The Evolution of the Mennonite Vote: From Louis Riel to Vic Toews

Outside his home riding, former Conservative MP Vic Toews was considered controversial and divisive. In his constituency of Provencher, however, he was bafflingly popular all the way up until his retirement from politics in 2013. For a time during the Bill C-30 debacle, Toews was seen as such a nemesis to privacy and freedom that Anonymous exposed intimate details of Mr. Toews’ personal life via Twitter to a salivating public. However, none of this controversy seemed to affect his support in the largely Mennonite riding of Provencher.

Instead, his local support only seemed to grow. Toews was first elected in 2000 with 53 per cent of the vote, a percentage that rose over the next few elections until 2011 when, at the height of his notoriety around the country, he was sent back to Ottawa with 70.6 per cent of the popular vote. When he announced his retirement, crowds of supporters showed up to express their gratitude for his service and share a free hot dog with the departing MP. To some the explanation was simple. Where else but a largely Mennonite riding would a man like Toews be elected time and again? However, I think it would be more accurate to ascribe the popularity of Mr. Toews and the Conservative Party in Provencher to an abandonment of Mennonite principles rather than as a confirmation of them.

The largest centre in the primarily rural Provencher is Steinbach, a small city that was ruthlessly satirized by local author Miriam Toews (no relation) in her Governor-General Award-winning novel A Complicated Kindness. The author describes the town as one brimming with conservative backward Mennonites or “the most embarrassing sub-sect of people to belong to if you’re a teenager,” as she puts it. This description might appear to confirm one’s assumption about the people of Provencher and their love for Vic Toews. It’s no wonder, one might think, that these religious nuts elected MP Toews in such large numbers. However, this characterization is a little misleading. Even a peripheral glance at the history of Provencher demonstrates that this riding is far from a conservative stronghold. Some may be shocked to discover that it was the very same riding that elected Métis rebel Louis Riel to office.

If electing Louis Riel is insufficient proof that Provencher has not always been a bastion of conservatism, perhaps one will consider the fact that the riding has been served by a Conservative MP (including the former Canadian Alliance and Progressive Conservative parties) for just 77 years of its 144-year history, or a little over 53 per cent of the time. As recently as 1993-2000 the riding sent a Liberal to the House of Commons. The reason Toews continued to be elected in record numbers, then, is not because the riding is so ultra-conservative and always has been. The reason, I believe, has more to do with recent shifts in both the demographic makeup of the riding and in theology.

In the early days the voters of Provencher were almost exclusively French Canadian and Métis. At the time when Riel was elected in the 1870s, Mennonite settlers were just beginning to arrive in the area. Many of them refused to participate in government by running for office or voting. Decades later during World War I, when some of them might have wanted to express their political voice, Mennonites were banned from voting by Conservative Prime Minister Robert Borden because they were conscientious objectors. It’s no wonder that when Mennonites were again permitted to vote, they chose not to elect the party that had disenfranchised them. Indeed, Provencher didn’t send a Conservative to the House of Commons for 40 years.

What has changed? Like Mennonites everywhere, many Steinbachers now consider Mennonitism to be a culture or heritage rather than a faith or theological structure. Those who stayed religious have not necessarily remained within the Mennonite tradition. During the 20th century, the religious Mennonites of Provencher came under the influence of the Fundamentalist movement and later Evangelicalism, which itself has recently taken on a very Americanized flavour. As a result, pacifism has gone by the wayside.

Steinbach is known as a city with dozens of churches, perhaps the most per capita of any community in Canada. The two largest congregations in town are not Mennonite at all, and even those who have retained the Mennonite label are largely indistinguishable from contemporary Evangelical churches across the country. It seems there were thousands of Nomi Nickels in Steinbach eager to throw off the shackles of the Mennonite church. For many the label “Mennonite” has come to mean oppression and legalism, so American-style mega-churches are seen as a refreshing change. However, this process of modernization has also meant that many Mennonite theological distinctions such as pacifism have been abandoned and some of Steinbach’s churches aren’t reticent about the fact that they do not teach it. As unfathomable as it may have been to a Steinbacher of the 1930s, it is now common for a Reimer, Friesen, Dueck, or Thiessen to support a political party that’s unabashedly pro-military.

Vic Toews may have been a pariah outside rural Manitoba, but in Provencher he was a saint. We can’t blame Menno Simons for this, however. The reason the riding seems such a safe seat for the Conservatives in the upcoming election is not because the area has so many Mennonites, but because it has so few. In the theological sense, at least, there are hardly any Mennonites left in the region. Indeed, if his voting record means anything, even Vic Toews, a man who speaks Plautdietsch and was born in the Chaco, isn’t one himself.