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  • Manufacturing Mennonites: Work and Religion in Post-War Manitoba by Janis Thiessen
  • Nelson Wiseman
Janis Thiessen. Manufacturing Mennonites: Work and Religion in Post-War Manitoba. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2013. 264 pp. Notes. Bibliography. Index. Illustrations. $27.95 sc.

Stereotypical images of first generation immigrants often associated them with specific occupations and locations: Icelanders with fishing on Lake Winnipeg, Finns with forested northern Ontario’s bush camps, Ukrainians and Germans with farming across the prairies, Italians with construction in southern Ontario, and wandering Jews peddling goods in various locations. More recently, some identify Sikhs as taxi drivers and Filipinos as garment workers and caregivers. Integration, intermarriage, assimilation, and secularization change both the reality and mainstream perceptions of ethnic immigrant groups as second, third and subsequent generations appear. Manufacturing Mennonites points to structural economic changes as a transformational development in the life and identity of that community’s members. [End Page 205]

The book’s roots are in a Ph.D. dissertation supervised by Gregory Kealey at the University of New Brunswick and it appears under the imprimatur of the long-running Canadian Social History Series he edits. As with many students of ethnicity and religion, Janis Thiessen was drawn to her subject by her own and her family’s experiences: when, in her early twenties, she wore a T-shirt memorializing an anniversary of the Winnipeg General Strike, her Mennonite employer’s disparaging reaction shocked her: he took it as political statement; she thought she was merely expressing her fondness for the study of history.

Well-written and thoroughly researched – dozens of interviews and more than a dozen manuscript collections consulted in addition to secondary sources – Thiessen contextualizes her study in the literatures on North America’s Mennonites and on business history, which according to her cannot be divorced from labour history. In addition to its lengthy bibliography, the reproduction of a few photographs gleaned from the Internet, and voluminous endnotes – one chapter has 188 – the book offers some easy-to-grasp tables.

Thiessen probes the connections between religious identity and the makeover of the Mennonite labour force occasioned by urbanization. She reminds us that ethnic and religious identities are fluid, in constant transformation, not fixed. Mennonites are not all cut from a single piece of sectarian cloth, and a plurality of identities and denominational differences has always persisted among them, no different in this respect from other Christians, Jews, and Muslims. As with the Christian social gospel, the Mennonite gospel preaches economic and social justice.

Thiessen’s study of a particular class of Mennonites since the Second World War deepens our understanding of a group long associated with largely self-contained pietistic rural colonies, which embraced pacifism and detached themselves from the secular world. Manitoba is the logical province for the study because although it has less than four percent of Canada’s population, it has the country’s largest number of Mennonites. Winnipeg, the home of Canada’s first Mennonite bible college and now of Canadian Mennonite University, has the world’s largest concentration of urban Mennonites.

One chapter deals with Mennonite intellectual elites (theologians and historians), another with Mennonite corporate mythology (described as extolling conformity, humility, and deferential obedience), and a third with Mennonite workers’ identities and workplace experiences. Most Mennonite workers oppose unionization, but not as overwhelmingly as they once did, and many more of the workers at the Mennonite-owned firms studied by Thiessen are now not Mennonites. The contrast between Mennonite employers’ and Mennonite employees’ perspectives regarding labour activism is attributed to their differing class positions. As a rampart against worker disgruntlement, owners reconstructed their corporate mythology to [End Page 206] provide for share ownership and profit sharing, which alas, Thiessen takes as serving the reification of capitalist social and economic relations. For this political scientist, this least engaging chapter traces the experiences at the three large firms studied in detail; one is located in Winnipeg and a Danish multinational corporation bought another, located in Steinbach, in 2010.

The most engaging chapter for students of Manitoba politics examines the community’s relationship to Ed Schreyer’s NDP government. Its labour orientation and policy initiatives on behalf of the union movement did...


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