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SENATORS’ STATEMENTS — Mennonite Order in Council

Honourable senators, “Governments make mistakes.” Those were the words I spoke in this chamber on May 1, 2019, to commemorate the then one-hundredth anniversary of one such mistake, when the following order-in-council was passed by the Government of Canada. It read, in part:

Whereas the minister of immigration and colonization reports that owing to conditions prevailing as the result of the war, a widespread feeling exists throughout the Dominion, and more particularly in western Canada, that steps should be taken to prevent the entry to Canada of all persons who may be regarded as undesirable because owing to their peculiar customs, habits, modes of living and methods of holding property, they are not likely to become readily assimilated or assume the duties and responsibilities of Canadian citizenship within a reasonable time; and

Whereas the minister further reports that numerous representations have been received . . . indicating that persons commonly known as Doukhobors, Hutterites and Mennonites are of the class and character described and that consequently it is desirable to prohibit the entry to Canada of such.

That order prevented my Harder and Tiessen grandparents, my parents and their siblings and thousands of other Mennonites who had applied to come to Canada from leaving the Soviet Union. They were, therefore, stuck.

I don’t raise this simply to acknowledge the pain and suffering of those a century ago, but as a lesson in intolerance for today and as a testament against falsehoods and prejudice in our times.

Jonathan Swift writes, “Falsehood flies, and truth comes limping after it . . . .”

And so it did. While governments make mistakes, governments can also fix mistakes. After 3 years, exactly 100 years ago tomorrow, on June 2, 1922, the then newly elected Government of Canada rescinded that order, saying in an order-in-council:

His Excellency, the Governor General in Council, on the recommendation of the acting Minister of Immigration and Colonization, is pleased to order that the Order-in-Council of June 9, 1919, prohibited the landing in Canada of any immigrant of Doukhobor, Hutterite and Mennonite classes shall be and the same is hereby rescinded as respects Hutterites and Mennonites.

That was signed by Mackenzie King and approved by Byng of Vimy.

As a result, thousands of people left the Soviet Union for Canada in what became known as the Mennonite exodus, their immigration facilitated by travel loans from Canadian Pacific Rail guaranteed by their co-religionists in Canada.

The banner headline of the Kitchener-Waterloo Daily Record of that day boldly declared, “Mennonites Now Free To Come Into Canada,” the article saying:

The order-in-council promulgated by the Union Government during the war restricting all Mennonite immigration into Canada has just been annulled by the Liberal government as a result of the efforts of W. D. Euler M. P., according to information received by Record’s press gallery representative at Ottawa. The Mennonites are now as free to enter Canada as the adherents of any other faith. This announcement will be received with considerable pleasure by the thousands of Mennonites in Kitchener . . . .

And so it was.

I speak today so that we may redouble our efforts to make Canada an ongoing beacon of protection for refugees, a welcoming centre for immigrants celebrating pluralism and a bulwark against falsehoods and other claims of racial, gender or religious intolerance in our time.

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