Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

German immigrants have played a surprisingly large role in the development of the province

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Christian KANDT was principal clarinetist with the Brandenburg Symphony Orchestra before moving his family to Manitoba last year. He now teaches music in Winkler, instructing his students in playing clarinet, saxophone and recorder. He also drives a school bus while he builds a strong client base.

"I like adventure and I am flexible for culture," he said. "If I didn't have the desire to go to Canada I wouldn't have.

"I am very happy here."

Kandt isn't alone. A total of 11,125 Germans immigrated to Manitoba since 1998 -- 5,560 to Winkler alone.

German-Canadians now represent about 22 per cent of the population in Manitoba, the third-largest percentage in Canada.

When 1.15 million Manitobans were asked in the 2006 census for their ethnic origin, German, with 216,755, came in second behind English and in front of Scottish.

With numbers such as those, it's no surprise they've had a big impact on the province's history.

You could almost say the influence of Germany was felt here long before Manitoba was a province and before Canada was a country.

That's because this area, and a massive section of Western Canada, Ontario and Quebec, was known as Rupert's Land. It was the territory draining into Hudson Bay that was granted to the Hudson's Bay Co.

The area was named Rupert's Land by King Charles II in 1670 when he made the land grant to the HBC and named his German cousin, Prince Rupert of the Rhine, HBC's first governor.

Heinz Petsch, president of the German Society of Winnipeg and an immigrant from Germany, wouldn't go that far back in claiming German influence on the province. But Petsch says for more than 120 years, German immigrants, whether they are from Germany itself or Mennonites who went to Russia and then generations later moved to Manitoba, have helped it become the province it is today.

"They brought to Manitoba their determination," he said.

"Germans are stubborn... It's like the German Society of Winnipeg. They're persistent about keeping the culture here."

 

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The influence from Germany and its peoples has continued through the decades, not just from the recent influx of thousands of immigrants, but from the time plows began breaking Prairie soil to make way for wheat fields.

But Paul Kammerloch, a Winnipeg lawyer and the honorary German consul for Manitoba, said if you asked most people how influential Germans have been in the province they probably wouldn't be able to say.

"The thing with the Germans is they assimilate very well," he said.

Kammerloch said he'd like to see one German immigrant -- William Hespeler -- get more credit than he does for being one of the builders of the province.

Hespeler was born in Baden-Baden, Germany in 1830, and came to Canada when he was 19 to work with his brother who already had a business in Ontario. But his connection to Manitoba came while he was back visiting Germany in the early 1870s and learned thousands of Mennonites were getting ready to leave Russia bound for the United States.

Kammerloch said Catherine the Great encouraged thousands of the Mennonites to move from Germany to Russia in the 1700s. There, they were allowed to create their own towns and villages and retain their customs and language.

He said many of them left the area only with the beginning of communism, during the turmoil when the German army took over the area during the Second World War. More recently, many left after the Iron Curtain fell.

They are the ones who have fuelled the most immigration here in the last decade.

But Kammerloch said decades before that, Hespeler let the Canadian government know about the Mennonites wanting to go to the United States and the government responded by asking him to go to Russia and persuade them to move to Manitoba. He convinced 284 families to come here in 1874, and about 9,000 individuals in total in the following years.

"Winnipeg had about 250 people so that had quite the impact," Kammerloch said dryly.

Hespeler was later appointed German consul for Manitoba and the Northwest Territories, was a Winnipeg city councillor, and after being elected an MLA, was chosen to be the Speaker of the House, the first foreign-born person in the British Empire to reach that position.

Kammerloch said it was those Mennonites, who had farmed in an area of Russia much like southern Manitoba, who forever changed the province.

"The farms (in Manitoba) were river lots then, with no one thinking you could farm on the bald prairie," he said.

"But these immigrants, they went to Winkler, to Steinbach, and elsewhere and they did the farming they did in Russia.

"They opened up the grain industry in Canada."

