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Community Life

From: The Encyclopedia of Canada's Peoples/Germans/Gerhard Bassler

From the first appearance of settlers from Lucerne, Erfurt, Speyer, Vienna, Danzig, and Breisach in New France, the population of German-speaking descent has constituted a mosaic within the wider multicultural mix of Canada. In addition to natives from every region of Germany, it comprises Austrians, Swiss, Alsatians, Luxemburgers, German Americans, immigrants from Latin America, and ethnic Germans from all over eastern Europe. In the formation and maintenance of community, national origin has rarely been the rallying point. Until World War I, German-speaking immigrants from Germany and Austria had a weaker allegiance to their country than to the region of origin and preferred to identify themselves as Bavarian, Saxon, or Prussian, for example. Acknowledgement of German origin meant ethnocultural, not national, identity.

The absence of nationalism as an issue enabled immigrants of diverse German-speaking backgrounds to assume a common “German Canadian” identity in the process of adjustment and integration. The German consulate in Montreal in 1905 observed that “here in Canada, German Americans are considered as Germans, and mostly they also identify themselves as such, just as is the case with German Russians and German Austrians.” Similarly, the editor of Der Nordwesten (The Northwest; Winnipeg, 1889–1969), for decades the leading German-language paper in Canada, remarked in 1912 that, although only a minority of German-speaking farmers in the west hailed from Germany, they all “nevertheless call themselves Germans ... It is with them more a matter of sentiment than of geographical boundaries.”

Nor did social class divide German communities in Canada as much as it did in the United States. Migrants of different geographical, but similar rural, origins were motivated by common elements in their cultural orientation to form communities. This phenomenon has manifested itself in patterns of rural settlement and urban neighbourhoods; in such shared institutions as local and national associations, churches, language schools, and the German-language press; and in the joint celebration of such events as Christmas Eve, Belsnicking, Oktoberfest, German Day, and Karneval or Fasching.

In Lunenburg the so-called Foreign Protestants from southwestern Germany, Switzerland, and eastern France fused into a flourishing community with German churches, schools, and industries. In Waterloo County, Mennonites attracted waves of south German Catholics and north German Protestants, Amish, Swiss, and Russländer Mennonites as co-settlers to form around Berlin the largest and most viable German-Canadian community. In the west, German-speaking communities with such mixed origins as the United States, Austria, Germany, Alsace, Hungary, Galicia, and Russia were the predominant pattern of settlement, and membership in churches and voluntary ethnic associations was equally mixed. German ethnicity, in alliance with religious creed, was the main generator of the community.

In the case of Berlin, Mennonites were the founders of the German community; they shared their German-language schools, meeting houses, burial grounds, and resources with German-speaking settlers of all denominations. Mennonite bishop Benjamin Eby played a crucial role in this development by selling land to German immigrants, giving Ebytown the new name of Berlin in 1833, and in 1835 helping to launch Ontario’s first German-language paper (Canada Museum). Furthermore, the absence of a British socio-economic elite facilitated an equality of opportunity. The increasing number of prosperous German businessmen were role models for the newcomers, who shared a common social background and kept them in positions of power. Adhering to the proverbial German work ethic and strict social mores, the community was spared the class and racial strife, crime, and sectarianism that characterized much urban growth elsewhere. The endurance of a strong sense of community was noted by numerous outside observers. Prior to 1914 other Canadians recognized Germans as the charter group in Berlin and paid homage to the community’s exemplary character and values.

Since the eighteenth century a variety of voluntary organizations have attested to the diverse needs, interests, and aspirations of the German-Canadian community. Operating on local, regional, and national levels, they range in function from the religious, mutual aid, and charitable to the social, cultural, and political. The organizational network includes embassies, consulates, and cultural attachés, departments of German in Canadian universities, branches of the Germany-based Goethe Institut, and the German-language media. Voluntary organizations numbered about two hundred in 1957, five hundred in 1974, and over six hundred twenty years later.

