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The Low German Mennonite migration from Latin America to Canada is the most recent leg of a migratory history that began in the 1500s in Europe.

History of Low German-speaking Mennonites

The Low German-speaking Mennonite community has been described as both a faith and a culture. Low German-speaking Mennonites have their historical and religious roots in the Anabaptist movement of the European Reformation in the 1500s. This movement began during a time when the Church acted both as the conduit of a faith, as a function of the state and, some would argue, as the government as well. While considered a Christian denomination, early Anabaptists have several distinctive beliefs that inform their religious and community life. 

The basic principles of Anabaptist beliefs include a high view of the Bible as the authoritative Word of God, with an emphasis on the New Testament being a fulfilment of the Old. There is an emphasis on Jesus as central to all else and taking the commands of Jesus seriously. Anabaptists believe in the necessity of a believers’ church, baptizing only those who have come to a personal, living faith. Voluntary baptism, together with a commitment to walk in the full newness of life and to strive for purity in the church, constitutes the basis of church membership. Following church membership is the lifestyle and importance of discipleship. Faith is expressed in holy living. Anabaptists continue to teach that salvation makes us followers of Jesus Christ and that he is the model for the way we are to live. Anabaptists are committed to the way of peace as modelled by Jesus. The peace position is not optional, not marginal and not related mainly to the military. On the basis of Scripture, Anabaptists renounce violence in human relationships. Peace and reconciliation are at the heart of the Christian gospel (Murray, 2010).

There is an insistence on a church without classes or divisions, that all are equal before Christ. Further to this, worship is expressed as a belief in the church as a covenant community who cares for one another. While this may be expressed differently or uniquely within the different Anabaptist communities, there is a belief that the fellowship of believers is to be radically separate from the world, and that such a covenant community functions as authentically counterculture. This principle includes separation of church and state. Anabaptists are committed to servanthood, to be of practical assistance to a needy and hurting world, just as Christ came to be a servant to all. Lastly, Anabaptists believe that Christ has commissioned the church to go into all the world and all of society and to make disciples of all people, baptizing them and teaching them to observe his commandments (Murray, 2010). 

These strongly held tenets of faith resulted in their severe persecution and martyrdom. It was during this time, in the 1500s, that they were nicknamed Mennonites. This nickname came as a result of the following that a former Catholic priest, Menno Simons, gained as an influential Anabaptist religious leader. As a result of this persecution, the Anabaptists, now known as Mennonites, migrated from Switzerland to Holland and Germany, Prussia and then to Russia in the 1780s (Dyck, 2012). 

A History of Migrations

The Low German Mennonite migration from Latin America to Ontario is the most recent leg of a migratory history that began in the 1500s in Europe.

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 nineteenth 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.

In addition to these challenges, World War One also offered complexity to their life in Canada. Many young men were conscripted to fight in the war, and as pacifists, many Mennonite men chose the route of claiming their position as conscientious objectors. As an alternative, these young men were then sent to “work camps” for the duration of the war. As noted in their name, Low German-speaking Mennonites spoke a dialect of German, the language of the enemy. These two issues converged with the struggles with the Education Act to create an atmosphere which was inhospitable to many Low German Mennonites. 

Living out their values meant leaving Canada

Recognizing that pacifism and the education of their children were 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 and to educate their children as they wished, and where they were also granted military exemption.