THE MENNONITES’ TREK
CHARLES CHRISTOPHER JENKINS
AFTER having made their homes in Canada for almost half a century, during which time they enjoyed unusual prosperity, Old Colony Mennonites, to the number of eleven thousand, announce that they will this year commence a “trek” from Western Canada for “promised lands” elsewhere. The larger number will locate on farms purchased for them in the State of Durango, Northern Mexico.
The original objective of the Mennonites was to complete the “trek” before December the first of the current year; but as these thrifty people are extremely anxious to dispose of their holdings in the West before they leave, and since there has been such a slump in prices of agricultural lands, the exodus may not be accomplished as early as anticipated. Major migrations of the Mennonites will take place from the following localities: Swift Current,
Sask., 3,000; Northern Saskatchewan, 3,500;
Southern M a n i t ob a,
3,500 to 4,000. A party of eight hundred selected from the several districts is to proceed to the State of Durango in advance, to make preparations for the advent of the main body in that territory. The deal for the acquisition of the
lands in Mexico was completed after two years’ negotiations and a thorough test of the soil to make sure of its fertility, the situation chosen being at an altitude that assures them of a temperate climate suitable for grain growing. They have secured from President Obregon of the Mexican Republic a hard and fast agreement which exempts them from military service and allows them to worship as they please and conduct their own school system without molestation.
By reason of the migration of these eleven thousand people from the West some eighty-five thousand acres of land in the Hague and Osier districts alone, most of it improved prairie farms, will change hands, the properties being listed with a large western land company, who have already disposed of some of it to Polish farmers of the Roman Catholic faith who had hitherto been grain-growers in the Western United States. No Mennonite will leave his Canadian farm until another farmer buys it and is ready to settle on the land and carry on with its operation. This of course applies only to the freeholders who, however, are in a vast majority.
Was Agreement Violated?
THE cause of this “trek” of the Mennonites is resentment over their treatment under conscription during the Great War and enforcement of the standard school regulations by the provincial education departments. In both instances, the Mennonites claim, there was a violation of the agreement made with them in the year 1873 on behalf of the Dominion Government by the Department of Agriculture, in the form of an order-in-council.
The foregoing are the main details in connection with the exodus of the Old Colony Mennonites as they were gathered from Western Mennonites and their agents. The Old Colony Mennonite is reticent and very conservative by nature and has an inherent disinclination to discuss with an outsider his own affairs or the affairs of his people. Nevertheless, those whom I met in the West quietly confirmed the statements made to me by their land agents that they were selling out and moving to Mexico. In connection therewith I was handed the following statement signed by two of the most representative Mennonite citizens:—
“Since there have been so many misleading rumors and misrepresentations about the emigration of the Old Colony Mennonite Church out of Canada, we, the undersigned, as representatives of the said Church, feel it to be our duty to herewith affirm and state that we have made a sale of our lands at Hague and Osier, comprising approximately 85,000 acres, on behalf of the members of the Old Colony Mennonite Church resident on these lands.
“We further state that we have purchased lands in Mexico on behalf of these people and that we intend emigrating there as soon as possible. We regret that it is necessary for us to leave Canada, and we take great pleasure in stating in as far as farming conditions are concerned we believe Canada lo be unsurpassed. We have farmed successfully and believe that the net results of all our people in Canada from farming will be hard to equal in any other country. While we have sold our lands we must state that these lands are fisst class in every particular. Our average
yield of wheat for the present season was slightly over twenty bushels to the acre.
“We desire to state that none of the Old Colony Mennonites are going to South America.
“Our only objection lies in the fact that the concession granted and ratified by the Federal Government giving us entire right to conduct our schools without molestation or restriction has now been repudiated.”
(Signed) J. P. WALL, bishop.
BENJAMIN GOERTZEN, citizen.”
What Bishop Wall and Mr. Goertzen declare in the foregoing statement regarding Western Canada was repeated to me by other representative Mennonites; so far as the fertility of the soil and the opportunities for successful farming are concerned they prefer
Prairie Canada to any other part of the world.
But they have made up their minds to move elsewhere principally because they are now debarred from conducting their schools according to their own choice of educational systems.
They take it for granted that Mexico, whose governments in the past have been changed by gory revolution in a single night, will permanently abide by an agreement that Canada found it impossible to continue, much as the Dominion would otherwise like to have retained the industrious and law-abiding Mennonites.
Many Millions Lost
'T'HE fact that each family of the Old Colony Mennonites joining in the “trek” is worth on an average of $15,000 is not only proof that they are efficient and successful farmers but is as well eloquent tribute to the fertility of the lands which they occupied for the past forty years and more.
