My reaction to the Departing Canada conference (Part 1)

There are two things I enjoy a lot: people smarter than me, and niche studies of Mennonite stuff. This is why I literally book a vacation day for myself every year so I can attend the annual CTMS conference in person. (I will admit the pandemic put a cramp in these plans these past two years but let’s not talk about that right now.)

Given my penchant for surrounding myself with people who know a lot more than I do, I’ve put my foot in my mouth a great many times. Very embarrassing. This is another great opportunity for such a scenario, so let’s dive in!

Just in case you’re as new to this all as I am (I feel I will always be new, as I am not a scholar) I will explain that CTMS stands for Centre for Transnational Mennonite Studies. The Plett Foundation and the University of Winnipeg also are responsible for this conference.

Several years ago someone made the mistake of telling me this annual event exists, and I’ve been attending faithfully ever since, taking in scholars reading papers that are all clearly over my head. This year the theme was Departing Canada, Encountering Latin America: Reflections on the Centenary of Mennonite Emigration from Canada to Mexico and Paraguay.

As the title suggests, this year marked 100 years since the point at which many Mennonites left the Canadian prairies and headed south, so I’ve been learning about this subject this year. I don’t have any immediate family connections to this migration story and I’ve been a bad listener up to this point because I mostly am concerned with my own personal history (I’m selfish) but there are many ways my eyes are being opened and I’ve had a great year hearing perspectives and taking in the personal stories of others in connection with this subject. (Links will be below. There are not as many as I had imagined there would be. I am ashamed.)

Okay! Shoot, this is a lot of words and I haven’t told you about the conference yet!

Friday I booked a vacation day but still arrived late and missed the introduction and hearing the first presenter. However, during the Q&A I took notice when he randomly declared that “studies have shown that all women lie about their age.” INTERESTING. This is an academic conference, is it not? The vague, lazy phrase “studies have shown” is typically reserved for sketchy medical treatments sold on TV late at night. At an academic conference you CITE YOUR SOURCES. Also I’m 44 years old and thoroughly proud of how grizzled I am by now, so stick that in yer pipe and smoke it.

(Andrew reminds me that I frequently round up, so I’ve been running around telling people I’m “almost 50”, and he feels that is, in fact, a lie. But I don’t think that’s the kind of lie that fellow hopes to highlight. IS IT.)

My notes were a huge mess. I started off trying to take them on my phone before it froze, and I was late to hear Aileen Friesen present her paper ‘Our Kind of Mennonites’: The Old Colony, the Russlaender and Themes of Migration. I’m absolutely intrigued by the phrase “our kind of Mennonites” because that’s a real phrase I myself use, I think maybe a lot of us do, because there really are so many “kinds” to the point that I think sometimes we’re not sure what even ties us together. (I think, maybe, this conference does!) All I wrote in my phone were two things that I liked the sound of: “peculiar people” and “mentally defective settlers” — I think these were things that had been said about Mennonites and I find that fascinating. But I was definitely way out of my depth on this one. Very sad at my lateness.

Next up was Ernie Braun, reading his paper A Tale of Two Decisions. I scribbled down stuff like: “part of a ‘small but unpopular group'” and “when a question of ideals separates them”. Ernie has a way of telling tales in a kind, humorous way, but he has a real knack for the macabre too. Seems weird to say maybe but here are other things I wrote down, taken from what he said: “three years later they returned to Canada… but they were not the same people.” And this: “as a child, his aunt said people (the Mennonites in Mexico or Paraguay) were always singing… later realized those were funerals that happened every other day.” “The Great Death”. Gesangbuch 247: “Farewell world, I am tired of you…” Last words: “well… I guess I will have to die.” And: “a grotesque parody of Eden.” “High principles and tolerance of hardship.”

Then was Tina Fehr Kehler, reading her paper The Transmigrational Life: One Dietsche Family’s History of Migration. Here are my garbled notes, as I wrote down what appealed to me or tweaked things in my brain: “we’ll see how it works out yet” (a quote from a letter, I think)… misrepresentations of “paradise”… when they arrived, “that’s not for white people” (being able to pick oranges from the tree by simply reaching out your open window)… Strangers & Pilgrims by Abe Warkentin (this is a book I want! where can I get it?!)… “I went to the edge of the woods and stood there and cried” (a quote from a letter)… wanted something new … in each other’s business all the time … “it’s best not to live too near one’s siblings” … a local self-taught doctor … shameful events, hidden … “shot him in the leg” … a mistake … animosity … turbulence … “move away from those devils” (meaning, the Mennonite church) … changed his name “to shed his Mennonite identity”.

I also took notes in my messy manner during the Q&A: “what does it mean to be Mennonite outside of the formal church structure? Especially for women” … “fragmentation of/in the family” … distancing and distinguishing themselves, yet, people bound together, dynamics impacted … Kennert Giesbrecht reminded the audience that “Mennonites are still migrating — this story is still happening” (this I was surprised to learn, and it was expanded upon in other papers!) … re: the Grandma database, “be careful” re: tracking your own family … Ernie, translating something he read in a letter: “they shut off the horizon with pancakes” … and this from the phenomenal Dr. Aileen Friesen: “Female historians have not been listened to.” I heartily heard that, not as a historian, but as a female. It would do many males well to consider what it is they are not listening to… or are perhaps afraid of hearing.

I love this conference so much! I have a lot more to share in the next post.

For now, here are the links I promised, about what I’ve been learning about this migration this year:

What about Mennonites in Mexico?

Menno Moto: An adventure in search of Mennonite Identity

5 Questions with YouTube Sensation, Dietsche Mejal!