By the 1881 census, there were 8,650 Germans in a province of 66,000 people.

Petsch said the Mennonites gave their communities German names, including Steinbach, which means stony brook, Reinland, meaning clean field, and Gruenthal, or green dale.

"Before the Mennonites came, Winnipeg imported flour. A few years after they came, wheat was being exported from Manitoba."

 

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With 500 Germans in the city in 1890, there were enough to support a German Society of Winnipeg, which was created in 1892. That followed a few failed attempts to create similar organizations. Through the decades, this organization, one of the oldest cultural societies in the province, has mirrored the ups and downs of the local German population.

This year, the society celebrates 120 years in existence.

"The German Society is passionate about keeping the culture here," he said. "You needed to have something to keep your language and culture alive."

More than just a social organization, the society was also founded to supports its members in emergencies and to give loans to new immigrants, Petsch said.

As the numbers of German newcomers climbed, the society built a clubhouse, which opened in 1904. The growing numbers even warranted the opening of a second German consulate in Canada, this one serving the Prairies.

But Petsch said things stopped during the First World War. Germans were eyed with such suspicion here and conditions became so tense, the police searched the society's clubhouse. Authorities restricted so many of the group's normal activities, the club stopped meeting in the building and rented it out.

After the war, another wave of immigrants came. About 100 settled north of Winnipeg in the area later known as Little Britain. At first, they lived together in a commune with a dairy operation, but during the Great Depression, they became independent farmers. Several descendents still live in the area.

Petsch said immigration basically stopped during the years of the Great Depression and into the Second World War. As well, he said, police closed down the clubhouse and the members sold it.

Petsch said German immigration started again during the decades after the war, with thousands coming in the 1950s, and surged again dramatically in the last decade-and-a-half thanks to the provincial nominee program.

The community became so vibrant, it bought the former Hebrew Free School on Charles Street and converted it into a new clubhouse for the society. It continues to be the clubhouse today.

 

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The most recent chapter of German history in this province is continuing to this day. The current wave of immigrants came after the breakup of the Soviet Union two decades ago. The vast majority of current German immigrants are actually descended from families originally from Germany, but themselves were born and lived in Russia.

Kammerloch said these peoples chose to leave Germany and come to Manitoba because, although they still considered themselves German, they felt people in Germany considered them more Russian than German.

 

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About one kilometre south of Winkler -- actually only about one farmer's field away -- is the community of Schanzenfeld, where Elvira Loewen and her family are living the German dream.

Loewen and her family live on a street in a new subdivision where almost every family is an immigrant from Germany. And just about everybody has a chicken coop in the back to get fresh eggs. That's something you don't see in a Winnipeg subdivision, but the RM of Stanley put laws in place to allow it a few years ago.

"We didn't have chickens in Germany," Loewen said recently.

"Here we have 14 lay chickens. We get five or six eggs per day. That's enough for a family."

If they had stayed in Germany instead of immigrating in 2003, Loewen said they never would have been able to afford a house with a large lot.

"We would have had a small lot, so small that the children couldn't play on."

Loewen, like most of the hundreds of families that have immigrated to Manitoba in the past 10 to 15 years, was born in Russia and moved to Germany and lived there for about 14 years before coming here.

Loewen said her husband works in the manufacture of doors and windows and has his own company now.

"It wasn't really work that brought us here. It was the kids," she said. "It was the opportunity they could have in the future.

"We like it here."

One of her children, 19-year-old Michael, said he knows his own dream would have been difficult, if not impossible, if his family hadn't moved to Canada. He just earned his commercial pilot's licence at a flight school in Steinbach.

"I wouldn't have been able to do this over there (Germany)," he said.

Michael said he was 10 when the family made the move, and he's glad they did.

"I like the weather here. Germany is always raining. But here it is cold, but hot in the summer."

 

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Eugen Klassen was one of the first wave of 70 families who came to Manitoba in the last dozen years when he came with his wife, Lidia, in 1998.

