Mennonites and Canadian Accommodation


Mennonite communal settlement in Canada’s Prairie West was made possible in part by an 1873 agreement with the Canadian government that guaranteed “an entire exemption from any military service” among other points. Two world wars, changes in education policy, and tensions between religious observance and civic duties dissolved federal accommodations for the Mennonites. The points of difference accepted in the agreement became grounds for policies excluding very conservative Mennonites in the 1950s and 1960s.

by Steven Schwinghamer, Historian
(Updated July 21, 2021)

“The problem is a vexing one”

A Formal Agreement with the Government: the Privilegium

Some of the earliest European agricultural settlers in Canada’s Prairie West were Russian Mennonites. Two disparate political events provided a crucial framework for this movement. In 1870, Tsarist Russia overturned the guarantees and privileges originally granted to the Mennonite settlers, and in that same year, Canada purchased Rupert’s Land and began seeking group settlers to help colonize the territory.[1] The situation in Russia led many Mennonites to consider leaving Russia, and delegates visited both Canada and the United States to appraise the land available for settlement. As a result, about 7500 Mennonites arrived in Manitoba during the 1870s.[2] This movement to Manitoba is notable for scale and for its establishment of a formal and direct relationship with the federal government as a condition of settlement, an agreement called the Privilegium.

The Mennonites had left Russia under the shadow of a decade of military reform, and in particular the growing threat of compulsory military service.[3] In that environment, it is unsurprising that the very first point of the agreement between the Canadian Government and the Mennonites was “an entire exemption from any military service.” The agreement also featured several other points of conscience: religious freedom, educational liberties, and affirming rather than swearing oaths.[4] Overall, the Privilegium signified the agreement of the Canadian federal government to accept the Mennonite community according to these provisions, but it also was a signal of difference. Each of these key points of conscience eventually became points of contention regarding Mennonite belonging in Canada.

Difficulties During the First World War

The agreement to exempt Mennonites from military service in Canada had a sharp test during the First World War. There was a ban on printing in enemy languages, as well as mass registration and internment of those deemed enemy aliens. Historian Adolf Ens has pointed to the particular vulnerability of Mennonites at this time, as a German-speaking group. In this charged atmosphere, police observed Mennonite church services and bureaucrats censored Mennonite publications.[5] The national registration of 1917 provoked resistance: Mennonites linked it to the possibility of military service or even conscription. Numbers of young Canadian Mennonite men traveled to California at the time of registration, an apparent avoidance tactic.

After the First World War, communal pacifist religious groups such as Mennonites were targeted by 1919 amendments to the Immigration Act that singled out immigrants for refusal of entry based on “peculiar customs, habits, modes of life and methods of holding property.” [6] Communities faced assimilationist education and condemnation as “undesirable” in their country. After the escalating suspicions of wartime, the actions of the federal government following the war made conservative Mennonites unwelcome in Canada. Mennonite appeals to the Privy Council regarding the undermining of the accommodations outlined in the Privilegium failed, underscoring their vulnerability to the changed attitude of the federal government.[7]

Exemption from Military Service after the Second World War

Military service and willingness to bear arms did not survive as key criteria for new immigrant admissions after the Second World War. Internal discussion in the Immigration Branch in 1955 indicated “refusing to bear arms was not in itself a ground for rejection” and that it was not “ever the Minister’s intention to prevent the admission of persons on this ground alone.”[8] Some of the reasoning behind the shift in policy on the part of the government was outlined in an internal letter (still partially redacted) of the immigration department, likely dating to late 1959. The author noted that if the need for service arose again in Canada, Mennonites “would be prepared to act in any reasonable capacity as a substitute for combatant service” which was a pointed difference from “some other individuals and minor elements of the population as a whole.”[9]

The very first point of the Privilegium arranged between the Canadian government and Mennonites in the 1870s guaranteed exemption from military service. Canada’s initial openness to conscientious objection paved the way for Mennonite settlement. However, two World Wars tested that accommodation, and turned acceptance to rejection. This negative perception of Mennonite immigration endured even as popular attitudes about pacifism and military service shifted.

