A cross-country train trip later this year will take participants on the journey many of our ancestors made 100 years ago.
2023 marks the centennial of the start of the migration of Russian Mennonites to Canada. Beginning in 1923, 21,000 Mennonites from the former Soviet Union left a land decimated by violence, famine, and epidemic. 

“We were a group of people that the government didn't want to come to the country, had even banned us from coming into the country. They didn't like our clothes. They didn't like our language, they didn't like a number of things about us and they opened their doors and allowed us to come in. We have contributed immensely to the development of Western Canada. We have a strong history here,” explained Aileen Friesen, co-director and associate professor with the Centre for Trans-National Mennonite Studies at the University of Winnipeg. She is also part of the Russlaender Centenary Committee, a subcommittee of the Mennonite Historical Society of Canada that is organizing cross-country celebrations. 

It's also significant in that there were Mennonites here before, added Friesen. 

"These are the Mennonites that will help the 1920s Mennonites settle in Manitoba, that will meet them at the train station, that will help them get acquainted with the landscape, with the language that they don't know and understand. That happens in Ontario, it happens in Saskatchewan, it happens in Manitoba. And so, a point in which we can recognize, first of all, the significant contribution of Mennonites. Also, the significant contribution that other people made to this migration to allowing it to happen."

There is another theme the committee wants to acknowledge and that is that the Mennonites are also settlers on this land. 

"That this was Indigenous land, there were wrongs done to Indigenous people as well, is a part of this story that can't be ignored."Another part of the story that can't be ignored is that there were other groups that were just as worthy and deserving as us that were not allowed into Canada based on issues of race and discrimination, and so it's good for us to think through our own history and understand it in this broader context."

The train trip will take passengers from Quebec City to Langely, B.C. with events planned at those destinations and others scheduled along the way. In Manitoba, a significant event will be a very special Henry Engbrecht Saengerfest concert in Winnipeg in July. 

"You can't commemorate a centenary without a Saengerfest!" said Friesen. 

Additional events include an academic conference at the University of Winnipeg, and celebrations at the Mennonite Heritage Village in Steinbach, through the Winnipeg Mennonite Theater.

The public will be able to learn more about these events during a webinar hosted by the Center for Transnational Minute Studies on March 7th. 

Meantime, Friesen said it was very important for the tour and also for the Manitoba events, that the younger generation be involved. As a result, there are sponsorships sponsoring young people to participate on the train trip. There are also young people participating in the choirs at the Saengerfest

"This is part of their heritage that sometimes they aren't necessarily in tune with, and this is a way in which they can also be involved and we can pass along this important history," said Friesen.

Click HERE to register for the webinar.