What happened in Drake, Saskatchewan?
The basic situation is simple. Erhard Schroeder was a Mennonite who came to Canada in 1926 from the Ukraine and settled in the small town of Drake, SK. He had trained as a teacher, but his English wasn't good enough to teach in Canada. He worked other jobs until 1940, when he accepted an invitation to teach in a winter Bible School. He taught in German.
What happened next is not so simple. What we know about any event depends on our sources. A source can be a person, a letter, a newspaper article, or a photograph. Each source needs to be interpreted, because they don't always tell the whole story. That doesn't mean that the sources are wrong, only that they may be leaving out information.
For example, imagine that someone told you this story: “Ben was at a birthday party. He took the last piece of cake. And it wasn't even his party!” That might make you think that Ben is selfish. But what if the story went like this: “Ben was at a birthday party. He took the last piece of cake only after he made sure everyone else had had enough.” In both stories, Ben ate the last piece of cake, but one makes him look bad while the other makes him look good.
The same applies to the sources about the incident in Drake. One group wants to make the Mennonites look bad while the Mennonites want to make themselves look good.
Here is what happened, in the words of the Montreal newspaper the Daily Standard:
“Bible studies” are no longer being conducted at the German-English Bible school at the town of Drake as the result of a visit recently of a group of vigilantes described merely as a “group of men.”
The group of men who visited the school saw to it that the teacher of the school, a young man from the town of Rosthern, left Drake that evening.
Information was that feeling was running high in the Drake district which was settled many years ago by large numbers of Mennonites. There were rumors of German activity.
The re-opening of the German-English Bible school, as it was called, brought matters to a head. Suspicious of the purpose of the school, a group of men paid a surprise visit, knocking at the door while the school was in progress.
The teacher invited the man in and when asked, explained he was conducting a German and English Bible school.
The visitors looked around. On the blackboards they could see only German writing. In the exercise books of the children, only German writing. The text books were in German and of a half dozen examined, none of them was the Bible. If there were any Bibles in the classroom, the visitors did not see them.
The group of men, turning to the class declared that the English language was good enough for everyone in this country and could be learned in school. The teacher was invited to take the next train back to Rosthern.
He protested that he did not have the money to buy a railroad ticket. The men bought a ticket for him and saw that he left on the train. On the platform at the station, they sang “O Canada” as the train pulled out.
What do you think of this newspaper article? Does it seem fair, or is it one-sided? Compare this article to some other versions of the event. (Read another article reporting the same event).
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Jacob Gerbrandt, a Mennonite minister, took up the cause of the teacher in Drake. He wrote a letter to the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix in response to an article on the incident. Gerbrandt felt that the article was biased. Gerbrandt begins by giving his reason for writing. (Read full article)
“Sir: It was my intention to entirely refrain from participation in this controversy, thinking the less oil poured on turbulent waters the better, but your persistence in maliciously insulting the majority of the Canadian citizens of Drake, as well as some in the city of Saskatoon, demands a response.”
He then explains why there were so many Mennonites in Drake, as well as why they spoke German.
“During the years 1923 to 1929 our numbers at Drake were considerably augmented by new settlers from Poland and Russia. This fact particularly, has necessitated the conducting of short term German-English Bible schools, not only at Drake but in other Mennonites communities as well, since the German language is a common medium of intercourse among Mennonites, so that the proper relationship between the home and church may be maintained. If you have any knowledge of human mentality, you should know that the learning of a new language is practically out of the question for the average adult of mature years.”
Then he responds to the accusation that the school may not have been just an innocent Bible school. The men who visited the school claimed there was only one Bible and the teaching was not religious.
“Apparently these men do not know a Bible when they see it. At any rate there wasn't one among them competent to judge whether the teaching was of a religious nature or not, if, as they claim, it was all in German.”
Gerbrandt also disputes the claim that the townspeople had asked the Mennonites to stop teaching in German.
“Not a single member holding a responsible position in our church was approached before the raid. If these so-called ‘loyal citizens' had made their grievances known in gentlemanly manner, the school could and would have been discontinued.”
Compare this to an article that is not quite as understanding of the Mennonite position.
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The Canadian Corps, a group in favour of Canada being in the war, responded to Gerbrandt's letter. (Read full article)
“Under ordinary circumstances we would ignore letters such as Gerbrandt's, but due to the present national crisis we consider it advisable that the public should be truthfully informed on such matters. We say quite pointedly to Gerbrandt, or anyone else who sides with him, that we cannot imagine it is possible to insult anyone who cannot take sufficient offence to go to the rescue or bear arms in defence of helpless women and children who are being attacked and destroyed by a ruthless enemy. If, however, the stating of the truth accomplishes the miraculous feat of insulting such persons, we are indeed pleased.”
Just like Gerbrandt, the writer for the Canadian Corps claims to be telling the truth.
“We now quote information from reliable and respected Canadians of Drake and district, which is in conflict with Gerbrandt's recent article, and we have no hesitation whatever in accepting their veracity.”
For example, the writer says that a “responsible approach was made to the Mennonites sponsoring the school” asking them to stop teaching in German. Gerbrandt denied this in his letter. Also, the writer says that there was only one Bible in the whole school.
