The deportation of the Mennonite refugee family of Heinrich Peter Janzen from Canada during the Depression of the 1930s is a story of government ambivalence towards immigrants. Janzen’s case reveals the care and understanding given to him by the Canadian Mennonite Board of Colonization (CMBC) and Canada’s attitude during the 1930s regarding immigrants.

Janzen was born August 18, 1881, in Russia. He was incarcerated by Communist authorities in Russia for unknown reasons in the 1920s. After his release, Janzen, his wife, and children fled to East Prussia; they later moved to Gronau, Westphalia, Germany, where all family members became German citizens. The family migrated to Canada on June 18, 1927, through the services provided by the CMBC.1

The CMBC was formed on May 17, 1922, to streamline the immigration process for Mennonites. It had an affiliation with the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) and held formal talks with the Canadian government on immigration procedures and rules of entry. Janzen, his wife Helena, and seven children were originally headed to Rosthern, Saskatchewan, a popular destination for many Mennonites after Canada liberalized immigration regulations in 1923.2 Saskatchewan was a favored province for German speakers between the two world wars, with ethnic Germans encompassing more than ten percent of the total population.3 Post-high school education in German was possible in six religious colleges (there were only nine located in Canada at the time.) Generally, these colleges trained ministers.4 Some believed Saskatchewan offered the best opportunity in Canada for Germans to retain their language and culture.5

In Rosthern, the Janzen family formed a special relationship with David Toews, chairman of the Conference of Mennonites of Canada (CMC), a respected member of the Mennonite community as well as a valued church elder. Many non-Mennonites, including members of the Canadian government, admired Toews. He was also instrumental within the Mennonite immigration process.6 During the Great Depression, many residents of Saskatchewan suffered. Under Toews’ leadership, the CMBC tried to ease the plight of Mennonites who had entered Canada under their auspices.7

Bad luck and poor timing plagued the Janzen family during their eight-year residence in Saskatchewan. (In addition to Rosthern, it appears the family lived at least periodically in Monet, Forgan, and Rosetown, and that they never lived in one municipality for five consecutive years and thus did not fulfill their requirements of domicile under the Naturalization Act.) This included illness that required two family members to have surgery, other medical expenses due to disease, a house fire, and the breakup of oldest daughter Lena’s marriage. Son David went to prison. Due to their fragile financial situation and requests to the local community for help, they were labelled public charges by the federal government on May 31, 1932. At this time, Janzen owed the municipality of Monet, Saskatchewan, $246.90 for receiving financial aid and unpaid medical bills. Department of Immigration and Colonization (DIC) officials considered deportation the correct course to follow. If foreigners asked for any kind of welfare assistance, deportation was usually the result. In this case, both parents and all children were to be deported: Heinrich, his wife Helena, sons Henry, Jacob and David, and daughters Lena, Emma, Lily and Willi. The three oldest children were over 18 and appealed their deportation.

Deportations from Canada during the Great Depression reflected federal government policies and the country’s poor economic condition. Although labor needs and employers’ concerns influenced deportations, the role played by the Canadian government was immense. Deportations from Canada between the two world wars were justified under the Immigration Act of 1910, which dictated that if newcomers failed to fulfill their obligations to Canada, the government could deport them. A newcomer to Canada was to be mentally stable, healthy, law-abiding, and employed. The Immigration Act was used to conveniently rid Canada of any non-productive immigrant.8 The Naturalization Act of 1914 established the method by which the foreign-born could obtain citizenship. In order to become a Canadian citizen, an immigrant had to establish a residence for five years. This legislation also listed grounds whereby deportation was possible after residence had been established and Canadian citizenship obtained.9 With the onset of the recession, the Canadian government wanted to shovel out non-productive foreigners resident in Canada. Throughout the interwar years, deportation was a method of dealing with the unemployed, relief applicants, and any potential agitator. Those without Canadian citizenship were without the legal means to fight extradition. Many newcomers deported from Canada had done nothing wrong but had merely experienced hardship in a country neither willing to aid them nor show them a reasonable measure of compassion. During the 1920s, deportations were regarded as a method of saving money for municipalities, public institutions, and all levels of government. But during the 1930s, the DIC used the Immigration Act and Naturalization Act in increasingly inventive ways. The DIC intended to show that immigrants misrepresented themselves at the time of entry, or had not fulfilled their residence requirements and could be deported regardless of their length of stay in Canada. Deportees lacked knowledge of the immigration system, appeals fell on deaf ears, courts systems were circumvented, and politicians and Parliament ignored the woes of newcomers.10 Immigrants were not eligible for any form of federal, provincial, government, or municipal support and could receive a prison sentence if they turned down any work offer. If the individual still had foreign citizenship, the recommendation would likely be deportation instead of a jail sentence. During the Depression, the Canadian government deported many newcomers for being a public charge.11 The term public charge was vague, referring to anyone who had become a public burden through inability to work. This meant that the immigrant had asked for financial aid from a local municipality because of ill health, lack of initiative or industry, or an inability to fit into Canadian society. With the onset of the Depression, thousands of unemployed and destitute immigrants were deported, with some deportation cases long and complicated processes.