Leaving Canada

Hostility against pacifists or others perceived to be outside the First World War effort of the state extended into law at both the provincial and federal levels. One of the most provocative and difficult issues for Mennonites in Canada was school legislation. In Manitoba and Saskatchewan, changes to educational policies in 1916 threatened the independence Mennonites had negotiated under the Privilegium. Members of Mennonite communities worried that the standard public curriculum of the day – laden as it was with militarism and nationalism – might be forced into their schools.[10]

The conflicts over military service and education during the First World War led to a subsequent emigration of Mennonites from Canada to South America, mainly from conservative Mennonite communities. The migration drew notice from the UK Secretary of State for the Colonies, Winston Churchill, who was advised regarding the movement by Canada’s Governor-General, Lord Byng, in 1922.[11] Some alarmist newspaper articles proposed that as many as 200 000 Canadian Mennonites might emigrate—a remarkable scale, given the total involved population of Mennonites in Canada only numbered about 40 000. Within the decade about 1800 Canadian Mennonites moved to Paraguay, and between 5000 and 8000 others went to Mexico. In both cases, the “progress of educational legislation” and “compulsory features of educational laws” were the key reasons.[12] The situation reached a critical turning point in 1924, when the Canadian government concluded that the Privilegium would not apply to newly-arrived Mennonites.[13]

A new migration of Mennonites from Canada to South America occurred just after the Second World War, again at least in part because of conflicts based on military service and education. In the late 1950s, there were about 23 000 Mennonites in Mexico, mostly Canadian. By 1965, the number had grown to 35 000 Mexican Mennonites with Canadian roots.[14]

Difficulty in Returning to Canada

Unfortunately, this new group of settlers also encountered difficulties in Central and South America, and at least 500 families returned to Canada within a year of leaving. The response to their return within the Canadian immigration department was not enthusiastic. Rather than seeking supports for the subjects or citizens abroad, an official grumbled: “…it boiled down to dealing with a group of people who left Canada, being disgruntled with our system of Government and are now wishing to return to Canada because of the fact that they are now dissatisfied with the Mexican system of Government.”[15]

Mennonites who left Canada without citizenship (or Mennonite children denied citizenship) could face barriers to Canadian entry later due to educational standards. Generally, the educational requirement for immigrants to Canada in the 1950s and 1960s was a Grade 8 education, plus North American farming experience, or otherwise a Grade 10 education. This was not a problem for conservative Mennonites or Amish settlers from the United States, but those from Central and South America had difficulty meeting this standard as their farming experience was not viewed as wholly transferable, and often their educational level was substantially lower.[16] Internal correspondence regarding admission for Mennonites from Paraguay, including descendants of the Canadian emigration of the 1920s, shows education as a critical admission criterion in the 1960s. Despite the positive assessment of field and administrative officers, these applicants were still viewed as inadmissible by headquarters staff. The Director Central Region wrote to the Director Canadian Service, arguing that accepting this group would be “tantamount to lowering our standards to any person who has a Grade 4 or 6 education and is making a living in some type of agricultural pursuit.”[17]

The issue of discretion and control in education had formed a central point in the Privilegium: the promise had been that “the Mennonites will have the fullest privilege of exercising their religious principles, and educating their children in schools, as provided by laws, without any kind of molestation or restriction whatever.”[18] It became a key point of contention for the community in Canada. In the wake of a meeting between the executive of the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) (Ontario) and senior immigration officials in 1965, the summary report written by a member of the MCC executive stated, “We had a very frank discussion of the differences in views between the department and the brotherhood, which really is finally only education."[19]

Conflicts Between Integration and Religious Observance

Conservative Canadian Mennonites feared that their young people were integrating into a world of temptation that drew them away from the simple and pure life of their faith. At the time of the First World War, one elder rued the state of affairs in which Mennonite boys carried their military exemption cards in one pocket, and a bottle of Schnapps in the other – a neat depiction of the conflicted situation elders feared for their youth.[20] This reflection brings to light some internal motivations in the community for relocation, and underscores that emigration from Canada can be seen as a reassertion of community observance as well as a response to hostility from the state.

In the 1950s, the conflict between perceptions of integration and religious observance hardened government policies. The commissioner of immigration issued a flat instruction that if there was any doubt regarding an individual immigrant fulfilling citizenship duties, such as voting or taking out citizenship, their group identity was to be used against them. The instruction specified that if an immigrant came from a group that had “customs or practices which would militate against their integration into the Canadian community, he is not to be visaed, or receive a medical card or letter of pre-examination.[21]