Secular clubs have existed in only some areas of Canada, but churches and religious organizations have played a key role almost everywhere in helping German immigrants adjust to the new life. Between 1750 and 1861, for example, the Lutheran Church was the focus of community life in the settlement of Lunenburg, the Loyalist towns of Upper Canada, the Niagara peninsula, and the Ottawa valley. Ministers organized cultural and social activities, including German schools, and maintained German-language services as long as the demand existed. For rural Germans from eastern Europe, the church continued its role as a social and cultural centre in the pioneer environment of western Canada.

German secular associations in Canada were dissolved during and immediately after both world wars, but Lutheran, Mennonite, Catholic, and Baptist churches retained extensive service structures at local, regional, and national levels. After 1945 they provided comprehensive support for German-speaking immigrants that ranged from arranging overseas passage to tending to their educational, health, and welfare needs after their arrival. In the metropolitan areas, a few Lutheran, Catholic, and Baptist churches continue to provide services and fellowship in German, but the shrinking demand for these and the secularization of Canadian society have reduced the churches’ role to the spiritual care of their members.

While Germans from rural eastern Europe tended to organize community life around their church, immigrants from urbanized Germany established secular social clubs. The earliest of such organizations was the short-lived Hochdeutsche Gesellschaft (High German Society) in Halifax between 1786 and 1791. The oldest surviving secular association in Canada, the German Society of Montreal (founded in 1835), has functioned primarily as a benevolent and immigrant-aid organization. Its founders, reflecting the heterogeneous nature of the city’s early German community, represented four generations of immigrants originating in Switzerland, Germany, France, England, and the United States. In 1853 members of the society organized St John’s Lutheran Church and four years later the singing clubs Germania and Eintracht (Harmony). In Hamilton a German Benevolent Society, a singing club also called Eintracht, and a German theatre were founded between 1859 and 1863. The oldest German organization in existence today in Kitchener is the Concordia Club, established in 1873 as a choral society.

A growing number of local clubs providing fellowship, the pursuit of hobbies, and a German cultural environment have sprung up in the traditional areas of German settlement – Kitchener-Waterloo, Windsor, Hamilton, Toronto, and Ottawa – since the 1860s and in the urban centres in the west since the 1890s. In Victoria a Germania Sing Verein existed from 1861 to 1914. A German Society appeared in Winnipeg as early as 1871, when the city counted only 240 inhabitants. By 1914 Germans constituted nearly 10 percent of the urban population and had fifteen churches (nine of them Lutheran), four national-origin associations, numerous special-interest clubs, and several German-language newspapers. Associations such as the Reichsdeutscher Verein (Imperial German Society, 1905–08) or the Deutsch-Oesterreich-Ungarischer Verein (German-Austro-Hungarian Society, 1906–15) functioned as local social clubs with a heterogeneous German membership.

The driving force behind the revival of German-Canadian associational life in the 1920s was a strong consciousness among the post-war newcomers of having suffered as Germans. Manifestations of heightened ethnocultural aspirations ranged from celebrations of German Days (festive reunions of pre- and post-war immigrants), starting in 1923, to the first endeavours to record the group’s history. With few exceptions, notably the Winnipeg-based Volksverein deutsch-kanadischer Katholiken (People’s Association of German-Canadian Catholics), founded in 1909, pre-war organizations were not revived.

The associations and clubs of the 1920s and 1930s mirrored the origins, lifestyles, and aspirations of the post-war immigrants. Large urban centres now had more German organizations than ever before, and many of them were run for the first time by and for ethnic Germans from eastern Europe. Transylvanian Saxons founded clubs in Kitchener (1927), Windsor (1929), Aylmer, Ontario (1929), Winnipeg (1931), and Hamilton (1935); Danube Swabians in Montreal (1929), Kingsville, Ontario (1930), Niagara Falls (1934), Kitchener (1934), and Windsor (1935). Usually started as sick-benefit, burial, and glee societies, they also recruited Germans from other backgrounds.

In the 1930s the first German-Canadian labour and socialist organizations appeared in Winnipeg, Edmonton, Regina, Calgary, Vancouver, and Toronto. Their earliest umbrella organization was the short-lived Zentralverband deutschsprechender Arbeiter (Central Association of German-Speaking Workers), followed by the pro-Communist Deutscher Arbeiter- und Farmerverband (German Workers and Farmers Association) and its anti-Nazi successor, the Deutsch-Kanadischer Volksbund (German-Canadian League).

