German immigrants, we believe, were born in Germany and speak the same language. But that belief is more myth than reality. Most German-Manitobans were born outside of Germany. They also speak a diversity of dialects that make communications at times difficult if not impossible.
German-Manitoban history began in 1670, when Prince Rupert of the Rhine became the first Hudson's Bay Co. governor. Then, 150 years later, Lord Selkirk's settlers included 100 German mercenaries who tilled the land along "German Creek" (today known as the Seine River). Two hundred more settlers arrived from the French-German borderlands of Alsace as well as from multilingual Switzerland, including the artist Peter Rindisbacher, whose drawings and paintings can be viewed in the Manitoba Archives.
Although St. Boniface was named after Winfried Bonifatius, the German patron saint, most settlers had moved away from the Red River Colony by 1826 and settled in Eastern Canada or the United States. They found the conditions for farming here to be poor.
The 7,000 German-speaking Mennonites who arrived in the late 1870s were more persistent. Over the next half-century, they were followed by a great diversity of settlers who had German roots: German-Russians, Austro-Hungarians, so-called ethnic Germans from Rumania and other parts of Eastern Europe, citizens of Germany, German-Americans and German-Canadians from Ontario and other parts of Canada. In 1916, 59 per cent of Germans in Manitoba had been born in Canada, 10 per cent in Germany, six per cent in the United States, and 25 per cent elsewhere, mostly in Eastern Europe.
German-Manitobans included a great diversity of religious groups, from Lutherans, Baptists, Hutterites, Mennonites and other Protestants to Catholics and Jews. Next to High German, they spoke a great diversity of dialects and various forms of Low German. These dialects were so different, Germans could not always understand one another.
Considering the great diversity among Germans, it is often difficult to figure out who actually was German. German immigrants themselves were at times unsure or changed identities. Not all German-speaking Mennonites, for example, identified as German, while third-generation German-Americans, who no longer spoke German, did identify as German. The anti-German hostility of the First World War led many to hide their identity. They stopped speaking German in public and when the government asked about their ethnic origin, the reported Dutch or Swiss rather than German. This explains why the number of Germans recorded in the Canada census plummeted from 35,000 Germans in Manitoba in 1911 to only 20,000 in 1921.
What did German-Manitobans do? The majority worked on farms, but one-fifth lived in Winnipeg -- many in the North End -- and worked in manufacturing, services, or as entrepreneurs. They founded churches and cultural clubs in order to maintain their ethno-religious heritage.
The German Society of Winnipeg was founded as a mutual aid society and social club in 1892. Its clubhouse, on the corner of Charles Street and Flora Avenue, is still active and hosts a German-themed Folklorama pavilion each year. German-language newspapers such as Der Nordwesten/Kanada Kurier (1889-2004) connected German-speakers in Manitoba with German migrants elsewhere.
With the rise of the German empire's imperialist ambitions in the 1890s, Anglo-Manitobans became increasingly suspicious of German-speakers in their province. During and after the First World War, German-language school instruction and German-language newspapers were forbidden. Some Germans were interned.
After being restricted from entering the country in the wake of the First World War, between 1924 and the onset of the Great Depression in 1930, Germans once again immigrated to Canada. They included 21,000 Mennonite refugees from Russia as well as a small group of 100 Catholics from Southwestern Germany who settled in Little Britain, 30 kilometres north of Winnipeg. Germans once again became respected Manitobans. In 1936, Canadian census-takers recorded 50,000 Germans in Manitoba.
The Great Depression and the rise of Nazism in Germany troubled Manitobans, including German-Manitobans. Some joined the Nazi party, the Deutscher Bund, or even returned to the "New Germany," but most rejected Nazi ideology. During that time period, Canada all but barred Jewish refugees -- including many from Germany -- from entering the country.
Canada's economic boom encouraged German immigration shortly after the Second World War. Among the first were ethnic German refugees, who started coming in 1947. They were sponsored by a coalition of Protestant and Catholic churches. From 1950 on, the Canadian government, employers and churches actively recruited German nationals to work as farmhands, miners, loggers, domestic servants and nurses' aides.
Altogether, a quarter of a million Germans entered the country during the postwar years. By 1971, 123,000 Germans lived in Manitoba. The vast majority integrated quickly, adopting the English language and Canadian citizenship. Several became successful entrepreneurs and professionals.
From the 1960s to the 1980s, the postwar wave declined to a trickle of immigrants from Germany.
Since the 1990s, however, some 20,000 Germans have settled once again in Manitoba. Most were ethnic Germans who were born in Kazakhstan and other parts of the former Soviet Union. They immigrated to Germany during the 1990s but found Germany to be too secular. They followed relatives and friends to Winkler, Altona, Steinbach and Winnipeg. By 2006, there were 216,755 Germans in the province, 67,290 of whom identified German as "single origin."
Alexander Freund is chairman in German-Canadian studies at the University of Winnipeg.