Since then, Klassen's family has grown to include daughters Janessa, 12, and Sabrina, 10.

Klassen said when he came to Winkler, he was an electrician hoping to work in that field. But he quickly found the need for new electricians at that time was almost non-existent because of the shortage of construction in the area.

By the time that changed, and there was a housing boom, Klassen had a job at Elias Woodwork, a company that produces cabinet doors. And since he started, Klassen has gone from operating a machine to working as the company's human resources manager.

Klassen is glad he came to Canada.

"I was born in Russia, and Canada is like Russia with the space, but without the repression of faith. It's the land of opportunity."

Before Klassen moved to Winkler, he and six other men from his community in Germany came to Winkler to check out everything from employment opportunities to education for their children.

"Of the seven, five moved over here, and thousands more have come here," he said.

"Immigration has done great things for this community. I'd do it again. I always say Canada is a tremendous country of opportunities."

Klassen said with so many people of German origin or background, it has been easy to keep his language skills and cultural background intact, as well as help his daughters learn to speak German.

 

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Klaas Demann was working in a bank in Germany when he decided to come to Canada in 2004. He is now administrative officer at the German Consulate in Winnipeg.

"I like Winnipeg and I like Canada -- there's no reason for me to go back."

Demann said while the impact of immigration from Germany is far less in Winnipeg than in smaller centres in southern Manitoba, it has had an impact.

"I'll be in Winnipeg, and all of a sudden you'll hear people speaking in German. You hear it, and you are surprised."

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Kandt has been building his music-student base for about a year now since arriving from Germany.

"I thought it would be faster," he said.

"I thought I'd make my business cards and my website and play in schools and they would come, but with the students, it is very slow to build.

"I like teaching with all ages. I have a person who is 69, and she loves it. She talks about how she always told her children to practise, but she never played herself. Now she is."

The father of four was 48 when his family came to Winkler last year, allowing them to be closer to his wife's family.

"Here every second person is from Europe. It's either your father or grandfather or great-grandfather who came here."

But there's one way immigration to Canada for German immigrants now is different than in the past. Kandt plays a vintage piano painted a bright blue with gold highlights and two candle holders affixed to the front, all of which he brought from Germany. In the background, a grandfather's clock, also painted blue, chimes out the hours.

"It's not like 100 years ago," he said. "When you immigrate, you get a big shipping container and you fill it."

 

-- -- --

 

Viktor Dueck came to Winkler from Germany in 2003.

Dueck admits he had a good job in woodworking in Germany, but with his wife's family here already, they were going back and forth over the decision to move here.

"One day, I made a decision," he said.

"We came here, but I didn't have a house when I did. I didn't want to buy one until I knew I'd stay. I was here a year before my family, getting everything ready."

The couple had one child at the time. Now their family has grown to four children.

Dueck said he knew Klassen -- they went to school together -- so he applied for a job at Elias.

"Wood is wood. I knew what to do," he said.

"Yes, this has been a good move for us. I don't regret it."

 

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Marina Neumann came from Germany as a child, first to Ontario, then to Morden as an adult in 2010 to join a German-based company. Exner E-Waste Processing is a subsidiary of Exner Technology of Bad Harzburg, Germany and it recycles products, including televisions and appliances, all the way down to their raw materials.

"I asked my parents why they came to Canada, and not even my parents know why -- it just happened," she said.

Since coming here with her husband and two children, another child has been born. She said the company located in Morden because it was in the middle of Canada and close to the American border. But she also appreciates the large German population there, including members of her husband's family.

"We want our children to know the German language," she said.

"It does help to have family around to contribute to their German education."

 

-- -- --

 

Petsch said Germans have a long history in Manitoba, but if non-Germans want to get a glimpse of it, they are welcome to join the German Society on Nov. 3 at a fundraising dinner featuring the society's renowned brass band. To buy a $35 ticket or reserve a table, call 204-589-7724.

kevin.rollason@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 27, 2012 J1

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