The people that Gerbrandt calls a “mob,” the writer calls some “of the finest and most reputable citizens of the Drake district.” The Canadian Corps writer makes clear that he is opposed to all German influences.
“We state emphatically that we are not opposed to Germans by reason of where they are born, but we are strongly opposed to the likes of Gerbrandt being permitted to keep alive as a means of intercourse in this country, the language of the brutal Hun [an insulting term for Germans], while our sons and fellow-countrymen are giving their lives to prevent German domination.”
“There lie in France over 60,000 Canadians who gave their lives during the First Great War for this same cause.”
“We feel it is about time that Canadian-born children of non-Anglo-Saxon origin, were released from the yoke of German kultur which is being fostered by a few leaders for personal gain. We submit that the only way to remedy this pernicious situation is by the exclusive use of the English language and British customs.”
The writer ends by putting the blame for the incident on Gerbrandt.
“In conclusion we would state that Gerbrandt himself is the chief cause of any disruption in the harmony and neighborliness which may have arisen in the Drake district, as referred to by Gerbrandt.”
Something happened in Drake, Saskatchewan, but it is hard to know exactly what when the sources disagree.
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Each side had its own prejudices. Some people didn't like the Mennonites because they spoke German and refused to fight for Canada. Austin Cross wrote a series of travel reports for the Ottawa Citizen. His report on Saskatchewan was called “Heiling Hitler on Saskatchewan Relief.” The title referred to his claim that most Mennonites needed assistance from the government and yet were loyal to the German dictator Adolf Hitler, not Canada. (Read full article)
For example, Cross wrote that “These Mennonites are just about all for Hitler” and that the Mennonites fit into Canadian democracy “about as well as ostriches mate with oysters.” The rest of the article was on the same theme.
“This spring the Mennonite children came to school boasting about Hitler, and the one or two English kiddies had to hear these grubby Mennonites – mostly on relief -- gloat when Denmark, Holland or Belgium were invaded. Openly in the school yard, they told how good that was. Canada's turn would come, they announced gleefully. I can get people who will supply the names of the individuals who boasted that when Hitler got to Canada, he would soon put the old Canadian settlers where they belong. And you gathered that the Mennonites felt the Canadians belonged behind barbed wire.”
“I heard other more sinister stories, harder to confirm, about conditions up there. The funny part about it is, that most of this anti-British faction is as yellow as the Italian navy. A littler bit of action on the part of the authorities, and these people would be the most abjectly craven and crawling. Too, they would respect Canada a great deal more.”
“I saw by the papers that a teacher had recently been put in jail in Saskatchewan for making the same sort of speeches to his pupils the Mennonites have been making. Perhaps this not only proves that I am giving you facts and not fancies, but that the authorities out there have become belatedly alive to the anti-British elements out West.”
If you read this article and didn't know anything about Mennonites, you might conclude that they were the worst sort of people.
If, however, you read the response of some of the readers of the article, you would get a much different impression. Dorise Nielsen, a Member of Parliament from Saskatchewan criticized Cross's generalizations. (Read full article)
“Such a statement, so sweeping and so wide, is calculated to influence our minds against these minority groups and is, in my opinion, grossly unfair and without foundation, and evidence enough for me that Mr. Cross is a most unreliable reporter and certainly not fit to send in contributions to a paper such as the Ottawa Citizen.”
“Many of [the Mennonites], weighed down under a cloud of suspicion as they are, are unable to defend themselves, and so I take this opportunity to speak for them and to assure the readers of the Citizen that great numbers of these people are as loyal Canadians as any to be found. I cannot condemn severely enough articles of this nature and sincerely hope the Citizen discontinues them.”
F. Jennings, another reader, agreed with Nielsen. (Read full article).
“The attack upon the Mennonites that appeared in a recent Citizen seems to me to be unworthy of your paper. I don't know the author of the article, but I do know that today there are malicious busybodies styled as patriots quite ready to report a few careless spoken and harmlessly intentioned words that are enough to place peaceful people in a concentration camp with no means of defence or trial."
“Now it seems to me that the article slanders the Mennonites. I have never lived amongst them in Saskatchewan, but I do know the Mennonites of York county. I have lived beside them, worked beside them, begged from them, and traded amongst them, and I have yet to find a better type of people. To say they are chisellers is untrue. Their ancestors from Pennsylvania bought and paid for every acre they possess. They got no free grants.”
“The morals of the great majority of them are high, and most of them are intensely religious; and what's better, they are Christian-hearted and generous, and fair-minded and tolerant. To say they are unpatriotic and pro-German is not true of the Mennonites I know. Some of the strongest condemnations of Hitler and Stalin I've heard have come from the lips of Mennonites.”
Some people saw the Mennonites as hard-working, peace-loving people, while others saw them as friends of the enemy. It was tension like this that led to the incident at Drake. Mennonite leaders were very concerned about public perception. Bishop David Toews and Minister Jacob Gerbrandt corresponded about this issue. (read letters to and from Toews and Gerbrandt). Both men were personally threatened. Government officials also wrote to Bishop Toews about this incident, expressing concern. (Read a letter and Toews' response).