Manitoba Hutterite colonies adjust communal lives as families isolate during COVID-19 pandemic

By | August 29, 2020

When Tirzah Maendel and her family went into COVID-19 isolation just over two weeks ago, what they missed the most was their close-knit Hutterite community.

“Shame and blame, there is no need for any of that. We’re here to help each other,” said Maendel, a member of the Baker Hutterite Colony, about 90 minutes west of Winnipeg.

Earlier in August, Maendel’s mother tested positive for the novel coronavirus during a visit to the hospital, something that surprised them all. It was the community’s first case.

As a result, her husband and three daughters also had to get tested, and went into isolation. 

“Neither she nor we had any kind of symptoms. It was quite a shock. But we took it seriously,” said Maendel, 40.

The community kitchen was shut down and communal meals ended. Most families picked up their meals and took them home to eat. The Maendel family’s meals were delivered to them.

Pauline Maendel used FaceTime to stay in touch with her granddaughter while she was in isolation with a COVID-19 infection. (Submitted by Tirzah Maendel)

Within a few days, the rest of the family all tested negative, but they all stayed in isolation, going on outings together to pass the time.

“We had a day of hiking and biking and I think we ended up doing, what, 66 [kilometres] in a day? There’s some local trails down the road off the Highway 34 that we wanted to explore and we made a day of it,” she said.

“It was a therapy day for us.”

Hutterites are communal and interdependent economically and spiritually. They eat, work and worship together. So one of the hardest parts of isolation was staying away from other family members and children in the colony.

A young girl keeps her distance as she waves to Tizrah Maendel and asks if their household has COVID-19. (Submitted by Tirzah Maendel)

Maendel recalls one incident in which a child peeked over her gate.

“They just yelled over, ‘Do you have COVID at your house?’ And I said, ‘We do.’ And then they yell back, ‘We can’t come over.'”

Pandemic restrictions have limited gatherings as well, so while church is a fundamental part of Hutterite identity, for now, most services are piped into people’s homes over a PA system.

Many weddings are being postponed. Funerals, usually large inter-community events, are now live streamed, with thousands of people watching them.

While there is mixed opinion on the value of technology, Maendel said she hopes Hutterites will keep using it to share big community events because it brings them together.

“What we miss most is the singing,” she said. “I find myself listening more to more Hutterite music that I wouldn’t have done before.”

‘Colony social isolation’

Across the western provinces, many Hutterite colonies were able to keep the pandemic at bay for weeks, even months.

“The Hutterite community has the ability to confine the outbreaks to their colonies. They don’t interact a great deal with the outside world and it’s possible for them to practice colony social isolation in a way that a normal non-Hutterite community couldn’t,” said John Lehr, a senior scholar at the University of Winnipeg who has written a book, Inside the Ark: The Hutterites in Canada and the United States.

But it only takes one person and once COVID-19 got into their colonies, it spread like wildfire, leading to unfair stigma and discrimination.

“If they were wearing civilian clothing, so to speak, not Hutterite clothing, they wouldn’t be Identifiable and no one would say very much,” Lehr said.

“There are some people who are going to buy into the recommendations of the government, and I’m sure some of them will be skeptical, just like in the outside world.”

University of Winnipeg scholar John Lehr says Hutterites have experienced generations of discrimination, including anti-German sentiments, during the First and Second World Wars. Many of the more conservative groups in Alberta and Saskatchewan historically haven’t trusted government intervention in their lives, he says. (Jaison Empson/CBC)

Some believe the outbreaks began in Hutterite communities after three teenage girls drowned in Alberta in June. People from other colonies went to help in the search and to attend the funerals.

David Tschetter, chair of the Hutterian Safety Council, said they are leaving the contact tracing to the professionals but “I do believe just logically that it played a significant part.”

Recently, case numbers have begun to stabilize in Alberta and Saskatchewan, which are about a month ahead of Manitoba, Tschetter said.

“The reports that we’re getting from the field from the public health agencies is that things are going well. Communities are co-operating. Many of the communities are actually on the back side of their cases and are healing,” he said.

Harvest, school could mean more cases

However, he worries the fall harvest will mean an increase in infections again. Traditionally, colonies work together to get their crops off the fields.

“We provide the food and raw products to the community, so there is essential travel back and forth, and that’s what makes it difficult.”

The return to classes in a few weeks also creates some risk, but Tschetter said his council has a robust back-to-school plan and communities are doing their best to prepare.

WATCH | A video the Hutterian Safety Council has created to encourage mask use:

With many of the province’s COVID-19 cases popping up in colonies, Hutterites in Manitoba are taking steps to stop the illness from spreading. 0:56

Now that she’s out of isolation, Tirzah Maendel is back at work, cleaning windows and designing back-to-school posters.

She is a member of a Hutterite Health group that is sharing government public health information online and on social media in a culturally appropriate way.

The group is also distributing podcasts on COVID-19, recorded by the Hutterian Safety Council.

Her message for non-Hutterite people — “We’re struggling the same as everybody else in terms of figuring it out. Everybody needs a bit more grace, a bit more understanding. Just be patient,” she said.

“We’ll get through this, where we’re finding hope here as well. Just like everybody.”

WATCH | Karen Pauls’s report on The National:

Manitoba continues to experience an uptick in COVID-19 with one third of its active cases in Hutterite colonies. One woman shares her story from inside the community. 2:01

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