From early immigration to ongoing business ventures, Canada and Germany have shared a long, varied and ultimately fruitful relationship with one another. Through Canada’s early settlers and trade, the devastation of two World Wars and, increasingly in modern times, a shared set of values and ideals, the German-Canadian experience is rich with stories.
It’s that connection between the two countries that is at centre of the Waterloo Region Museum’s new exhibit, Canada and Germany: Partners from Immigration to Innovation. Curated by the embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany in Canada, the exhibit was created last year to honour of Canada’s 150th anniversary.
“We came up with the idea not to do an art exhibition and not to do tourism promotion, but to find something that connects us to our host community,” explains Peter Finger, lead curator for exhibit and diplomat with the embassy. “The idea was not to create another history book on museum walls, but to show modern, nicely designed stories and events that are important from the history of relations between Canada and Germany.”
Of course, that connection between the two countries is especially evident right here in the townships. In Wellesley, for instance, almost 4,000 people across the township, or approximately 35 per cent of the population, reported their mother tongue to be of the Germanic languages in a 2016 census. About 10 per cent of Canadians, meanwhile, report some German ancestry. So it is especially apropos that the exhibit should have made its way from Ottawa to the Waterloo Region.
To create something truly distinct, Finger sought to emphasize some of the lesser-known tales from German-Canadian history. The brass bands of Nunatsiavut, for instance, show the creation in Canada of a “cultural hybrid” between the local Inuit of Labrador and the traditions and music of the Moravian Church missionaries after their arrival in 1771. Or the story of the Hessians: the 2,400 German soldiers contracted by Britain during the American Revolution who stayed behind in Canada after the war.
“I was thinking what could be stories that are not so well-known by the average Canadian who is interested in these things anyways, but might not have heard. For example, about German missionaries in Labrador … and the cultural footprints they left behind,” said Finger.
“Because this is a positive story. It’s not something about just bringing Christianity to people who don’t want it, but to keep their culture, to develop their economic basis and all kinds of things.”
Perhaps one of the more striking pieces of German-Canadian ingenuity on display is a prototype lunar rover that has roots right here in rural Waterloo Region. The prototype was created for the Canadian Space Agency and NASA by a New Hamburg company, Ontario Drive & Gear Limited, which was founded in 1962 by Ortwin Stieber, an entrepreneur from West Germany.
“He started that company in New Hamburg and it’s going strong. It’s one of the main companies in New Hamburg,” explained Adèle Hempel, manager curator of the Region of Waterloo Museums. For decades, Ontario Drive & Gear Limited produced all-terrain vehicles, such as the amphibious Argo vehicle. In 2008, the Canadian Space Agency reached out to the local company for an ambitious project: a lunar rover.
The exhibit was also created in collaboration with the Waterloo Region Museum, which added its own distinctly local pieces from previous exhibits. Amongst them is the City on Edge, which was an entire exhibit that took a deeper look at the period of 1916 when the city of Kitchener changed its name from Berlin.
“That was the whole theme of that exhibit,” says Hempel. “And so a lot of that really good content from that exhibit was put into this [new] exhibit.”
The name of Berlin was once a proud representation of the city’s German roots, but during the First World War, those roots became the source of enmity for Canadians. Those dark periods of Canadian-German relations are also given their due.
“We are featuring the story of Inuit people who were brought to Germany and to other European countries as well and exhibited in what we could call human zoos, from today’s point of view a terrible thing,” said Finger.
“There was this family from Labrador, they all passed away in the first weeks after they arrived … because they got the smallpox. They kept them and brought them over and had forgotten to vaccinate them against the smallpox.”
It was a sad story, he adds, set towards the end of the 19th century, but is part of the two countries shared history.
But from those dark points, through two World Wars, Canada and Germany have developed a unique, if often understated, connection.
“According to the world situation which exists now … Canada and Germany still share the same values in democracy and economy and society,” says Finger.
“People are going to come and find all different pieces that mean something to them, and I think that’s the important thing,” adds Hempel about the exhibit.
“Many people here in this region have some connection to Germany, whether they’ve lived there, travelled there, have family background that relates to that, there’s so many ways that I think that they’ll enjoy it.”
Canada and Germany: Partners from Immigration to Innovation will be on display at the Waterloo Region Museum from May 25 to September 3.