Ukrainian Mennonites Begin Settling in Canada Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

To populate Manitoba and produce needed agricultural products, the Canadian government recruited Mennonites to immigrate from the Ukraine. The migration to Canada proved just one in a succession of Mennonite migrations, as the members of this religious denomination attempted to find a home free of persecution.

Summary of Event

In 1873, when many Mennonites left the Ukraine for Manitoba, Canada, it was the latest in a series of migrations for a people whose religion forbade the swearing of oaths, involvement in secular civic affairs, and the bearing of arms. The pattern of Mennonite history, one of withdrawal, flight, and emigration, began in Switzerland and continued in the Netherlands, Prussia, and the Ukraine, when those countries posed serious threats to the Mennonite faith. The Mennonites were drawn to the Ukraine when, in 1762-1763, Catherine the Great of Russia invited foreigners, except for Jews, Jews;in Russia[Russia] to the so-called New Russia, the Ukraine, which Russia had won in a war with Turkey. Canada;Ukrainian immigrants Ukrainian immigrants Mennonites Manitoba;immigrants Canada;immigration Immigration;to Canada[Canada] [kw]Ukrainian Mennonites Begin Settling in Canada (1873) [kw]Mennonites Begin Settling in Canada, Ukrainian (1873) [kw]Settling in Canada, Ukrainian Mennonites Begin (1873) [kw]Canada, Ukrainian Mennonites Begin Settling in (1873) Canada;Ukrainian immigrants Ukrainian immigrants Mennonites Manitoba;immigrants Canada;immigration Immigration;to Canada[Canada] [g]Canada;1873: Ukrainian Mennonites Begin Settling in Canada[4630] [g]Ukraine;1873: Ukrainian Mennonites Begin Settling in Canada[4630] [c]Immigration;1873: Ukrainian Mennonites Begin Settling in Canada[4630] [c]Agriculture;1873: Ukrainian Mennonites Begin Settling in Canada[4630] [c]Expansion and land acquisition;1873: Ukrainian Mennonites Begin Settling in Canada[4630] [c]Government and politics;1873: Ukrainian Mennonites Begin Settling in Canada[4630] Hespeler, William Shantz, Jacob Y. Klassen, David Lowe, John Pope, John Henry

Thousands of Mennonites accepted this invitation, and for more than one hundred years they enjoyed prosperity and the freedoms promised them by Catherine. They regulated their own affairs, were free to have their own schools—where lessons were taught in German—and were not subject to military conscription. However, in 1870, Czar Alexander Alexander II [p]Alexander II[Alexander 02];and Mennonites[Mennonites] II decided to “Russianize” the German-speaking Mennonites and rescinded those freedoms, which had been reaffirmed by Czar Paul I Paul I : Russian replaced German as the language of commerce, secular government replaced church government, and universal conscription Conscription:Russian was instituted, although Mennonites were allowed to serve in the medical corps rather than fight in the military service. Although the Mennonites were given ten years to comply with the altered situation, many of them decided to emigrate.

Mennonite John Funk Funk, John began a correspondence with Cornelius Janzen, an American Mennonite who was interested in having the Ukrainian Mennonites immigrate to the United States, but the Canadians were more aggressive in their recruitment of the Mennonites. At the time, the province of Manitoba had much to gain from an influx of settlers. The Canadians were concerned about the possibility of American settlers moving across the border, possibly leading to an annexation like the one in Texas. They also needed farmers in the West to supply the more populous eastern Canada with foodstuffs, and they wanted a population base for the intercontinental railroad they had planned.

The Canadian government sent William Hespeler, Hespeler, William one of their immigration agents then in Germany, to Berdiansk in the Ukraine. Hespeler conducted a secret meeting with the Mennonites, providing them with information and advice about a move to Canada. Despite Russian opposition after his first meeting, he returned to meet with the Mennonites again. Hespeler’s efforts were supplemented by those of Jacob Y. Shantz Shantz, Jacob Y. , a Mennonite from Ontario who toured Manitoba and issued an 1873 report touting the advantages Manitoba offered to his Mennonite brethren. These included cheaper land (free or one dollar per acre, as opposed to three dollars per acre in the United States) and better protection against lawlessness and against Native Americans.

In the spring of 1873, twelve Mennonite delegates from closely knit colonies in the Ukraine arrived to visit the United States and Canada. When they arrived in Fargo, North Dakota North Dakota;Mennonites , they were met by Hespeler and Shantz, who accompanied them on their tour of Manitoba. There were problems with the land they were offered: Mosquitoes and grasshoppers were rampant in the marshy land, which lacked timber for construction. Livestock and farm implements were more expensive in Canada than they were in the United States, and the native Metis also claimed the land. In fact, there was an encounter between the twelve Mennonites and the Metis, who surrounded them at House’s Tavern after a brawl; the Mennonites, though, were protected by Hespeler, Hespeler, William who summoned provincial troops to disperse the attackers.