The exodus was decided upon after long deliberation when the Mennonites found that the western provinces were set upon seeing that their children should attend schools under the jurisdiction of established education departments, the Mennonites holding that they were immune from such regulations, basing their claim on Clauses No. 1 and No 10 of an order-in-council passed in 1873 when the Mennonites from Southern Russia were assigned eight townships of land in the Province of Manitoba. Those two clauses read as follows:—
“1. An entire exemption from any military service is, by law and order-in-council, granted to the denomination of Christians called Mennonites.”
“10. The fullest privilege of exercising their religious principles is by law afforded to the Mennonites, without any kind of molestation or restriction whatever, and the same privilege extends to the edueation of their children in schools."
The grievance of the Old Colony Mennonites is that these two clauses of the order-in-council, which they looked upon as a binding covenant, have been violated; No. 1 by conscription during the war, and No. 10 by the provincial education departments when the Mennonites were ordered to abandon their village schools and send the children to public schools taught by Canadian-trained
teachers. The fact that the section referring to education is ultra vires, because it is a direct interference with the prerogative of the provincial governments, does not enter into their process of reasoning. As they put it, they “cannot understand a law being a law which allows of a government breaking its agreement with the people.”
The Old Colony Mennonites are only about one-fifth of the Mennonite population of the West, as there are some seventeen sects in all. A vast majority of the descendants of the original Mennonites have by degrees in broken away from the more drastic regulations of the Old Colony cult and are conforming to modem customs the West and sending their children to the public schools, just as other foreign races have finally agreed to do. But I found a close bond of sympathy existed between the Modern or New Mennonites and their Old Colony neighbors, and as the former are much more inclined to discuss the situation freely, I sought out a number of their leaders in the Hague district, Saskatchewan.
Should Greater Tolerance Be Shown?
WE FEEL very keenly that our Old Colony brethren are forced to leave Canada,” one Modem Mennonite told me. “We do not think sufficient patience was exercised with them, and while we, for instance, are conforming to the provincial regulations with regard to education and believe it is the best for our children, we do not think it should be forced upon the Old Colony brethren with the spirit of intolerance that has been manifested. The result has been to make many of the New Mennonites of the various other sects feel dissatisfied, and before the thing is over many of the latter may ‘trek’ out of sympathy with the old people. I considered myself as loyal a Canadian as any in 1917, but there have been occurrences since then that have made us of the modern school very bitter. We cannot help it. These Old Colony people are a part of ourselves; we cannot forget that.” He evidently felt very strongly about it.
I asked him just what he meant by “sufficient patience,” to which he replied that he thought that a tolerant spirit would in time have won over the Old Colony Mennonites to the Canadian viewpoint. He said the old schools were gradually passing out of existence anyway. Time would prove to the Old Colony Mennonites that the Canadian system of education was the better one in the interests of their children. “But it would be too late to try that now,” he added, “because they have made all their arrangements and they have their minds fixed on leaving to make new homes for themselves in Mexico.” “You believe an intolerant attitude was taken by the authorities toward the Old Colony members?”
“I do,” he affirmed. “They broke up their schools and fined them severely—sometimes they took the last horse and the last meat out of the house to pay the fines.”
This man spoke excellent English, a matter I happened casually to compliment him about. “It is not any better than the average Mennonite uses,” he replied. “If you go into any of our districts you will find that the descendants of these same Old Colony folk and the children speak just as good English as I do, and you will also find most of them well posted on Canadian affairs. It would only have been a question of time until all conformed to the customs of this country—that is if patience had been exercised on the part of the authorities.”
Extreme in Their Pacifism
THE Mennonites do not believe in war, not even in defence of the country they live in. I struck up a conversation with a stalwart six-footer from the Hague district on this subject, and he told me the sanctity of human life was one of the main themes of their religion.
“But,” I suggested, "suppose your country were in danger of invasion by a foreign force, would you not take up arms to keep them out?”
“Our religion teaches us we should not fight,” he in-
sisted. “We would not go to war.” Where upon I said: “Not even if you knew that force would conquer the country and make you and your brethren their subjects?” “We do not believe in war and we would not resist to the extent of shedding the blood of fellow-beings.”
I carried the matter a step further. “Suppose,” I went on, “that an armed force from a foreign country had invaded Canada and had penetrated to this section of Saskatchewan. Suppose in this case you knew they would over-run the Hague district, sack your homes and drive you from your farms. Do you mean to say that in such a case you would not take up arms to resist them?”