Between 1930 and 1935, Canada officially deported more than twenty-eight thousand foreigners, with the actual numbers being higher. If one parent was ordered deported, this often meant their spouse and children were deported, too. This occurred even if the couple were separated, living at different addresses, and financially independent of one another. The fact that the children were born in Canada played no role in the deportation process. Children were listed as accompanying individuals and not noted in official statistics. By 1933, approximately twenty-nine percent of the population of Canada was out of work. Between 1933 and 1936, roughly twelve percent of Canadian residents received relief. Another five percent depended on some kind of charity from an institution either federal, provincial, municipal, religious, or other. During the recession, twenty percent of the residents in Canada were dependent on the state to exist.12

In 1932, with Canada ready to deport the entire Janzen family, Toews was sympathetic to their plight, offering advice, suggestions, and financial aid. It appears that their deportation was delayed solely because of Toews’ intervention. Due to their financial problems and debts, the family could have been deported during the summer 1932. At this time, the family resided at Forgan, Saskatchewan. It was only on account of Toews’ pledges of support to Canadian officials, and his personal help and advice, that the family was allowed to remain in the country for three more years. Deportation procedures were suspended in the hope the Janzens could establish domicile and demonstrate some degree of progress.

David Toews (1870–1947)David Toews (1870–1947)

During this period, Heinrich Janzen pledged to repay any debts and wanted to remain in Canada. There is no documentary evidence of what happened to the family from mid-1932 until 1935. In 1935, their problems intensified when the oldest son David was sentenced to jail for an unknown offence; he was later transferred from prison to a mental hospital in North Battleford, Saskatchewan, ending his 1932 deportation appeal to remain in Canada. The deportation of all family members was ordered with the exception of David, who was to serve his entire sentence and be deported later. Despite Toews’ help, the Janzen family found it necessary to receive intermittent relief from the town of Rosetown, increasing their debt to $325.95 by November 1935.13 Because of the family’s misfortune, growing debt, lack of future prospects, and a continuing recession in Canada, Heinrich Janzen demanded to be repatriated back to Germany. He bluntly stated that Germany was their proper Fatherland and home. He also noted to CMBC officials that he deeply regretted coming to Canada. After Janzen’s decision to be returned to Germany, the DIC noted there would appear to be no option but to comply with the wishes of Mr. Janzen and return the family to Germany under deportation proceedings.14 The son David pleaded for clemency from Canadian authorities, not wanting to be left behind in Canada. He asked to be deported with the rest of the family to Germany; by March 1935, David had been released from prison.

The German Consul in Winnipeg, Heinrich Seelheim, procured their passports, allowing their eventual return. Seelheim served as consul from 1930 to 1937. He was a quick convert to National Socialism and became a rabid anti-Semite. He tried to spread Nazi ideology within the Mennonite community by placing articles in Mennonite publications emphasizing the glories of a renewed Germany and its leader Adolf Hitler. Seelheim also undertook expeditions to observe recent German immigrant living and farming conditions firsthand. He was adventurous and spontaneous, two qualities that served him well in relating to the German speakers of Saskatchewan.15 During much of the Nazi era, the German government encouraged German nationals abroad to return to Germany, and deportations saved the German government transportation costs and placed the financial burden on the country carrying out the deportation. In this way, the manpower of Germany increased, as qualified tradesmen, skilled workers, and the like returned from abroad. The German government, churches, and private offices extended encouragement and advice on how to get deported during the Nazi era. Nazi legislation dictated that all German men, regardless of place of residence, were subject to military service. For Nazi Germany, German nationals who had acquired foreign citizenship through naturalization still owed a debt to the Reich. They desired the return of a man like Heinrich Janzen because his large family, which included three sons, would have been considered good for the country. Ethnic Germans abroad were also encouraged to leave their lands of residence and migrate to Germany.16

