So...Who are mennonites anyway?

Mennonites in Ontario represent diverse identities in occupation, lifestyle, and culture.

A Mennonite in Ontario is a farmer who has never driven a car, has no electricity in his house, and cultivates his land using four large workhorses. Another might be a city-dweller, who wears an expensive suit and is head of a large corporation.

A Mennonite in Ontario is a woman who holds a PhD and teaches at a major Canadian university. Yet another is a homemaker, a mother of ten children, who always wears a head covering.

A Mennonite in Ontario is a person choosing to live below the poverty line in order to avoid contributing taxes toward military expenditures. A Mennonite in Ontario is also a millionaire with luxury properties and multiple investments.

A Mennonite in Ontario might claim ancestral connections to many generations of Mennonites from Switzerland and Pennsylvania. Another Mennonite might be a second-generation Canadian and new Mennonite whose parents immigrated from Laos or India.


Mennonite Diversity

It is not unusual to hear Mennonites described as both a religious body and an ethnic group. Mennonites themselves debate this identity issue, and there is good reason to see it both ways. First and foremost, their origin as a radical movement within the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century clearly defines them as a religious group. 

The history of the Mennonites, which at various times found them living in close-knit and sometimes isolated communities in particular geographic settings gave them cultural characteristics – language, family names, foods, artistic forms, for instance – that we normally associate with an ethnic group. Today, the question of ethnicity has changed as individuals with a wide range of ethnic or cultural backgrounds join Mennonite churches.

When people hear about Mennonites, many think of horse and buggy transportation, black bonnets and long dark dresses, and a lifestyle without most modern technologies.  Indeed, the Old Order Mennonites, Amish, and other groups that do not use motorized transportation, living primarily in the regions north and west of the city of Waterloo, are a unique part of the religious denomination known as Mennonites. Of the estimated 59,000 Mennonites in Ontario, only about twenty percent are members of conservative groups, such as Old Order Mennonites, Old Order Amish, or Old Colony Mennonites.

Mennonites in Ontario and Canada

There are about 175,000 Mennonites in Canada (including children), and about 59,000 in Ontario (self-identified in 2011 National Household Survey). Mennonite groups can be found across Canada, with over half of the population residing in urban areas.

The Mennonite population in Ontario is concentrated in a number of geographic areas: in the municipality of Leamington and eastward to include the city of London; in the Niagara Peninsula; in south-central Ontario surrounding the Region of Waterloo and northward as far as the Bruce Peninsula; and in the Greater Toronto Area. Mennonite communities and congregations can also be found in urban areas like Ottawa and Sudbury as well as in scattered rural areas in northern and central Ontario such as near Lindsay, Cochrane, and Red Lake. 

Ontario may well present the greatest diversity of Mennonites in the entire world. Indeed, the variety of Mennonites is actually increasing. There are approximately 30 different groups in the province, ranging from single, independent congregations with less than 100 members to highly-organized conferences with many churches and thousands of members. 

At one end of the spectrum are the majority of Mennonites who visibly blend into the society in which they live. At the other end are groups such as the Old Order Mennonites and Amish who are conspicuous in appearance and lifestyle. Most of the differences among the groups rest first of all on their geographic origin and historical experience, and secondly on the manner in which they have responded to the pressures of cultural change.

Mennonites are often described as a quilt with many pieces or a tree with many branches, each group having its own unique outward practices as well as historical development, yet holding in common certain foundational religious beliefs. Visit Mennonite World Conference's site for more information about Mennonite beliefs.

Adapted from Conrad Grebel University College

Here is a great article published in the Canadian Mennonite: 10 Things to Know about Mennonites in Canada