Hutterites face COVID-19 stigma across the Prairies, says author who grew up on Manitoba colony

Hutterites across the Prairies say they're facing discrimination in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, and people both inside and outside Hutterite communities say it has to stop.

Lack of education, generalization key factors in recent discrimination, says Mary-Ann Kirkby

Mary-Anne Kirkby, who grew up in the Fairholme Hutterite Colony near Portage la Prairie, says the pandemic has challenged how Hutterites go about their daily lives. (Submitted by Mary-Ann Kirkby)

Hutterites across the Prairies say they're facing discrimination in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, and people both inside and outside Hutterite communities say it has to stop.

On Thursday, the province of Manitoba said it will no longer announce when newly identified COVID-19 cases are connected to Hutterite colonies, unless there's a risk to public health, after the minister with a southeastern Manitoba colony threatened to file a complaint with the Manitoba Human Rights Commission due to the stigma created by the practice.

Mary-Ann Kirkby, author of the memoir I am Hutterite, says she hasn't seen any discrimination first-hand, but she's heard stories from others as recently as Friday afternoon.

A friend shopping in an Alberta bargain shop told Kirkby was approached by two store clerks, who demanded the woman put back items she was going to purchase and leave immediately.

One of the employees told her friend "you Hutterites are full of COVID and you have no business in our stores," said Kirkby, who grew up in the Fairholme Hutterite Colony, near Portage la Prairie, Man., and now lives in Saskatchewan.

In Manitoba, the number of active COVID-19 cases rose from 11 to 58 in the past week. As of Wednesday, at least 35 recent cases were linked to Hutterite colonies, the province said, with most linked to a large gathering that took place in Alberta.

That's led to stigma in the province, said Paul Waldner, minister of the CanAm Hutterite Colony, who called for the province to stop identifying colonies with outbreaks.

"We just want to be part of society," he said Thursday. "[Now], we're being painted with a brush, with one stroke, as being something different."

Manitoba's chief public health officer also spoke out against the discrimination.

"We see stigma against Hutterites for this," Dr. Brent Roussin said Thursday. "And it's not useful, it's not appropriate and it actually hinders public health's ability to control this virus."

Mary-Ann Kirkby is the author of the memoir I am Hutterite. (Mary-Ann Kirkby/Facebook)

Kirkby believes there has always been some bias against Hutterites across the Prairies, but it's now being vocalized.

Most of the bias likely stems from a lack of education about Hutterite culture, the "fatal flaw" of Hutterites, she said.

"The Hutterites have allowed themselves to be defined by others, and the way they've done that is by not speaking up."

Most cultures have some sort of media outlet through which they broadcast their lives, but Hutterites do not, said Kirkby. Until she wrote her memoir — about growing up on, and later leaving, her home colony — there was virtually nothing available to the general public to learn about the culture.

"If there is a glaring lesson in this crisis, this is it," said Kirkby. "Hutterites need to tell people who they are. It's an important story and it's a beautiful story."

COVID-19 complicates Hutterite life

The pandemic has created challenges for Hutterite communities, said Kirkby. Instead of eating in community kitchens, people are picking up food in pairs. Church services are streamed into their homes via audio systems.

Hutterites in Manitoba have been doing a great job of staying safe, said Kirkby, as have most in Saskatchewan and Alberta.

But there are a few colony leaders in the latter two provinces who are "Trump-like" in their thinking toward the pandemic, "and they felt that their people should go on and about," she said. 

"That's what created a great deal of hostility, and that was a big lesson they had to learn," she said. "It has caused a bit of a crisis. But everybody is now realizing that we are all in this together, nobody has the right to jeopardize anybody else's health."

Part of the hostility stems from the fact that people tend to speak generally about Hutterites as a whole, instead of distinguishing between different colonies, said Kirkby. That means tensions can build within the Hutterite community if one colony slips up, because it makes everyone look bad.

"Let's say you have an outbreak in Moose Jaw. You don't have people turning on Saskatchewan. But if there's an outbreak on one or two Hutterite colonies in Saskatchewan, the 90 other colonies in Saskatchewan become suspect," she said.

"That's the difference."

The tightrope that provincial governments have to walk is how to give information about COVID-19 cases, but not give too much information, said Kirkby.

She realizes that's tough, though, because while you protect individual colonies, it opens all Hutterites to possible discrimination.

Ultimately, if everyone is kind to one another and bands together during the pandemic, there won't be a problem, she said.

With files from Ismaila Alfa