Hutterites fear stigma could resurface as Manitoba COVID-19 cases rise, province offers more detail on cases

By | August 23, 2020

Manitoba Hutterites are concerned the growing number of COVID-19 cases in the province, coupled with the more geographically specific information the province is now releasing, could lead to more scrutiny, or even discrimination against specific colonies or Hutterites generally.

Kenny Wollmann, who sits on the Hutterian Safety Council’s COVID-19 task force, says there was an uptick in stigma against the religious minority in Manitoba last month, when the province informed the public about outbreaks in communities in the Interlake.

There were reports of Hutterite people being refused service at retail stores and at physical and massage therapy clinics, and being confronted by people on the street, according to the Hutterian Safety Council, which develops safety programs in Hutterite communities in Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta.

After the province stopped noting when new cases were in Hutterite colonies, much of the stigma subsided, says Wollmann, who is from Baker Colony, about 25 kilometres southwest of Portage la Prairie.

However, now that case numbers in Manitoba are rising again, and the province is providing more detailed information online about which specific health districts have active cases, he fears things could change.

“[A Hutterite] was spat on in Saskatchewan” a few weeks ago, Wollmann said. “And maybe that’s going to come to Manitoba as our numbers become more like Alberta and Saskatchewan.”

Until recently, Manitoba health officials only identified which of the province’s five large health regions COVID-19 cases were in.

However, officials did in some cases note when cases were linked to Hutterite colonies. That led to a minister at one Manitoba colony threatening to pursue a human rights complaint.

Hutterite colony members normally eat, work, and worship together in community settings and share possessions. The pandemic is forcing some of those things to change. (Sheri Hofer/Baker Hutterite Colony)

Shortly after, health officials announced they would only say cases are connected with a Hutterite colony if there is a risk to public health.

But the more location-specific information the province started providing as of last week could be enough for people to draw connections.

Last month, Dr. Brent Roussin, the province’s chief public health officer, urged Manitobans not to discriminate against people who have COVID-19.

“At first, we saw a lot of stigma against Asian Canadians,” Roussin said in July. “Now, we see stigma against Hutterites for this. And it’s not useful, it’s not appropriate and it actually hinders public health’s ability to control this virus.”

Premier Brian Pallister has also spoken out in support of Hutterites.

“People who react just because they see a Hutterite person — as a consequence of knowing that there have been a number of cases on Hutterite colonies — should be reminded that these are folks who have been there for [other Manitobans] on many many occasions,” including after disaster situations, Pallister said at a news conference last month.

‘Widespread’ work to address COVID

Wollmann says many Hutterite communities in Manitoba are going to great lengths to prevent the spread of COVID-19,  even forgoing traditions that are deeply ingrained in their way of life.

Some communities have restricted non-essential travel in and out of colonies. There has been colony-wide testing in some communities, and others have stopped communal meals, he said. 

The uptake of these measures has been “widespread” across the province, he says, but that comes at a price.

“Hutterites are feeling the crunch in this. We’re having to dig deep to find the mental, emotional and spiritual resources to respond well.”

To not … be able to gather three times a day, it takes a particular toll on older people who need that connection.​​​​​​– Kenny Wollmann

Hutterite colony members eat, work, and worship together in community settings and share possessions. The pandemic is forcing some of those things to change.

“Our life is a shared life,” Wollmann said.

“To not all of a sudden be able to gather three times a day, it takes a particular toll on older people who need that connection,” he said.

“In my community, we have some older widows, and it is very important, these community gatherings for them.”

While mitigating the risks of the pandemic is different on colonies than in cities or even other rural areas because of the Hutterite way of life, Wollmann says the Hutterite Safety Council is working closely with provincial public health officials to ensure colonies are doing everything they can.

But, like other Manitobans, there’s a range in how seriously the pandemic is taken.

“Hutterites experience the same diversity of emotions and feelings as everybody else. We’ve got our anti-maskers and we’ve got our people who’d wear two masks if they felt it were good for everybody.”

But above all, Wollmann wants Manitobans to know Hutterites are also, just like other Manitobans, doing what they can to curb the spread of COVID-19.

“We are doing the best we can with the resources at our disposal,” he said.

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