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Now, about those ships, Mr. Toews...

Flood of poor Mennonite refugees brought minister’s parents here

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OTTAWA — There’s a global reces­sion and Canada’s economy is not immune.

Shiploads of strange, foreign refugees — economic migrants and oppressed minorities — have been landing on our shores, fleeing civil war, economic up­heaval and famine.

No one is certain how they can be as­similated and there are concerns about criminals, subversives and agitators in their midst.

"If (their)... government is threaten­ing to deport them... it is probably be­cause they refuse to obey the laws of the country, and we should have full information regarding the facts," one mainstream advocacy group objects.

No, it is not 2010. The year is 1929. The migrants are Mennonites fleeing Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Russia and de­portation to certain starvation in Siber­ia. Canada’s doors are slamming shut to refugees.

Among the massive Mennonite influx who helped fuel that public and political backlash were the Ukrainian refugee grandparents and parents of current Public Safety Minister Vic Toews.

While the parallels are not exact, many of the arguments heard this week from Toews and others about putting a stop to the mass migration of Tamil refugees to Canada were offered dur­ing the 1920s against other targets.

"We are very concerned that there are elements of the LTTE and the Tam­il Tigers on board this vessel," Toews said in August, as a ship laden with al­most 500 Tamils landed in B.C.

These "suspected human smugglers and terrorists did not come to Canada by accident," Toews said, but targeted Canada due to its history and reputation of accepting migrants.

"This particular situation we believe to be a part of a larger human smug­gling and human trafficking enter­prise. I don’t view this as an isolated, independent act."

Toews’ comments quickly made it on to the racist website Stormfront, where a commenter suggested that Canada’s government: "Send the ship and all the scum that is aboard it to the bottom of the ocean."

The Public Safety minister did not respond to an interview request on his family history, but would surely view such racial hatred and cold­hearted absolutism with horror.

After all, the Ku Klux Klan of Kanada suggested in the late 1920s that Canada, faced with an influx of Ukrainian Men­nonite refugees, "see that the slag and scum that refuse to become 100-per­cent Canadian citizens is skimmed off and thrown away."

Toews’ mother Anne Peters arrived with her family as a five-year-old in 1924, among more than 5,000 refugees in the first big year of Russian immi­gration after Mackenzie King’s Liber­als opened Canada to eastern Europe’s fleeing Mennonites.

His father Victor’s family arrived in 1926 when Victor was eight, part of the single largest annual migration that topped 5,900 Mennonite refugees.

A year later, only 847 were allowed in and by 1930 — when the need for es­cape from Russia was most desperate — Canada had closed the door.

"It’s a unique period of time, it’s a small window," Hans Werner, a pro­fessor of Mennonite studies at the Uni­versity of Winnipeg, says of the short period in the mid-1920s when Anne and Victor arrived in Canada.

"It was entirely legal. Not uncontro­versial possibly, but certainly legal. They negotiated an arrangement."

Human smugglers, the current Pub­lic Safety minister will be relieved to know, were not involved in his parents’ passage to Canada. It was the Canadian Pacific Railway and its steamships that extended credit for the refugee trav­ellers under terms the impoverished refugees couldn’t possibly meet.

Every Canadian Mennonite child has grown up hearing about the "Reises­chuld," or travel debt, to the CPR, said Ed Wiebe, the refugee program co-or­dinator at the Mennonite Central Com­mittee Canada in Winnipeg.

Two CPR ships were initially sent to Odessa on the Black Sea, each re­turning in 1923 with more than 1,000 refugees aboard at $140 for each man, woman and child.

The first group of 121 Mennonite fam­ilies arrived in Saskatchewan in July 1923, with the men immediately put to work on the harvest and all their wages going to their transportation debt.

More than 21,000 Mennonites came to Canada under these CPR contracts during the 1920s, piling up an accumu­lated transport debt of more than $1.7 million. It wasn’t fully settled until 1946, when Mennonite groups paid off the last of the principal and the CPR — having benefited immeasurably from the cheap labour and agricultural com­merce the settlers provided their rail­way — wrote off about $1.5 million in accrued interest.

"You might say that one person’s smuggling is another person’s salva­tion," says historian Werner.

Canada’s assistant deputy immigra­tion minister at the time of the Men­nonite influx, F.C. Blair, would prove instrumental a decade later in Can­ada’s decision to turn away the SS St. Louis and her 900-plus Jewish refugees — memorably stating that other ships would likely follow and "the line must be drawn somewhere."

It’s been a recurring theme in Can­ada’s history: Desperate migrants using any means at their disposal to make a stab at a new life for their families in this under-populated land.

Perhaps a generation or two hence, the child of one of the smuggled Tamil youngsters who arrived in the last year will rise to become Canada’s immigra­tion or justice minister — a trajectory that all would hail as a sign of Canada’s inclusiveness and opportunity.

— The Canadian Press

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