The annual Christmas concert at the rural Manitoba school where Old Order Mennonites normally send their children had to be cancelled last month as the building has sat empty for nearly a year. The school closure followed the removal of the community’s children after a number of adults were charged with assaulting them.
Two families had their children returned to them over a month ago. The father of four of those children tempers his relief and joy at having his children back by saying, “I only wish the same for all the other families, parents and children.”
“There was a lot less transition than I expected,” he said of getting his children back. “I’d been warned quite a bit and I even expected there would be challenges. I don’t think a day has passed that all four of them haven’t said they are glad to be home. They continually express regret and wonder why the others haven’t been returned. Some of those questions are hard to explain. I don’t know the answers. I don’t think I am more fit than the other parents.”
For the other families whose children were removed last June, the father said, “there have been visits with the families. CFS [Child and Family Services] are still saying they will be returned. . . . They say there are huge issues, but they don’t really say what the huge issues are. They talk about the process.”
Weekly visits have been extended to two hours from one hour, but visits over Christmas were to be cancelled due to CFS staff shortages over the holiday season. Allowances have been made so that everyone in the community can attend church services and parenting courses, but there has been no movement on any of the charges that have been laid.
The community has been introduced to the Hollow Water First Nation Community Holistic Circle healing program, a restorative justice initiative. The community, which can’t be named to protect the children’s identities, is very interested in learning about and adapting this model to its situation.
“Restoration is what we are hoping for,” said an elder. “The only concept we have seen here is to destroy our community, but this program fits into our hope for healing and improving, rather than destroying.”
Recently, Rick Cober Bauman, executive director of Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) Ontario, and Ron Janzen, executive director of MCC Manitoba, visited the community and met with leaders, spouses and several parents. The relationship between the Ontario Old Order group, from which the Manitoba group broke away, has been strained.
According to Peter Rempel, former MCC Manitoba executive director who has assisted the community during this crisis, “The [Manitoba group] members and leaders expressed their certain conviction that the adamant support the Ontario churches have for CFS’s position is a major factor to CFS prolonging its apprehension of the children. At this point, the community would only ask that the Ontario leaders acknowledge that the situation is complex and that the [Manitoba community] might have some justification for its views on some points even as it revises its views on others.”
Rempel has written to ministers at various levels of government, feeling the efforts of this community to restore its families have been repeatedly frustrated. “Pondering these developments and the inadequate response from the ministers, I am struck by the irony, or even injustice, that government, which claims to support restorative justice [RJ] in general and has supported specific RJ ventures in first nation communities, is withholding or obstructing a restorative justice approach for a community within the Mennonite constituency which pioneered restorative justice for Canadian society and provides training and personnel for it.”
Old Order Mennonite community in turmoil (July 8, 2013)
Old Order parents asked to take parenting course by MCC Manitoba (Aug. 9, 2013)
Old Order community waits for children to return (Oct 23, 2013)
Survival of Old Order community at ‘a critical stage’ (March 3, 2014)
New school greets returning children (July 28, 2014)
Old Order leader sentenced for ‘child torture’ (Sept. 15, 2016)