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Low German speaking Mennonites who have come to Ontario from Latin America are a part of a rich religious tradition with a long history. The formal aspects of religious life are expressed in church activities, but the very fabric of daily colony life is religious as well.

When Low German-speaking Mennonites move from Latin America to Ontario, they are faced with the challenging task of establishing themselves in what is a foreign world for many of them. Adapting to a new climate, a new language, strange food, unfamiliar neighbours and unknown social systems is a part of any immigrant’s experience, but coming from a Mennonite colony to Southern Ontario poses some unique challenges for Mennonites.

“The food is very different here in Canada. I don’t know if it is the preservatives or that the food is processed differently but it seems the food in Mexico just tastes better.” 

From a Close-Knit Community to Neighbours Who Are Strangers

When moving to Ontario, colony Mennonites encounter a highly individualized society. On a colony, they are linked to their village neighbours through school, church and community meetings. They know what their neighbours are up to, when they are sick, when they travel, when they buy a new tractor. In Ontario, chances are their neighbours will be strangers.

From Value Within a Family Web to Individual Autonomy

For families raised on the colony, there is an emphasis on sameness and commonality. The family and its collective need is more highly valued than individual need. When moving to Ontario, colony Mennonites encounter a society in which individual autonomy is highly valued. On a colony, an individual is valued in a web of family and community relationships. In Canadian society, the accomplishments of an individual are prized above relationships.

From Parental/Colony Authority to State Authority

When moving to Ontario, colony Mennonites encounter a society that is highly regulated and monitored. Everything from driving to health care to education is regulated. These regulations invade and alter their private lives in ways they are not accustomed to. On a colony, the church makes decisions about the rules and boundaries of the colony, and parents are the final authority in raising children. In Canada, governmental authority provides limits on the discipline of their children, requires that they send their children to school and expects that physical needs be addressed according to commonly understood standards within the Canadian context.

Adjusting to an Intercultural Society

Life on a colony is focused on sameness, conformity and unity. All people residing within the colony are Low German Mennonites. On a colony, values, beliefs and a lifestyle are shared with fellow colonists. People dress alike. They share a history. They speak the same languages. When moving to Ontario, colony Mennonites encounter a diverse, intercultural society in which religious pluralism is celebrated.

When she arrived, Susie was faced with a much different world than she had imagined.

Susie came to Canada when she was 12 years old. When she recounts this experience, it brings back many painful memories, as it was a difficult time in her life. Born in Durango, Mexico, she has seven siblings and is one of the oldest in her family. She remembers her time in Mexico as being one of poverty and abuse.

When Susie’s parents decided to come to Canada, she was excited because she had heard that it was a good place, one where people didn’t have to be poor if they worked hard. She pictured it as a place that was kind of like Beverly Hills, where there was cement everywhere and very little grass or wildlife anywhere.

When she arrived, Susie was faced with a much different world than she had imagined. Life was just as hard in Canada as it had been in Mexico. Her parents expected all the children to work, whether in factories or on fields, to help provide for the family.

Susie attended school but it was hard for her because she hadn’t gone to school very much as a child. She was pulled out of school according to the rhythm of the agricultural seasons to work on the fields. She vividly remembers being bullied at school for being Mennonite. This was a very hard experience for her. Susie had a much different cultural identity than her peers and was often teased for who she was.

Susie remembers her childhood as a dark and sad time, a time she never wants to return to. However, her life is now “much better, much different.” She is happy to be the mother of five children and always tries her best to provide for, love and give her children a better life than she had.