Some German elements in Canada admired at least some portions of Nazi dogma. Many Mennonites also flirted with National Socialism. While few became pure National Socialists, many approved the Nazi stance against Communism.17 David Toews travelled to Germany in 1936 and came away with mixed interpretations. Ultimately, his assessment was positive. Hitler was a widely admired German politician, although this respect did not extend to the entire Nazi party. But the party did have various social programs and did look after the needs of poor Germans. Perhaps more important, Nazi propaganda stated that Germans did not want war. Like the Mennonites, Hitler was supposedly devoted to peace. It was even rumored in Germany that Hitler read the Bible daily.18 Although the extent of Janzen’s acceptance of Nazi ideology is unknown, he must have had some basic knowledge of National Socialism; it appears their ideals were acceptable to him. Three of the Mennonite newspapers that appeared in the 1930s, the Mennonite Rundschau, the Steinbach Post, and Der Bote, ran pro-Nazi articles.19 Which of these, if any, Janzen read is unknown, but he became increasingly interested in Nazi Germany while expressing his disdain for Canada. By the time transportation had been arranged allowing Janzen, his wife, and children to leave Rosthern, Saskatchewan, for St. John, New Brunswick, the entire family had become increasingly angry at their fate in Canada. They demanded the CMBC supply the family with clothing and various necessities for their journey to Germany. Toews did his best to look after the family but regarded their needs as extravagant. At the time of their departure, Toews was the only good memory the Janzen family had of Canada. The family travelled by train from Saskatchewan, arriving on March 22 in Winnipeg and then making their way to St. John. The Janzens were deported on March 28, 1936, aboard the Duchess of Bedford.20

The Janzen family’s return migration from Saskatchewan to Germany during the 1930s was not an isolated case. The best-known and -documented study of German speakers returning to Germany is that of the Loon Lake Nazis. In 1929, a group of twenty families from Germany agreed to settle together in Loon Lake, Saskatchewan. Already by 1935, Germans from the Loon Lake area had given up on Saskatchewan, thinking that Nazi Germany offered better opportunities than the Canadian prairies. Nazi ideology made inroads with this group throughout the 1930s – hence the designation Loon Lake Nazis. By late 1938, the Loon Lake Germans were taxed to their physical limits and most members were ready to give up and go home.21 The Loon Lake Nazis represented just a hand full of the hundreds of German speakers who wanted to migrate to Germany from Canada during the late 1930s.22

Although both the Loon Lake Germans and the Janzens wanted to be in Germany, only the Janzens were deported. In Germany, the family returned to Gronau, Westphalia. The Janzens were equally unsuccessful in Germany. Heinrich Janzen found work after his arrival in 1935 but health problems continued to plague the family. After three years of residence, Janzen had improved his financial situation somewhat but medical bills hindered the family’s progress. Mennonite church elders and members of the Gronau Mennonite congregation helped the family, reminiscent of what had unfolded in Canada. But by mid-1938, the family notified the CMBC that they wanted to return to Canada and begged Toews to come to their aid. The German government refused to help them because they were considered Volksdeutsch (ethnic Germans) and not Reichsdeutsch (German-born), although they were German citizens.23 While Germany encouraged Germans to return from Canada, after arrival in the Reich, German speakers often had their wishes and talents ignored. German speakers from abroad were treated as foreigners, not as returning Germans, which made finding decent work in Nazi Germany very difficult. In theory, they were eligible for government help finding employment, accommodations, and the necessities of life. In reality, such services were rarely rendered to those returning from abroad.24 The CMBC were aware of the Janzens’ plight in Germany, but were glad to be rid of this needy family. They noted that no other family had caused so many problems and complained as much. Despite the Janzens’ assurances that they would repay all travel costs and old debts, the CMBC refused to aid them in any way.25

The outbreak of World War II made the Janzens’ return to Canada impossible. On Dec. 11, 1939, Heinrich Janzen found employment in the Chemische Werke Hüls. This factory made synthetic rubber and was considered an essential war product for the Nazi war machine.26 Unfortunately for the Janzen family, the factory in Hüls was bombed by the Allies on June 22, 1943, killing the father Heinrich.27 After the war, when the migration of German nationals was allowed, the children Henry, Helena, David, and Jacob applied to migrate to Canada through the CMBC services, but the CMBC wanted nothing to do with Janzen family members after past experience. Although some family members wanted to come to Canada, it was not to be under any of the CMBC immigration programs.28

Although immigration was encouraged from Europe to Canada from the early 1920s until 1930, not all who came to Canada were content with their fate in their new land of residence. In addition, during the 1930s, deportation was used as a judicial weapon to rid the country of a portion of the surplus population. During the Depression, the Canadian government deported many newcomers for being a public charge. Janzen’s disappointment with Canada may have caused him to look at developments in Nazi Germany. As Canada was going through a period of economic recession, Germany appeared to be booming, desiring additional labor. Unfortunately, the Janzens misused the helping hand of Toews and the CMBC, and their relationship eventually soured. Although given eight years to establish themselves in Canada, the Janzens were not able to do so. The Canadian government wanted them returned to Germany. It was only Toews’ compassion that had allowed them to remain in the country this long. What influenced Janzen to decide to abandon Canada in favor of Hitler’s Germany is unknown, but he was not alone in his positive appraisal of the Third Reich. Some wanted to return to Germany while others were forced. Heinrich Janzen met a terrible fate in Germany and that of the other family members remains unknown.