“We would not,” he replied with quiet emphasis. “It is contrary to our religion to engage in war, and we would live up to our religion.”
“Even to being driven from the farms you have worked so hard to bring to their present state of perfection?”
“Yes, even to being driven from our farms. We would peacefully go elsewhere and the good God would provide for us.”
Their Work as Pioneer Farmers
DERHAPS that should have satis* fied me, but I was tempted to probe this trait of the Mennonite further. I asked him what he would do himself in case a pugnacious individual struck him in the face without provocation.”
“I would feel very badly if I struck him back,” the burly Mennonite said. “I would try to protect myself without hurting him.”
“Do Mennonites never have fights among themselves?” “Oh yes, we are only human,” he admitted. “But it is not very often our people ever come to blows, and when any of them do the rest of us feel very, very badly about it.” From what I learned elsewhere from people who know the Mennonites intimately, what this man told me is absolutely true. The Mennonites abhor violence and do not believe in inflicting pain on a fellow mortal either in retaliation for injuries or in self defence.
J. P. Murphy, of Saskatoon, by reason of his handling land deals in connection with the “trek”, has had more opportunities than most people to study the Mennonites and their traits. “I doubt whether the majority of Canadians realize the worth of these people as pioneer farmers,” Mr. Murphy told me. “They are without doubt the best land experts in our western country. They know good soil and they know how to make it produce the most without depleting its fertility. They are a peaceful, lawabiding race, and ‘Thrift ’ is their middle name. No other stock that has settled in the West has done as well per family in the matter of improving their land and accumulating wealth from the operation as the Mennonites.
“Few people know,’’continued Mr. Murphy, “that the Mennonites were the first to successfully demonstrate the value of No. 1 hard wheat in Southern Saskatchewan. To prove that, you have to go back twenty-seven years in Canadian history. More than that, the Mennonites established the largest local wheat shipping point in the world at Rosthern, Saskatchewan. Their farms and the live-stock they raise on them are models of perfection. So, you see, these quiet, unostentatious people have had much to do with pioneering the prairie West the rest of us like to brag about. I might say there are two distinct features of this exodus that I do not like. The one is that Canada will have a difficult task to get farmers to replace them who will do as well by the country as they have done, and the other is the unrest which the ‘trek’ of the Old Colony members is sure to cause among the other sects of the cult. The younger generation fee! very much hurt over their elder brethren being forced to leave the country, and it is just possible the inclination to ‘trek’, which is ari inherited trait with them, may start the Modern Mennonites following the example of the Old Colony members.” “Do you really think they will do as well in Mexico as they have done in Canada?” I asked.
“That would be hard for me to answer,” Mr. Murphy replied. “They admit being very sorry to leave their homes in Canada and say that the land they held here cannot be surpassed anywhere. At the same time, while everybody else says they are foolish to take chances in a hair-trigger country like Mexico, I have seen enough of them to know they never make a move without considering all the possibilities in connection with it. They are too well versed as land experts to be deceived about the soil of the country they are going to, and they claim to have not only obtained a good bargain as to the price per acre, but to have secured a definite agreement with the Mexican government whereby they are exempted from military service, allowed to run their schools to suit themselves and are even guaranteed military protection against revolutionists and bandits.”
THAT is that so far as the Mennonites’ side of the case is concerned. There are good and sufficient reasons why they could not be allowed to continue conducting their schools as they pleased, chief of which is that if such privileges were granted them every other race in the West would justly feel they had a right to the same privileges. As to their “agreement” with the Dominion Government, which Old Colony Mennonites claim should exempt them from military service and allow them to conduct their schools as they choose, authorities seem to agree that it, as a mere order-in-council, has not the force of statute
law. There are only two occasions when an order-in-council has any effect; firstly, when the proclamation makes known the executive will of the King in the matter of convening Parliament; and secondly, when an order-incouncil has later been made effective by Act of Parliament (which authorities are based on the Law of Constitution, pp. 51-52).
Hence the order-in-council emanating under the authority of the Department of Agriculture in 1873, as an assurance to the Mennonites on the points at issue, has really no legal significance. Morally, it must be admitted that a deception was practised on these simple people who came all the way from Southern Russia to a land where they had been led to believe men kept their word. The mistake was made in ever presenting such an agreement, but back in 1873 the Canadian Government little dreamed of Western Canada developing in five decades into the modern country it is to-day.