Eight Mennonite delegates promptly left for the United States, but two from the Bergthal colony, Jacob Peters Peters, Jacob and Heinrich Wiebe Wiebe, Heinrich , and two from the Kleine Gemeinde colony, Cornelius Toews Toews, Cornelius and David Klassen, Klassen, David went to Ottawa to ratify an agreement with the Canadian authorities, probably because they shared Heinrich Wiebe’s belief that the United States would not grant the Mennonites the military exemption they sought or the freedom of religion they needed. The letter that John Lowe Lowe, John , a Canadian agent, sent the Mennonites on July 25, 1873, granted them exemption from military service, gave them the opportunity to affirm rather than sign legal affidavits, offered them exclusive rights to eight free townships with the option of exchanging them if they proved unsuitable, and allowed them to run their own schools. John Henry Pope Pope, John Henry , minister of agriculture, amended the letter three days later, reducing the concessions, but his emendations remained secret for forty-five years.

Between 1873 and 1878, about fifteen thousand Mennonites, representing about 30 percent of the total Ukrainian Mennonite population, emigrated to the United States and Canada; seven thousand (about twelve hundred peasant households) emigrated to Manitoba, some directly and some after a winter stopover in Ontario. By 1881, Mennonites composed 13 percent of Manitoba’s population. The emigration succeeded despite the financial losses the Mennonites experienced when they sold their property in Russia for less than it was worth and despite the cost of travel to the United States, including passage, passports, exit permits, bribes, and advance Russian tax payments.

The Bergthal colony, which was a poor colony in the Ukraine, had financial problems, but these were overcome through the assistance of the richer Mennonite emigrants, the Ontario Mennonites, Ontario;Mennonites and the Waisenamt (a kind of welfare bank), and by a $100,000 loan from the Canadian government, most of which was repaid with interest. The Mennonites settled in an Eastern Reserve, which lacked timber, and a Western Reserve, where some of the Eastern Reserve Mennonites eventually moved. From their arrival in Canada, when they spent money on livestock and farm implements, through the early twenty-first century, they have had a significant impact on the Canadian economy. They quickly made the change from a subsistence to a capitalistic economy; flax was the first crop they grew commercially.


The Mennonite immigration to Manitoba, which peaked between 1873 and 1883, increased substantially the population of Canada, supplied necessary foodstuffs to eastern markets, and made the Canadian Pacific Canadian Pacific Railway;and immigrants[Immigrants] Railway feasible and financially successful. Canadian Mennonites eventually encountered the same problems they had faced earlier in their history, however. From the start, their unfamiliar customs (for example, women working in the fields) bothered their neighbors; their exemption from military service in both world wars also brought criticism, and their educational system came under attack by the government.

Increases in Mennonite immigration after both world wars were offset by the loss of traditional Mennonites, who emigrated to Mexico and Paraguay Paraguay . The impact of the Mennonites on Manitoba may be measured by their status as a large immigrant group, by the place-names of towns and cities, and by their effects upon Canadian agricultural practices, some of which derive from the Ukrainian Mennonites’ experiences. The assimilation experience, so common to immigrants, was especially difficult for them but was eventually largely resolved.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ens, Adolf. Subjects or Citizens? The Mennonite Experience in Canada, 1870-1925. Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 1994. Focuses on the military and educational issues that brought the Mennonites into conflict with their neighbors and the Canadian government. Ens also supplies information about the cause and extent of the Mennonite emigration from Canada to Mexico and Paraguay. Extensive bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Francis, E. K. In Search of Utopia: The Mennonites in Manitoba. Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press, 1955. Early history of Mennonite emigration, covering Mennonite history into the first half of the twentieth century.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gerbrandt, Henry J. Adventure in Faith. Altona, Man.: D. W. Friesen and Sons, 1970. The first one hundred pages cover the historical background through the emigration in the 1870’s; the rest of the book concerns Mennonite churches in the twentieth century. Gerbrandt offers a detailed account of the Dominion Day brawl involving the twelve Mennonite delegates and the Metis.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Klippenstein, Lawrence. David Klassen and the Mennonites. Agincourt, Canada: Book Society of Canada, 1982. Part of the “We Built Canada” series designed for secondary school students, the book contains the story of the emigration plus details about farming implements, church services, and the schools. Many early photographs and maps.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Neufeld, William. From Faith to Faith. Hillsboro, Kans.: Kindred Press, 1989. Part 1 provides historical background and a brief account of the Mennonite emigration to Manitoba. The rest of the book concerns the Mennonite Church in the United States and the development of the Mennonite Church in North America after 1888.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schroeder, William. The Bergthal Colony. Rev. ed. Winnipeg, Man.: CMBC, 1986. Focuses primarily on the Bergthal colony, its government, schools, church, and community life, but the book has one chapter entitled “Migration to Manitoba,” which contains edited diaries about the initial visit of the twelve Mennonite delegates and their trip from the Ukraine to Manitoba. Shroeder also includes Czar Paul’s “Charter of Privileges” granted to the Russian Mennonites and John Lowe’s letter of July 3, 1873, specifying Canadian concessions made to the Mennonites.

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