The twin industrial cities of Kitchener and Waterloo hog a slab of flatland to the west of the Grand River. They have a distinctive pedigree, as the first white settlers to arrive in the area in numbers were the Mennonites, a tightly knit Protestant sect who migrated here in the 1790s from the US, where their pacifist beliefs had incurred the wrath of their neighbours during the American Revolution. Over the years, the Mennonites gradually drifted out of the twin cities and now own much of the farmland immediately to the north.
They are unmistakeable, with the men wearing traditional black suits and broad-brimmed hats, or deep-blue shirts and braces, the women ankle-length dresses and matching bonnets, and many navigate the roads in black, horse-drawn buggies. Despite appearances, however, the Ontario Mennonites are far from a homogeneous sect. Over twenty different groups are affiliated to the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC). They all share certain religious beliefs reflecting their Anabaptist origins – the sole validity of adult baptism being crucial – but precise practices and dress codes vary from group to group: for instance, members of the traditional wing of the movement, called Old Order Mennonite, own property communally and shun all modern machinery.
To explain their history and faith, the MCC runs a small but intriguing interpretation centre, The Mennonite Story, at 1406 King St North in the village of St Jacobs, just north of Waterloo via Hwy-85. Also in St Jacobs, along the short main street, are several Mennonite stores selling home-made farm produce – the maple syrup is simply magnificent. Mennonite traders are also prominent at the much-lauded Farmers’ Market, back in the centre of Kitchener on King Street East (Sat 7am–2pm; kitchenermarket.ca).