Mennonites form important rural backbone

Bridging the gap


While many come to work during harvest, some Low German Mennonites are starting to make Ontario their permanent home

LEAMINGTON, Ont. — Low German-speaking Mennonites have become an integral and vital part of southwestern Ontario, but also remain, in many respects, a people apart.

Perhaps 25 percent of the 40,000 in the region are migratory, moving north for agricultural work in spring and then back to their homes in Latin America following the harvest. The rest have settled permanently.

They work in a range of rural occupations, have established churches, bought land, built homes and businesses and at the same time have maintained their distinct cultural identity.

Others in the province call them the Mexican Mennonites, which is a misnomer, and know little of their lives or struggles.

That’s changing as Mennonite families integrate economically into the wider rural community.

“I came to Canada for first time when I was seven,” said Katharine Enns, who now works as a mental health professional.

“Our family had six children, one of which was six weeks old.”

Relatives helped find her family a house, and her father began working as a mechanic for $1.65 an hour. Even 40 years ago, that wasn’t a lot.

“Sometimes we had peanut butter sandwiches three times a day, for breakfast, lunch and supper,” Enns said at a recent cultural awareness conference sponsored by Mennonite Central Committee Ontario.

“My parents were exhausted, they were depressed. But as kids, we didn’t realize that.”

Enns said her experience improved when she began attending an elementary school.

She eventually moved back to Mexico with her family but returned to Canada in her 20s to begin her career.

She was part of a panel discussion that provided a rare glimpse into the lives of Ontario’s Low German Mennonites.

Cornelius Reimer, now a grandfather, arrived when he was nine.

“My first day in the field I picked 28 hampers of tomatoes and I thought I had done real well,” he said.

“Why did we come? My parents were real poor. It was poverty.”

Margaret Reimer, Cornelius’s wife, was born in Canada but has maintained her Mennonite values and traditional dress.

“When we went to school, we were often looked down on. We were called Mexicans. We were not good in their eyes,” she said.

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It was a similar story for Jacob Hildebrand, who came with his family from Bolivia when he was four. He started school late and appreciated the effort made by his teachers. However, he was bullied by other students.

Tina Fehr had a better experience but dropped out of school when she was 16.

“They never told me I had to quit. I felt I had to do it to help the family.”

She worked as a greenhouse and factory labourer and operated a trucking business with her husband. Eventually she found her calling with a position with the Mennonite Central Committee.

“I’ve even helped deliver babies,” she said. “We’re making a real difference with these families.”

Several panelists spoke of their Christian faith as a source of strength and direction.

Henry Friesen, who has served as an Old Colony deacon in Ontario for 27 years, said Low German Mennonites include several conservative groups. They place a special emphasis on certain passages from the New Testament, particularly Romans 2:12:

“And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.”

Cornelius Reimer may have ex-pressed that text in a different way when he responded to a question concerning the nature of success.

“Yes, success is important to me, to be a light to those around me,” he said.

It’s the concepts of separateness and setting an example that have shaped the belief system of Low German-speaking Mennonites and provided a measure of control within communities. Perhaps the greatest punishment within communities is to be shunned, Friesen said.

The philosophy has also led to the migration of families.

Challenges in Russia, such as concerns about participation in the military, led to the migration of Low German Mennonites to Western Canada in the 1870s. Unease over integration into the public education system caused another move to Latin America following the First World War, notably to Bolivia and Mexico, where scores of church-based colonies are established.

A new migration began in the 1950s, this time north to Canada. It can be linked to economic hardship, but for some it was an opportunity to leave behind what they felt was burdensome leadership in their communities.

The sense of separateness continues in Ontario, but there has been gradual change.

Colonies in Latin America are self-sufficient in many respects, typically comprising a group of small villages, which in turn comprise family units. A focus on agricultural pursuits is common.

Education, health and other services are sanctioned through the church. Outside of church doctrine, there’s little regulation when it comes to activities such as building a home, driving a vehicle or starting a business.

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Newcomers to Canada are often at a loss.

“Often they do not know how to behave in a society that is much more organized,” Friesen said.

“Here in Ontario we have programs for just about every type of service but they don’t know that.”

Education was one area that re-ceived a good deal of discussion at the conference.

It is viewed in a positive light in the Latin American colonies, even as a necessity, but the quality of that education varies widely.

Some children are taught only the basics of reading, writing and arithmetic while others have access to secondary and even post-secondary opportunities.

In Ontario, Mennonite families are often reluctant to send their children to the public school system for fear of adverse influences. As an alternative, private elementary schools have been established.

For example, three private elementary schools in the Dresden area in the Municipality of Chatham-Kent are each affiliated with a different church group.

A teacher at the local secondary school said the school’s population would expand by at least one-third if Mennonite young people were to attend.

That’s unlikely to happen soon, but accommodations are beginning to be made to provide Low German Mennonite young people with high school opportunities through the public system.

Educator Abe Wall has been in-volved with innovative programs at the Grand Erie District School Board and the Thames Region Valley District School Board.

“Instead of asking them to change, we changed the system,” Wall said.

He currently works with the Aspire program at East Elgin Secondary School in Aylmer, which began four years ago. Three hundred young people enrolled last September with 13 teachers dedicated to their education.

Students do not attend regular high school programming but meet face to face with their teachers at least once a week. The rest of the time they correspond through text and social media to receive and deliver assignments.

Wall said the Mennonite young people tend to succeed in their high school classes. They bring a strong work ethic, and even those with a private elementary background are well grounded with the basic skills.

Now there is interest in bringing the program to other areas in southwestern Ontario.

Communication is key when en-couraging Mennonite families to take advantage of educational opportunities, panelists said.

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This includes teachers letting parents know they care and that they’re welcome to be more involved with the wider community.