For Niagara-on-the-Lake author MJ Krause Chivers, her road trip across the country this past summer was about more than just sightseeing.
“It was a self-discovery, spiritual journey. Definitely a psychological journey,” Krause Chivers told The Lake Report.
She and several other people from across Canada embarked on the Russlaender 100 Tour, a cross-Canada train journey that made stops at historically significant places for Mennonite-Canadians and marked the 100-year anniversary of the Mennonite community’s mass migration from the Soviet Union to Canada.
Krause Chivers took this trip as a means of getting in touch with her grandparents’ traumatic history: they were among 21,000 Mennonites who left Soviet Ukraine between 1923 and 1929 because of the violence of the Russian Civil War back home.
“I have not been part of the religious part of the Mennonite community since I left Manitoba in 1987, so I just never reconnected with it,” she said.
Her family’s background is a mix of ethnic Mennonites from Russia: she is three-fourths Russlaender, the name for those who emigrated during the 1920s, and one-fourth Kanadier, the name for those who emigrated during the 1870s.
Krause Chivers moved to Niagara-on-the-Lake eight years ago, she was amazed by the large Mennonite community and began a journey of reconnecting with her heritage.
In 2014 after her father’s death, Krause Chivers visited Poland and Ukraine to see ancestral grounds and learn more about the history of what Mennonites were and their process of gaining religious freedom.
In an email, Krause Chivers wrote that the hearing about the war in Ukraine in 2022 “bared (her) ancestral wounds.”
The Russlaender 100 trek helped Krause Chivers draw a line of connection between that long history and her own family.
“Understanding your family history also ends with understanding the ethnic and cultural roots of our background as well as understanding more about what my grandparents actually went through and the sacrifices they made to come to Canada,” Krause-Chivers said.
“Most people couldn’t afford this trip and I’m very lucky that my retirement savings allowed me to do this,” she added.
The trip, which began in Quebec, included stops in the historical Grosse Isle outside of Quebec City, where immigrants would have stopped for mandatory pre-immigration disease inspection.
There were other poignant stops, such as Conrad Grebel University in Waterloo, the town of Rosthern, Sask., where her grandfather exited the train in 1924 and the Mennonite Heritage Museum in Abbotsford, B.C., where the trek concluded.
As a historical fiction writer, she added, not only will the experience of the trip help with her own understanding of her genealogy, but it will also lend itself to her work.
“I’m actually writing about a girl growing up in Ukraine during the Civil War and it’s a continuing series,” she said.
“I’m going to keep writing the story and it will follow my grandparent’s journey through the immigration process. The historical stuff is fairly accurate,” she added.
She said that a fellow historical fiction author reached out recently to compliment her historical accuracy.
Krause Chivers’ days of travelling will not end here, though.
“I booked another trip to Europe next June,” she said.
“I’ll be exploring the history that goes back to the Anabaptist Revolution and the formation and beginning of the Mennonite Church.”
Krause Chivers’ latest book, “Katarina’s Dark Journey,” is available now at authormjchivers.allauthor.com.