An Undesirable Group

The Amish Mennonites were singled out by Canadian immigration authorities as an undesirable group, due to their choice of observance through a lifestyle that excluded many recent technologies. Being a member of a group that might not keep “property up-to-date and progressive” was actually an indication for refusal as an immigrant after the Second World War.[22] An immigration department summary report written in the early 1960s noted that “the biggest complaint against the Amish is that their presence in a community causes deterioration” in that they remove plumbing, telephones and electricity from farms. Commissioner of Immigration C.E.S. Smith argued in 1956 that Amish Mennonites were not good agriculturalists as they sometimes decreased the value of their farms when they stripped the property of machinery and equipment. Smith also pointed out that nearby towns and businesses suffered or even disappeared due to the lack of business from the self-sufficient Amish settlements. This he contrasted with other farmers, who he argued increased the value of their property and supported local business. Smith concluded that “[i]t is evident that the Amish Mennonites are neither suitable, adaptable or desirable and cannot satisfy the provisions of the Immigration Act.”[23]

"Normal Selection Criteria" as a Deliberate Barrier

The 1960s are generally considered to be a liberalizing period for Canadian immigration policy, with the removal of “race” from legislation in 1962. However, barriers and exclusions based on religion remained in place amid this shift in attitudes, with the Acting Deputy Minister, H.M. Jones, writing to Minister Richard Bell, in 1963 that there was “a serious problem” based on the free immigration of Amish Mennonites. The department had “strong reservations about their value as immigrants” but also “did not wish to set up restrictions aimed at one religious group.”

Accordingly, the advice from the department was to deal with every Amish immigration case “strictly according to normal selection criteria” – which included the questions of school attendance, voting, and taking out citizenship.[24] This implies reasserting the requirement for photographic identification, supplanting the long-standing accommodation of fingerprinting for those who did not wish to have a picture taken for religious reasons. This additional administrative barrier for Amish immigrants is confirmed in March 1963, in that “all applications submitted after November 30, 1962, must be accompanied by individual photographs of the proposed immigrants.”[25] This accompanied an exceptional and unusual directive that no Amish immigrant was to be approved in the field. Every Amish application had to go to headquarters after 29 November 1962.[26]

This centralization was for control of admission as well as surveillance of the scope of Amish immigration, and so all the district superintendents were instructed to defer to headquarters in every case involving Amish applicants.[27] The bureaucratic machination against Amish immigrants incorporated deliberate deferral even where headquarters took over files. By February 1964, only sponsored wives and close family applications from Amish immigrants were being dealt with “conclusively”. Others were “held in abeyance pending a policy decision”, or continually suspended, unless the immigrants were clearly inadmissible.[28]

As 1965 drew to a close, the Regional Director for the immigration department in British Columbia issued a renewed advisory to monitor entries carefully for Amish immigrants, noting that photographs and family size might be important indicators of Amish identity. The memorandum closes with a firm reminder of the chapter 4.66 of the immigration manual, the section prohibiting admission for groups whose customs or practices were thought to prevent Canadian integration.[29]


Accommodation in Canada for conservative Christian religious groups has been a struggle. Although public memory recalls Mennonite settlement in the West in the 1870s as a key movement in nation-building for early Canada, it was actually a settlement contingent on a set of exemptions and rights that were apart from those for other citizens and subjects. The agreement governing those points, the Privilegium, signified government acceptance of the community into Canada, but it was also a mark of difference. Each of the civic differences presented in the agreement—military service, education, and religious observance—came into dispute over time. Eventually, the very phrases that had marked the negotiated acceptance of Mennonites into Canada in the 1870s, turned into barriers and exclusions used to mark one of the early settler communities in the Canadian West as undesirable.

The title quote is from Library and Archives Canada, RG 76 Vol 855 File 554-22 (hereafter File 554-22) “Hutterites and Mennonites – General File,” part 5, Acting Director of Immigration to Central District Superintendent, 31 October 1962.

