experiences. Congregations sometimes required these women to confess “their behavior” before they could become members. In 1947 both the General Conference Mennonite Church and the Mennonite Brethren Church determined that remarriage could not be allowed as long it was uncertain whether the first spouse was dead. In 1949 this was modified by the Conference of Mennonites in Canada, which said those persons who chose to remarry could not become members, but would not be refused communion if they chose to partake. This policy was later changed.

Of course not all experiences were difficult. The new immigrants significantly broadened the culture and diversity of “Russian Mennonite” congregations in Ontario. They helped the persistence of the German language, and brought an entrepreneurial energy that only survivors of difficult circumstances can express.

Learn more about the post-World War II experience in In Search of Promised Lands: a Religious History of Mennonites in Ontario.

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