Other local clubs affiliated with such regional umbrella groups as the Deutsch-Kanadisches Zentralkomitee (German-Canadian Central Committee), Deutsche Arbeitsgemeinschaft (German Coordinating Committee), Deutsch-Kanadischer Bund von Manitoba (German-Canadian Union of Manitoba), and Deutsch-Kanadischer Verband von Saskatchewan (German-Canadian Association of Saskatchewan). The pro-Nazi Deutscher Bund Canada (also known as the Canadian Society for German Culture), founded in 1934, spawned local groups with German-language schools, cultural facilities, and recreational clubs. Attempts to organize German Canadians in the service of the Nazi cause failed, however. The party recruited only 170 members in Canada, and its affiliated German Labour Front an estimated 500. The Bund attracted 2,000 members, in part because it claimed to pursue cultural, not political, goals.

Today many German-Canadian clubs endeavour to provide for the entire family in ways ranging from educational programs and material support to restaurant services, Fasching (pre-Lenten) celebrations, and folk festivals. The most common aim is the preservation of customs and traditions practised in the immigrants’ place of origin. Relief and mutual assistance are provided by the Edelweiss Credit Union of Vancouver. Offering credit on trust and only to German Canadians, it grew from fourteen members in 1943 to over four thousand by 1970. Care of the elderly is the raison d’être of the German-Canadian Benevolent Society, which is active in several Canadian cities. As well, some twenty-one homes for German seniors are operated across the country.

Urban clubs with traditional European roots often carry names such as Bayern, Berliner, Sudeten, Burgenländer, Gottschee, and Donauschwaben. Most manifest an allegiance based on local place of origin. Germans from Russia operated a short-lived German-Russian Society in Winnipeg (1908–11), but today they have no organizational centre in Canada. Some are members of either the American Historical Society of Germans from Russia in Lincoln, Nebraska, the Germans from Russia Heritage Society based in Bismarck, North Dakota, or the Landsmannschaft der Russlanddeutschen (Alliance of Germans from Russia) in Germany. Volhynian Canadians, too, lack organizational infrastructure apart from their churches. Their only national mouthpiece is the genealogically oriented magazine Wandering Volhynians (Vancouver, 1987–), published by Ewald Wuschke.

The national organizations of Canadian Baltic Germans are the Canadian Baltic Immigrant Aid Society, launched in 1948 by Robert Keyserlingk, and the Canadian Baltic Aid Fund, founded four years later. Their objective was to facilitate Baltic-German immigration and to provide financial assistance to newcomers and students. With seven branches across Canada and a membership of four hundred in the 1960s, the CBIAS continues to raise funds for needy compatriots, as well as providing a network of personal contacts, social events, and cultural activities.

The Sudeten clubs in Hamilton (1941), Toronto (1947), Montreal (1952), Tomslake, British Columbia (1959), and Edmonton (1960) were founded by the refugees of 1939. They and the post–World War II expellees agreed in 1957 to form a joint umbrella organization, the Central Alliance of Sudeten German Organizations in Canada (Zentralverband sudetendeutscher Organisationen in Kanada). It maintained ties with both the Seliger-Gemeinde, an international union of Sudeten German social democratic exiles, and the more nationalist Sudetendeutsche Landsmannschaft in Germany.

After World War II, Danube Swabian club life was launched in Montreal in 1947 by pre-war immigrants from Hungary eager to revive the Swabian-German Association, which had prospered from 1929 to 1940. It had had 400 members in 1936; the membership reached to 350 by 1980. In Ontario, Danube Swabians created a religious centre of their own, St Michael’s Windsor, in 1949; an annual festival, Danube Swabian Day, in 1959; a cultural centre, St Michaelswerk Toronto, the following year; a recreational site, Danube Swabian Park “Waldheim,” in 1961; the pilgrimage Shrine of Our Lady at Marylake near Toronto three years later; the retirement home “Heimathof” Windsor in 1984; and their own apartment complex in the Toronto suburb of Scarborough, called Blue Danube House, in 1994. Today eleven social clubs are affiliated in the Alliance of the Danube Swabians of Canada (Verband der Donauschwaben in Kanada), which publishes a monthly paper called the Heimatbote (Messenger from Home; Toronto, 1959–). Most also have German members without Danube Swabian roots. By providing a wide range of youth, women’s, social, educational, cultural, religious, music, sports, and charitable activities, they have reconstructed an identity consisting of Danube Swabian and other German cultural elements.