There are other reasons cited as to why the order-incouncil clauses are not legal and binding, one of which is that the order-in-council mentions only Manitoba, and for that reason alone, were it even binding otherwise, it could not be held to be effective in Saskatchewan. The sole reason for taking advantage of these facts is that the schools as they were being conducted by Old Colony Mennonite teachers could not be tolerated.
Thorough investigations were made of the village schools before action was taken by the provincial departments to have them abolished and to insist on the children being sent to modern Canadian schools taught by qualified teachers. The reports made by these investigators showed that the teachers in Old Colony schools did not know the English language well enough to teach it, even if they had been willing to do so. None of the teachers possessed any professional qualifications whatever, and all the schools, according to one report, had the same’ type of backless seats, the same dazzling light pouring into the pupils’ eyes from the left, right and front; the same absence of maps, pictures and charts. Some had a few blackboards and others had none.
The pupils in the Old Colony schools passed through four grades: First—A.B.C.; Second—Catechism; Third—
New Testament; Fourth—Old Testament. The whole of the forenoon at these schools was taken up with singing,
praying and the study of Bible history, and in the afternoon the pupils worked at arithmetic and writing. “So through seven years they go,” relates the report of Dr. E. H. Oliver who investigated conditions in Saskatchewan and was first to call attention to them. “So they go from October 15 to seeding, and again one month in Summer, ignorant of the facts of Canadian history, untouched by the loftiness of Canadian ideals and taught that the English language will only make it easier for them to lapse into the great world of sin outside the Mennonite communities.”
School System Scored
SCHOOLS were conducted in all manner of places and a ^ great number of them were considered unsanitary, lacking in ventilation and badly heated. In some cases the schools were taught by doddering old patriarchs of the villages.
The investigations proved conditions so intolerable that immediate steps were taken to force the Old Colony Mennonites to build and equip proper schools for the education of their children and conduct the schools under the supervision of the provincial departments of education. Other residents of the West practically demanded such action on behalf of the little children growing up in Old Colony communities, it being pointed out that further delay about the matter would not mend matters as efforts quietly to induce the Old Colony people to improve their school system had failed dismally for a good quarter of a century.
So Canadian schools were built in the Mennonite communities and Canadian teachers, properly trained for the positions, were installed. The teachers found themselves without pupils. Until they were summoned to court and fined for refusing to comply with the school laws parents refused to send their children to the new schools. Then began the plans for the “trek” which is now in progress. The Old Colony Mennonites would rather give up their fine farms and their security under Canadian government and take their chances in Mexico than submit to having their children educated on a par with other Cana-
There may be a deeper psychological reason for this attitude than appears on first sight, largely inspired by the bishops and preachers of the cult who fear their power will come to an end when their people become enlightened. It has been so w'ith a large number of the second generation of Mennonites, who, on gaining education and mixing with other Canadians, broke away from the Old Colony Church and formed new sects of their own, under which they are enabled to send their children to Canadian schools and enjoy certain luxuries denied the Old Colony people by their Church.
While the Old Colony Mennonite will purchase and use the most modern of farm implements, he will not use an automobile, have a telephone in his house, or allow anything ornamental that is store-bought on his premises. Pianos and gramaphones are out of the questioh and to desire such things is very sinful.
The Clock was Anathema!
TN THIS connection a story is told of one unfortunate Mennonite who, while he was in Saskatoon one market day, was tempted beyond his strength by a clock he saw in one of the stores. It was a mantel clock with imitation marble surroundings and ornamented brass around its face. He bought the clock and took it home. That evening a neighbor called to make a visit and received a tremendous shock when she noted the ornate clock on a table. The news of the fall of this brother spread like wild-fire through the village, and the elders marched gravely to the culprit’s house to investigate. After a minute examination of the clock and due deliberation, they found him guilty of a heinous misdemeanor and ordered that he must get rid of the fancy clock under pain of excommunication.
But their scorn of modern inventions has on more than one occasion proved a drawback to staid members of the Old Colony Church. There is another story told of an Old Colony bishop who, on his way to catch a train at Saskatoon, stopped in one of the New Colony villages to bid the time of the day to the younger people. At one of the houses he was asked to stay for dinner.
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“But I cannot do that,” he protested, “for I have hut time enough to reach Saskatoon and catch my train.”
“Your train is an hour late. Bishop,” called one of the womenfolk from the door-
“In that case,” consented the bishop, “I will accept your invitation.”
After he was seated at table he casually inquired how they had gained the information that his train was an hour late, and they told him amid much laughter that one member of the family had called up Saskatoon over the telephone. “So you see, Bishop,” they insisted, “the little telephone which you claim is an invention of the Evil One has saved you time for a re t and dinner.”
