This Lost Document Explains Why I’m Here (Probably You, Too)

This past Friday, Andrew and I took the day off, so that we could visit the Mennonite Heritage Archives, which is located on the campus of Canadian Mennonite University. We had business that could not wait. We had recently become aware of the fact that the Archives hold the 1873 Privilegium. And it’s about to be sent to Ottawa for cleaning. Now that we knew it was there, we were too eager to wait for it to return. We wanted to see it immediately.

Inside the vault at the Archives. If these walls could talk… Wait. They DO!

So what’s the Privilegium? It’s a letter from the Canadian government, stating, among others things, that the Mennonites would be exempt from military duty, if and when they chose to settle in Canada.

It’s from the Department of Agriculture! They wanted Mennonites to farm the land.

Archivist Conrad Stoesz welcomed us. He knew why we were there. The Privilegium was waiting. “This document explains why you and I are here today, and not in the United States,” Conrad stated, as the three of us gathered around the frail pages on the table.

There was a German version, and an English one. The photo above is in German. But the ones below are all in English, so maybe you can read them…? I didn’t photograph every aspect of the document, just a few points:

“…for the information of German Mennonites having intention to emigrate to Canada via Hamburg. 1. An entire exemption from any Military Service is by law and Order in Council granted to the denomination of Christians called Mennnonites.” Bottom left: “David Klaassen Jacob Peters Heinrich Wiebe Cornelius Töws Mennonite Delegates from Southern Russia”

This first point is the one that our forefathers decided made the difference between choosing the United States or Canada. Exempt from military service? Great. Canada it is!

“3. The said reserve of eight Townships is for the exclusive use of the Mennonites, and the said free grants of one quarter section to consist of 160 acres each, as defined by the Act.”

Article 3 above, those eight townships mentioned? That’s the East Reserve. That’s where we live today. It’s a little surreal to see the document discussing where we are today.

“15. The immigrants will be provided with provisions on the portion of the journey between Liverpool and Collingwood; but during other portions of the journey they are to find their own provisions.”

I didn’t know they went from Hamburg to Liverpool to Collingwood. I didn’t know the 1870’s Canadian government was so far-reaching that they could provide the immigrants with food as they traveled in Europe.

Furthermore… here’s the nuts thing about the above document. It’s arguably the most important document in Canadian Russian Mennonite history… and it was lost until 2015! Some folks were cleaning out the basement of the CMC Church in Steinbach, and stumbled upon this really old paper in a box and figured it might be of value. Sooooo… every time anyone talked about how and why Manitoban Mennonites ended up where they did… they were talking about this piece of paper. Which was only recently discovered.

I live really close to that church. Every time I walk to my friend Rachelle’s house, I walk by that church. I’ve been walking by that church for years. I was walking by that church when that document, the privilegium, was resting silent in a corner of its dark basement.

Makes me wonder…what other everyday overlooked buildings are hiding deeply significant secrets? It also proves why we need archives like this one: