Small-town Alberta welcomes Mennonites with English lessons

An adult literacy program in Taber, Alta., is helping the growing number of Low German-speaking Mennonites, new to the area, to learn English.

'I never had a chance to go to school,' says oldest daughter in a family of 12

Mina Pener, 21, is learning English in her new home of Taber, Alta. 'I was the oldest daughter, so I did all the housework from a really young age. So, I never had a chance to go to school,' said the Mennonite immigrant, who grew up speaking the dialect Low German. (Allison Dempster/CBC)

Mina Pener is 21, and she's never been to school. But that's not about to stop her.

Undaunted, she unpacks her hot pink pencil case and opens a thick workbook before her English class begins at the adult learning centre in the small town of Taber in southern Alberta.

Like most of her approximately 50 fellow students, Pener comes from a traditional Mennonite family. She's one of a dozen children.

"I was the oldest daughter, so I did all the housework from a really young age. So I never had a chance to go to school," said Pener, who grew up speaking the dialect Low German.

Her family moved around to find farm work. She was born in Leamington, Ont., and her family lived in Chihuahua, Mexico for a time. In Taber, Pener has a part-time house-cleaning business. 

The family's latest move may be permanent. Soon after arriving in Taber five months ago, Pener started learning to read and write English at the learning centre.

"I just want to have a better career for myself. I would like to go to a beauty school," she said. "So, if I can read and get my high school diploma, I really want to do that."
Pener checks her work with instructor Chuck Wallace. (Allison Dempster/CBC)

Taber's literacy program, funded by $180,000 annually from the Alberta government, is tailored to the growing number of Low German-speaking Mennonites in southern Alberta. 

The migration wave that started a decade ago is boosting the population of fading farm towns in the region.

They're coming to Canada for jobs and opportunity.

"As the crime and things escalated in Mexico, they have moved here to make this their home," said Jane Brenner, the head of the learning centre.

"The demographics in our area have changed over the last 10 years, dramatically. We think that about 10,000 to 12,000 Low German Mennonites have migrated to southern Alberta in the last 10 years," said Brenner.

Historically, they've shunned public education. Many have limited schooling.

"It's meant a real increase in the literacy needs of those adults coming into our community, because we want to welcome them. We want to integrate them. They're needed as workers in our area," said Brenner.
Lena Wiebe, front, Nancy Froese, middle, and Maria Wolf work in the English class. Froese says she wants to be able to read to her kids. (Allison Dempster/CBC)

In one class, the students play a game with multiple sets of dice to help them brush up on their math skills; which Isaak Neufeld is eager to do.

"I was 13 years old when I stopped going to school in Mexico. I learned Low and High German reading and writing … math, but it was not for a very long time. And I forgot a lot of that," he said.

Neufeld works as a mechanic and heavy equipment operator on a potato farm in the Taber area.

"At our farm, where I'm working, the math, you need it for fertilizer that you know how much you spread per acre and all that," said Neufeld.

 "And now I know volume. I know perimeter. I know area. And that all will help me in life to make it easier for me and the family to make a living."

In 2018, the learning centre will offer a literacy program targeted at women from the Low German-speaking Mennonite community for the first time in the nearby hamlet of Hays.
Susy Froese says she felt isolated when her family arrived from Mexico. But after three years of studying English, she feels more independent. 'We can do a lot of things by ourself.' (Allison Dempster/CBC)

Brenner says outreach in rural areas is key.

"I see a lot of the young mothers that struggle because they don't have the language skills to communicate. They're isolated, because they only get to see maybe their friends on Sunday at church. The rest of the week they're home, with no communication."

That feeling of isolation is familiar to Susy Froese.

She and her family came to Taber from Mexico seven years ago.

"When we came here, I can't speak English and write and and read. I feel lost … stuck."

Froese has been taking classes at the learning centre for three years. She says she now feels more confident and independent.

"We can have a job. And go to the doctor. And yeah, we can do a lot of things by ourself."


Allison Dempster


Allison Dempster is an award-winning national reporter and producer with CBC News based in Calgary.