Old Order Mennonite community in turmoil

Peter Rempel has contacted Mennonite psychologists, social workers and counsellors who are prepared to provide direct services to the community. MCC Manitoba has also been invited to be part of the Helper Group.

June 26, 2013
Evelyn Rempel Petkau | Manitoba Correspondent

A group of Old Order Mennonite families who moved from southern Ontario to rural Manitoba just over six years ago to escape the encroachments of society have run headlong into the expectations of that society.

Events over the past few months have left the reclusive community of about 90 in turmoil and despair.

“They are a very quiet and reserved people,” says Peter Rempel, who welcomed them to Manitoba and built a relationship with them when he was executive director of Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) Manitoba. Now retired from that position, the community sought him out as well as MCC Manitoba when things came to a head for them earlier this year.

“When things got quite desperate and the community could no longer deal with some severe, internal problems within some of their families, they reached out for help,” Rempel says. “They called the RCMP, who interviewed families and notified Child and Family Services (CFS), who overruled the community’s concerns and focused on the corporal punishment that had been used.”

Charges of physical abuse of children were laid against eight adults, and all the children in the community—which cannot be named because of a court-imposed publication ban, to protect their identities—were placed in foster homes. Some of the adults have been released into the community under conditions that restrict any contact with others in the community.

“CFS has brought in members of the Old Order Mennonite community in Ontario to provide the foster care, including aunts, uncles and grandparents of some of the families involved,” Rempel says. “CFS has rented houses for them in the vicinity and placed kids in those homes. Some kids have also been placed in Winkler.”

Rempel has facilitated the formation of a Helper Group.

“The community has very clearly indicated that they are open to help,” he says. “They recognize that they used inappropriate discipline measures and basically want to learn better parenting.”

Rempel contacted Mennonite psychologists, social workers and counsellors who are prepared to provide direct services to the community. MCC Manitoba has also been invited to be part of the Helper Group.

“Given the complexity and that the matter is before the courts, we have kept a low profile,” says Brad Reimer, MCC Manitoba’s communications and donor relations director. “It’s a very complex and sad situation. We are very concerned about the community, but as long as it is before the courts we are limited in what can be done.”

Walter Wiebe, a retired social worker, is one of the helpers volunteering his expertise. He met with individuals in the community and was asked by community leaders to meet with a group of parents as well.

“It was the middle of seeding time, and of the 26 parents involved, only three men did not show up,” Wiebe says. “That was quite amazing to me and demonstrated a real interest in wanting to learn a different way of doing things. I think they realize they’ve worked themselves into a corner in terms of the way they dealt with their children and want to find a better way.”

Part of the difficulty with leading parenting workshops right now is that certain adults are prohibited from being with some of the other adults in the community.

“They had to get special permission to even have a church service,” Rempel says. “Because several of those charged are restricted from talking to others in the community, lawyers had to obtain special permission for them to attend church, with clear instructions not to talk to each other and to sit separate from each other.”

Besides the huge emotional toll, the situation is having a significant economic impact on the community.

“They rely on all their available workers to do the field work because they are not mechanized,” Rempel explains. “Losing their teenage workers in haying time is a real setback, and communication restrictions mean the men can’t work together in the field. They had a contract to put up a roof on a large dairy barn, but now the people doing that project are restricted from working together. Lawyer’s fees, bail payments and a lot more driving around to meetings and court dates are all having a big economic impact.”

The Helper Group is committed to working together with CFS and the community to restore the children to their families, but it won’t be easy.

“It is a challenge to find ways to bridge the cultural gap,” Wiebe acknowledges. “We are both from Anabaptist backgrounds, but the way we interpret things is very different.”

See also:
Old Order parents asked to take parenting course by MCC Manitoba (Aug. 9, 2013)
Order community waits for children to return (Oct. 23, 2013)
Efforts continue to reunite Old Order families (Dec. 24, 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)

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