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  • Hard Passage: A Mennonite Family's Journey from Russia to Canada
  • John W. Friesen
Arthur Kroeger . Hard Passage: A Mennonite Family's Journey from Russia to Canada. Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2007. 269 pp. Notes. Bibliography. Index. $34.95 hc.

The narrative of this interesting book follows developments pertaining to a second emigration of Mennonites to Canada in 1925-26, the first having arrived in the 1870s. Both groups suffered many of the same kinds of adjustments — lack of a good educational background, virtually no financial resources, and a good dose of discrimination from resident Canadians. Like Kroeger, many young Mennonites of both groups, migrated to urban areas and worked hard to become educated and make their contribution to the socioeconomic fabric of Canada.

Kroeger is a good storyteller, and although the book will primarily be enjoyed by his Mennonite counterparts, it is also a very readable account of early settler life in Western Canada. Kroeger sketches the six-week journey of the Mennonites to Canada as they came from what is now Ukraine through Latvia, England, France, and Quebec City on the way to their final destination—Monitor, Alberta. Here life was difficult, jobs were scarce, and food supplies were short. One year, just before Christmas, a large amount of sugar was accidentally spilled on the floor of the local grocery store. Kroeger's mother swept it up, dissolved the sugar and strained out the dirt, and that year the family had baked sweets for Christmas (138).

In another incident, ingenuity was displayed when skis were needed. Two of Kroeger's brothers took a set of boards, four inches wide and six feet long and cut a point on each end. They boiled the pointed ends until they pointed upwards and tied them into position until they dried. They attached short pieces of leather harness to the boards and arranged them so they could be looped onto the skier's feet (141).

Kroeger is quite blunt about the negative welcome that Mennonites received in Canada. In fact, many early Canadian settlers had serious and justifiable misgivings about the reception they would receive in their new homeland. Aware of this possibility, the Mennonites determined to work hard, pay taxes, and respect the law of the land. Still, this was not enough for some of their hosts, such as one writer on the Calgary Herald, who described their arrival in these terms: "Canada has become the dumping ground for the refuse of civilization" (171). The Manitoba Free Press echoed this sentiment by deploring the fact that the government was admitting "those serf-ridden, stiletto-carrying Dago, and the degenerate [sic] central Europe" (141-142). No one was more cruel than George Exton Lloyd, Anglican Bishop of Saskatchewan who called the potential citizens "dirty, ignorant, garlic-smelling...continentals" (172).

The book has one recurring theme — Kroeger's consistent concern about his father's continuing battle with ill health. Happily, Kroeger's father lived to a ripe old age, dying in 1970 at the age of eighty-seven. [End Page 218]

The book has a somber ending, with Kroeger describing a scene with which many early settlers could identity. Kroeger visits the old family farm at Monitor, Alberta, and picks up the hub of an old buggy wheel that he will later use as a pen and pencil holder. The last paragraph describes another visit to the old family farm in 1998, with Kroeger sadly viewing a rusting bedspring in the prairie sod where the old family home once stood. It is at once a picture of dismal melancholy mingled with the reality of significantly changing times in Western Canada. The book very ably tells the story of one family, but it also serves as a vehicle by which to document the very challenging events that shaped the lives of the people, who, during the early part of the last century, chose to settle in this part of the country.

Editor's note: Arthur Kroeger was a Rhodes scholar who, on his return to Canada, joined the civil service, becoming the "dean of deputy ministers," serving in six departments. He served as Chancellor of Carleton University, 1993-2002; the Kroeger...


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