Transylvanian Saxon clubs in Kitchener, Windsor, and Aylmer are organized along lines similar to the Danube Swabian associations. Like them, they celebrate annual Heimattage (homecoming reunions), as well as organizing youth camps and cultural exchanges with American clubs. The origin of their umbrella organization, the Central Verband der Siebenbürger Sachsen of the U.S.A. (Alliance of Transylvanian Saxons of the U.S.A.), dates to 1902, when the United States was their favoured destination. The Landsmannschaft der Siebenbürger Sachsen in Kanada (Association of Transylvanian Saxons of Canada) was founded by post–World War II immigrants in 1960. With 8,000 members in 1993, it publishes a monthly newsletter also called Heimatbote (Home Hearld; Toronto, 1960–) and is affiliated with similar organizations in the United States, Germany, and Austria.

The chief promotional agency of business interests is the German-Canadian Business and Professional Association. Founded in 1953, it expanded from 70 members in the late 1950s to 350 in 1993. The association has organized tours of its members’ businesses, invited politicians and economists as guest speakers at its functions, and promoted networking among members, the German-Canadian community, and Canadian society. Similarly, the Canadian German Chamber of Industry and Commerce was founded in 1968 to promote trade and economic relations between Germany and Canada through market research, mutual investment, and economic and industrial cooperation. Major beneficiaries of this trade have been German-Canadian firms because of their knowledge of both the Canadian and the European market. In 1995 the chamber counted nearly nine hundred Canadian and three hundred German, mostly corporate, members.

Following the model of the Deutschamerikanische Nationalbund (National German-American Alliance) of 1901, various German umbrella organizations were founded in Canada: the Deutsch-Kanadischer Nationalbund (National German-Canadian Alliance), established in Winnipeg in 1913, and the Deutscher Bund Canada in Kitchener in 1934. Active from 1952 to the late 1970s, the Trans-Canada Alliance of German-Canadians (TCA) was the first nationally recognized umbrella organization of German clubs and churches. It originated in Kitchener in 1946 as the Canadian Society for German Relief, whose goals were to aid refugees and lobby for the admission of Germans to Canada. Declaring the cultivation of German traditions as its first objective, it supported and coordinated German-language instruction for children through a network of voluntary schools, or Sonnabendschulen (Saturday schools). In 1972 TCA membership peaked at ninety-four organizations with 20,000 active and 40,000 social members. The number dropped to twenty-three in 1977, when the TCA was rocked by a leadership crisis. Today, it exists in name only.

Its successor is the German-Canadian Congress (GCC). Founded in 1984 as the national umbrella organization for Canadians of ethnic German descent, it has assumed an advocacy role for the entire community in the context of official multiculturalism. In 1994 the GCC had branches in Ontario, Manitoba, and British Columbia, in addition to some 550 member organizations across Canada. Among these are 130 churches, 100 German-language schools, 20 senior citizens’ homes, and art associations, museums, theatres, and credit unions, as well as several smaller umbrella organizations. These last include provincial alliances in Saskatchewan and Alberta; Transylvanian Saxon, Danube Swabian, Baltic, and Sudeten German groups; the German-Canadian Choir Association (Deutschkanadischer Sängerbund) with branches in Kitchener, London, Hamilton, Stratford, Ottawa, Montreal, Toronto, and Windsor; and the Canadian Association of German Language Schools. Reflecting the diversity of the community’s denominations and origins, GCC membership includes Mennonites and Hutterites, Austrians and Swiss, as well as anglophone and francophone Canadians of German-speaking background. In 1994 its president was a Canadian whose family came from Germany and its vice-president was Austrian-born. Until 1993 a Canadian-born Mennonite was its treasurer.