It is recorded that the bishop made no reply. His eyes and his nostrils told him ! here was an exceptionally fine dinner he was going to miss if he split hairs about his convictions, so he decided to stay and dine—and literally, instead of figuratively, allow the telephone to be damned.
Mennonites Strongly Individualistic
' I 'HE Mennonites are not community farmers as many suppose who have not been among them. They are as a matter of fact strongly individualistic. Each transacts his private business separately, except on the rarest of occasions. They usually arrange to buy their farms so that they can build their houses and barns in village style, thus overcoming the isolation so much more common elsewhere in prairie farm life. As a rule, every nook and corner of their home premises is scrupulously dean and the older farmers have fine avenues of shade trees about their places. Often the Mennonites’ house, stable and barn are all in one long building with dividing walls between, thus making it unnecessary to go out into the cold during the Winter to do the chores and milking.
The stock and equipment on a Mennonite farm is invariably of the finest and most up-to-date character. Though they have their eccentricities as t.o dress, home surroundings and education, they have few superiors as farmers anywhere in the world.
A Strange History Indeed
' i 'HE name Mennonite did not originL ally apply to a race of people but to a religion, although through usage it has come in this country to designate a class of immigrants who came here from German colonies in Southern Russia. Their creed is based on the teachings of Christ and the Old Testament; but it utterly discards
the right of priests to assume that their office confers any sanctity upon them not the privilege of the individual worshipper. They claim to admit and observe no religious laws outside the Bible and the conscience of the individual; even baptism is not compulsory. The Mennonite belief lays stress on the sanctity of human life and a man’s word. They do not believe an individual can be a true Christian and kill, maim or even injure a fellow-human in war or in what we would call “just provocation” or “self-defense.” An oath is looked upon by a Mennonite as equivalent to blasphemy—they accept other men’s words as sacred, and a declaration made by a Mennonite without being sworn is to him a declaration before his Creator.
The Mennonites have always been tillers of the soil and since the earliest practice of the precepts of their faith have been a persecuted people and wanderers over the face of the earth. In Holland, where the creed gathered to itself the first following of proportions, they succeeded in gaining exemption from military service in 1575, from oath-taking in 1585, and from public office in 1617. The latter exemption was sought because they hold that “all kinds of magistracy is foreign to the kingdom of Christ,” though they have bishops, preachers and deacons, who act as their spokesmen.
Napoleon experienced some trouble with the Mennonites in the Vosges, but the Corsican, instead of attempting to coerce these humble people into taking up arms, ordained that they should be employed in hospital service in his campaigns, duties which they accepted cheerfully. He did not, however, exempt the Dutch Mennonites, for the reason that they “had ceased to present a united front of resistance to military claims,” and they sent a large band of volunteers to Waterloo.
Accounts of Mennonite beginnings vary, but the more authentic relate that the first congregation to profess these principles was formed in Zurich in 1525, by Grebel, Manz and Baurock. Thence the sect spread through Switzerland and the south of Germany and Austria. A persecution in which 3,000 of their number were put to the sword caused them to move to Moravia and Holland. Shortly after this there arose Menno Simonds, a native of the Netherlands, who organised the congregations of the faithful throughout Holland and North Germany. His name has been used ever since to designate the sect.
Notwithstanding persecution the Mennonites increased and spread through Holland, Germany, Switzerland and Russia. In the year 1871, when the Russian Men-
noni tes numbered 40,000, the Russian Czar abrogated the agreement made with them by a former ruler and decreed they should be liable to conscription for his armies. It was then they made their preparations for a “trek” to Canada and the United States, though refugees of their faith from other countries who sought homes on this continent as early as 1683.
In the West they are said to be divided into some seventeen different sects including Old Colony Mennonites, Reformed Mennonites or "Herr’s People,” New Mennonites, Evangelical Mennonites, Amish or Ornish Mennonites and the Church of God through Christ.
Through the divisions of the sect and
the error often made in including Teutonic Lutherans and Catholics as Mennonites, a great deal of confusion has arisen as to the causes underlying the “trek” of the Old Colony Mennonites from Canada. Incidentally, while the Mennonites of Waterloo county, Ontario, are of the same faith, they did not come to this country with the Russian Mennonites of the West. They were mostly Pennsylvania Dutchmen, who with the exercise of more patience than has apparently been accorded their brethren of the West, have become model Canadian citizens whose young men voluntarily took part in the defence of Canada and the Empire :n the recent war.