  1. Adolf Ens, Subjects or Citizens: The Mennonite Experience in Canada, 1870-1925 (Ottawa: University of Ottawa Press, 1994), 11-12.
  2. Library and Archives Canada, RG 17 Volume 84 File 8146, “Privy Council Office Referring Correspondence from the Colonial Office re Mennonite Immigration,” Consul Zohrab to Earl Granville, Berdianck, 10 February 1873. Ens, Subjects or Citizens, 16-17. Valerie Knowles, Strangers at Our Gates: Canadian Immigration Policy, 1540-1997 (Toronto: Dundurn Press, 1997), 53.
  3. A.M. Nikolaieff, Universal Military Service in Russia and Western Europe, The Russian Review, 8:2 April 1949, 121-122.
  4. Canada, Privy Council, Order-in-Council 1873-957, retrieved from Library and Archives Canada Orders-in-Council Database,, 30 January 2016.
  5. Ens, Subjects or Citizens, 171
  6. Library and Archives Canada, Statutes of Canada, An Act to Amend the Immigration Act, 1919, Ottawa: SC 9-10 George V, Chapter 25, accessed 4 February 2016.
  7. J. Winfield Fretz, Pilgrims in Paraguay: The Story of Mennonite Colonization In South America (Scottsdale: Herald Press, 1952), 12.
  8. Fortier to Director, Ottawa ON, 14 November 1955, and Fortier to Minister, Ottawa ON, 25 November 1955; both in File 554-22.
  9. Partially redacted letter titled “Amish Mennonites and the provisions of Manual Chapter 4.66(a)”, 3 December 1959, in File 554-22 Part 3.
  10. Royden Loewen, Village Among Nations: “Canadian” Mennonites in a Transnational World, 1916-2006 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2013), 14-15.
  11. Library and Archives Canada, RG 25 Volume 183 File C/17/85, “Colonial Office”, Byng to Churchill, Ottawa ON, 5 January 1922.
  12. Library and Archives Canada, RG 25 Volume 1472 File 1926-416C (hereafter File 1926-416C) “Mennonites Migrating From Canada to Paraguay – Enquiry re: Land Title also Return to Canada,” R.H. Tottenham-Smith, British Legation, to Sir Samuel Hoare, Foreign Office; Asuncion, 25 June 1935; Unknown author, “Extract from Enclosure in Asuncion Despatch No 27 of 6 September 1932. Library and Archives Canada, RG 25 Volume 1558 File 1930-44-C, “Immigration to Canada of Mennonites from Russia, 1929-1939,” O.D. Skelton to L.R. Macgregor, Australian Trade Commissioner in Canada, Ottawa ON, 25 June 1938. Skelton’s information is largely drawn from correspondence with the Commissioner of Immigration, A.L. Jolliffe, in the same file 1930-44-C. See also Fretz, Pilgrims in Paraguay, 13.
  13. Department of Immigration and Colonization, Memorandum, “Mennonites in Canada”, in File 1926-416C.
  14. Stock to Under-Secretary of State for External Affairs, Mexico, 2 July 1957, in File 554-22 part 2 ; Excerpt from “El Dificil Regreso”, Excelsior, 4 July 1965, translated in File 554-22 part 5.
  15. A/Director, memorandum for file, 10 April 1957, Ottawa ON, in File 554-22 part 1.
  16. J.K. Abbott, Director, Canadian Service to Director, Special Services, 28 February 1966, in File 554-22 part 4.
  17. I.R. Stirling to J.K. Abbott, 12 March 1965, in File 554-22 part 5.
  18. Canada, Order-in-Council 1873-957.
  19. Elven Shantz, Mennonite Central Committee (Ontario), “Visit April 14, 1965”, unpublished report, in File 554-22 part 5.
  20. Israel Dyck, quoted in Loewen, Village Among Nations, 20.
  21. C.E.S. Smith to Deputy Minister, 12 July 1957, Ottawa ON, in File 554-22 part 2.
  22. Paul Malone, Secretary of State for External Affairs, to Ambassador of the United Kingdom in Paraguay, Ottawa ON, 12 January 1956, in File 554-22 part 2.
  23. C.E.S. Smith to J.W. Pickersgill, Ottawa ON, 17 February 1956, in File 554-22 part 1.
  24. H.M. Jones to the Minister, Ottawa ON, 1 May 1963, in File 554-22 part 4.
  25. Acting Chief Admissions to Acting Chief Operations, Ottawa ON, 7 March 1963, in File 554-22 part 4.
  26. Acting Chief Admissions, Circular to Admissions Staff, Ottawa ON, 27 February 1963, in File 554-22 part 4.
  27. Director of Immigration to District Superintendents, Ottawa ON, 29 November 1962, in 554-22 part 4.
  28. R.B. Curry to Deputy Minister of Immigration, 21 June 1965, in File 554-22 part 5.
  29. Regional Director of Immigration to Officers-in-Charge, Pacific Region, Vancouver BC, 24 December 1965, Canadian Embassy, Mexico City to Under-Secretary of State for External Affairs, Mexico, 25 February 1966, in File 554-22 part 5 ; Canada, Department of Citizenship and Immigration, Immigration Manual Chapter 4 Section 4.66, as excerpted in File 554-22 part 3.