The people who don’t want equality

Alberta's Hutterites are the most law-abiding people on earth. But their resistance to efforts to modernize them by legislation is sparking the province's most bitter dispute

W. O. MITCHELL July 3 1965

The people who don’t want equality

Alberta's Hutterites are the most law-abiding people on earth. But their resistance to efforts to modernize them by legislation is sparking the province's most bitter dispute

W. O. MITCHELL July 3 1965

The people who don’t want equality

Alberta's Hutterites are the most law-abiding people on earth. But their resistance to efforts to modernize them by legislation is sparking the province's most bitter dispute


AT A TIME when the world’s minorities are seething with the problems of equality, integration, the right to vote, and government measures to improve their lot. Canada’s most patient minority, the Hutterites of Alberta, are no exception.

But the startling difference is that the Hutterites are struggling against being integrated; against having equality thrust upon them; against government concern with their welfare; against pressure to become eligible to vote.

Indeed, so strong is Hutterite opposition to the measures that other oppressed people seek that for the first time in the four centuries of their existence as a sect they have broken one of their most cherished precepts — that manmade laws are invalid, since God is their sole judge. (Paradoxically, these flouters of the law are among the most law-abiding people on earth.) In a few weeks the Supreme Court of Alberta will hear an action brought by the Hutterites against the province's attorney general, alleging that he is violating their rights by seeking to enforce a law limiting Hutterites’ purchases of farm land.

That law — the Communal Property Act — provides that Hutterites (they are named specifically in the act. along with Doukhobors) may not without special permission form colonies within forty miles of each other, and that no colony shall be larger than 6,400 acres in choice areas, 10.240 acres of marginal land, or 15.360 acres of substandard holdings.

Characteristically, the Hutterites are not taking the unprecedented step of going to law because their material welfare is threatened, but because they claim the act is a measure of religious persecution. “Colony life is an integral part of their religion.” explains William Gill, a former Vancouver Sun reporter, now a Calgary lawyer, who is representing the Hutterites along with Max Moscovich, QC, of Lethbridge. “They take their way of life as an order from God, Acts 2, 44: ‘And all that believed were together and had all things common.’ ”

The Communal Property Act is more than a single arbitrary piece of legislation: it is the crystallization of antipathy and opposition that has been building in Alberta ever since the Hutterites moved into Canada in 1919. They came from South Dakota, where they had settled forty years before. They came because the United States government insisted that the Hutterites. adamant /

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At Fairview, as in all of Alberta’s 66 Hutterite colonies, life is rigidly regulated by tradition, but in the home, photographed here for the first time, women are slowly adopting new ways to fulfill their ancient role: to work and wait on man.

Long persecuted by the outside world because of their stubborn resistance to change, Alberta’s Hutterites today face an inner conflict as community leaders, typified by Fairview farm boss Bill Hofer, at right, compromise with the creeping invasion of outside influences, ranging from pictures of The Beatles, hidden in young girls’ hope chests, below, to mechanized amenities and progressive attitudes. Some colonies of the 6,500-member sect in the province have paid for their modernism by excommunication.

In Alberta, Hutterites have always faced, at best, a dormant hostility

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pacifists, register for military service.

Before that they had wandered, always unwelcome and often persecuted, from their Austrian homeland since 1535, when their founder, Jacob Hutter, had been burned at the stake for heresy. They had tried to find haven in Moravia, Hungary, Transylvania, Roumania and Russia before emigrating to North America. And at last, despite prejudice and opposition, they had prospered.

That prejudice, epitomized by the Communal Property Act. is based on several accusations, sometimes contradictory:

• that Hutterites inflate the price of farmland because they can outbid other farmers with their large communal funds.

• That Hutterites lower farmland values because “who wants to live near those Hutterites?''

• That Hutterites depress business in towns near their colonies because they are largely self-sufficient in food, spartan in their purchases of personal effects, furnishings and appliances, and what they do buy is wholesale and at a hard-driven bargain.

• That Hutterites lower the educational level of their community because their children quit at grade eight or nine, on the grounds that their only interest is farming and they don't need more education.

The first two accusations seem to cancel each other. The third is doubtful — a survey in Red Deer indicated that overall Hutterite spending in a community equals that of non-Hutterites, although the emphasis is on different items: the Hutterites are large purchasers of the most modern farm equipment.

Yet it was in this same community of Red Deer that I witnessed a gathering of people to raise their voices in anger against their fellow men, the like of which 1 do not believe has been paralleled in Canada in this era.

Indignation and pent emotion drew most of them to Red Deer — farmers and ranchers and small - town merchants — from as far as two hundred miles, from the irrigation and sugarbeet country to the south, from New Dayton and the Mormon strongholds of Magrath and Warner, from Arrowwood east of Calgary, from High River and Cayley and Nanton and Claresholm south of Calgary on the eastern edge of the long-grass cattle country. By train, bus, and car they came in a righteous cavalcade.

On the sidelines were a doctor of education and five sociologists from the University of Alberta. All were concerned with the Hutterite problem — the problem of an unworldly people who believe their salvation lies in sharing love and worldly goods, and practise it in self-supporting colonies.

They do not form a very great minority group, but on town and city streets of Alberta. Saskatchewan and Manitoba, they are a familiar sight, salient because their clothes have not changed since the Renaissance. The men are bearded, wear Karakul hats

in winter, round black felts in summer; beside them walk their wives and daughters in laced boots, full dark skirts and aprons, heads covered with polka - dot kerchiefs in obedience to Corinthians 1: “Judge in yourselves; is it comely that a woman pray unto God uncovered?”

