A History of Migrations


The Low German Mennonite migration from Latin America to Ontario is only the most recent leg of a migratory history that began back in the 1500s in Europe during the Protestant Reformation. Anabaptists, the forebearers of Mennonites, experienced the brunt of Europe’s religious intolerance because of their radical (for their time) belief in the separation of church and state expressed in their practice of adult baptism and in their rejection of military power. The religious intolerance they experienced resulted in many Anabaptists migrating across Europe and to North America in search of greater freedom. Later, some Mennonites migrated east to Russia and eventually to North America.

Preserving their separateness

Anabaptist tree

The “Anabaptist tree” has many branches and the Low German speaking Mennonites from Latin America are but one.

The Low German speaking Mennonite groups that eventually made their way to Western Canada via Russia in the late 19th Century held strongly to their belief in the separation of church and state.  It became an issue in 1916 when the Dominion government of Canada passed The School Attendance Act.  This Act was part of the concerted effort of the Canadian government to integrate the immigrant population in western Canada by requiring all children to attend English schools that used state approved curriculum. If privately run Mennonite schools did not meet this standard, they were closed and children were required to attend public schools with state appointed teachers.

Many Mennonites on the prairies considered this new Act a violation of the right they had negotiated when they first moved to Canada to educate their children in German and in the cultural and religious values of their community. They lobbied the Canadian government extensively but to no avail.  When Mennonite parents refused to send their children to government run schools, they were fined and some were imprisoned. Eventually the majority of Mennonites complied with the Canadian government’s insistence on regulating education, but the most traditional groups, the Old Colony and the Sommerfelder, refused.

Living out their values meant leaving Canada

Recognizing that the education of their children was key to perpetuating their values of separateness, the Old Colony and Sommerfelder Mennonites decided to leave Canada. Various places throughout the Americas were investigated, but Mexico and Paraguay were the only countries where Mennonites were given permission to establish colonies, to educate their children as they wished, and where they were also granted military exemption.


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