On his deathbed in 2014, David Riesen asked his daughter Ingrid to organize an event to remember Mennonites’ historic migration from Russia to Canada beginning in 1923. While the First World War was underway, Vladimir Lenin’s Bolsheviks seized power during the 1917 Russian Revolution. The brutal Civil War that ensued brought terror to Mennonite villages. Desperate to escape persecution, famine, and disease, Mennonites appealed to Canada for refuge.
Almost 100 years ago, these Mennonite refugees found new homes in Canada in the aftermath of the revolution—a time of civil war, famine and epidemic. “My father was the grandson of David Toews, a central figure in this migration story,” says Ingrid Riesen Möhlmann. “Among other things, David persuaded Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, to facilitate the political process. He also arranged for a Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) loan to pay the passage of about 21,000 Russian Mennonites.”
After mulling it over for a year, Möhlmann settled on a cross-Canada train tour—which is planned for July 2023. She shared her idea with Dr. Heinz Heese and Professors Royden Loewen and Gerald Friesen of Winnipeg. As President of the Mennonite Historical Society of Canada, Royden set up the Rußländer (pronounced Russlander) Centenary Committee, which met for the first time in November 2018. In early 2020, the committee, chaired by Henry Paetkau from Ontario, contacted Anabaptist heritage travel company TourMagination to organize the tour.
The Rußländer Centenary Tour celebrates these newcomers’ faith, memorializes resettlement challenges, and acknowledges race and displacement in Canadian history. It is organized into three segments, 7-days from Quebec City to Kitchener, Ontario, 8 days from Toronto to Winnipeg and on to Saskatoon, and 5 days from Saskatoon to Abbotsford, BC. Travellers can join one or two segments or participate in all three. The tour will include visiting significant locations, including the Russlaender landing site at Grosse Isle off the coast of Quebec City, Erb Street Mennonite Church in Waterloo, ON, where Canadian Mennonites welcomed the first group to arrive in Ontario in 1924, and a train platform in Rosthern, Saskatchewan, where many of the Russlaenders arrived. In Abbotsford and other places along the way, travellers will explore truth and reconciliation as they learn about the dislocation of local First Nations people, making way for Mennonite settlement. Each leg of the tour includes informative historic presentations, tours, and events, plus banquets, Sängerfests, and interaction with local Mennonites.
Organizers ask interested people to complete a short 5-Question survey about the survey at https://survey.zohopublic.com/zs/hzbClY. For more information or to arrange an interview, contact Ingrid Riesen Möhlmann.
Rußländer Centenary Committee members include Marlene Epp (Ontario), Royden Loewen (Manitoba), Jake Buhler (Saskatchewan), Ted Regehr (Alberta), Richard Thiessen (B.C.), and Luke Martin (Quebec). Henry Paetkau is Chair of the Committee and Ingrid Riesen Möhlmann is the Vice-Chair. Provincial Committees of the Mennonite Historical Society are also involved, from Quebec to B.C. Royden launched a campaign to establish the Paul Toews Professorship in Russian Mennonite History, which has provided the committee with a source of initial funding for its activities, under the leadership of Professor Aileen Friesen of the University of Winnipeg.