There has always been in Alberta at

best a dormant hostility toward the Hutterites; rather surprising, since they number only 6.000 in the province — 66 colonies in all. ranging from 50 to 100 in population. Their nonconformity distresses the majority who cannot understand why the brothers should enjoy all the benefits of the larger society without accepting any

of the responsibilities. Anti-Hutterites wonder why the government doesn't do something to force them to become integrated with the rest of society, turn them away from a life that makes little nations within our nation. In the deep south of the province where twenty-nine of the colonies lie and

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where the original mother colony was formed, feeling runs particularly high.

It is true that the Hutterites are not citizens, because they will not take oath to bear arms. Nor do they vote _which critics of the government suggest is reason enough for the authorities to side with voting farmers and merchants against the Hutterites. (On one memorable occasion, though, a municipal councillor’s antagonism so ruffled the usually cheek-turning Hutterites that they marched to the polls in a righteous body and defeated him.)

The Red Deer affair was a wellconducted meeting of over three hundred people. A small-town ladies’-wear merchant stood up to call the Hutterites “a socio-economic sore festering on the nation’s body.” The municipal clerk of a southern county said that they were “swarming again” and by their giant land holdings in his county had created great social vacuums. He admitted that greater tracts of land were being held as corporate ranches by another religious sect, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Someone asked if it wasn’t true that Hutterites paid no taxes and it was pointed out that they paid corporation taxes, unlike any other church corporation in Canada. Hutterites were said to ha\e blighted the rural countryside with derelict and vacant farm homes, killed whole towns. One of the attendant sociologists explained that there were ghost towns and abandoned farm homes throughout the west, where there were no Hutterites within a hundred miles; that more likely the casualties were the result of fine highways, motor cars, supermarkets, and the growth of large corporate farms. Mrs. Roy Henderson, of the High River district, said that Hutterites had been her neighbors for over twenty years, had not depressed (or inflated) her husband's farmland value, that she liked them very much. At the evening banquet Dr. Hobart, a sociologist, warned of the mistake made in regard to Canada’s Japanese. He read from the reminiscences of an escaped Jew from a Nazi camp with a chilling description of a guard machine-gunning family after family, while calmly smoking a cigarette. The machine gunner lurked in all of us, Dr. Hobart explained. The ladies’-wear merchant had walked out after the first minute of Dr. Hobart’s address. When the meeting broke up, quietly, I wondered how many hearts had been changed — and how many hardened.

More and more of late in Alberta there has grown a feeling in rural municipalities that the provincial government is not doing its part, nor has it done in the past. Theirs has been a laissez-faire policy — doing little to dissipate misunderstanding, particularly in those communities where Hutterites were contemplating new colonies. A liaison board in Saskatchewan does just this, bringing Hutterites and municipality representatives together for discussion, making surveys and listing those districts which would welcome Hutterite colonies.

It is not quite right to consider the Hutterian brotherhood as a monolithic social and religious structure. Individual colonies are most loosely linked physically and administratively — though tightly through shared religious belief and blood relationship. Some

colonies are progressive; some are strict and fundamental. Whole colonies have been excommunicated by the others and are not considered Hutterite colonies any more. Sometimes a long line of people and a chain of incidents fragile with coincidence and chance, may cause a Hutterite to leave the colony circle to seek his way in the outside world.

The Hutterites believe in rule by experience and wisdom; their leaders are older men elected by colony members with the ministers for spiritual authority and the bosses for temporal. In a colony there may be a pig boss, cattle boss, chicken boss, machine boss, grain boss, and over all the head boss or colony manager. It is a singularly successful society that has enabled them for four and a half centuries to reiterate a religious and social statement: “Neither was there any among them that lacked; for as many as were possessed of lands or houses, sold them and brought the prices of things that were sold. And laid them down at the Apostles’ feet; and distribution was made unto every man according as he had need.”

In the troubled field of Hutterite education there is change, a breakthrough so small that it can be called one only because any breakthrough has to have a beginning. It is a onegirl breakthrough, and her name is Judy Walters. Her father, Darius, is chief boss of the Feiger colony, a small group just beyond the Lethbridge airport. Here Judy grew up with her sisters, Ruth and Esther, and her brother, David. From the age of two and a half she attended the colony kindergarten, learning songs and poems and prayers in her first language, Swiss-German. Later she worked in the communal kitchen, took her meals in the communal dining room . . . magnificent bread in slices an inch thick, with honey from Hutterite hives, duck and potato soup, beef stew and dumplings, sausages, sauerkraut. She sat apart with the women, for the place of woman in the Hutterite society is ordained; man was created first and woman was God’s afterthought fashioned from Adam’s rib. She waits upon man and comes after man. “. . . the head of every man is Christ; and the head of woman is man.”

Judy has been aware for most of her life that her people have behind them four and a half centuries of persecution and massacre, that at one time only fifteen families remained alive. On a September morning in 1958 she felt like one of the early martyrs as she stood in a rural school yard and was terrified. The children from the elementary grades swung on swings, seesawed on teeter totters. There was the near inebriation of beginning a new year in another grade — for everyone but Judy. She stood alone and watched girls with arms about each others’ waists, walking in the matched steps of close friendship that had persisted through the summer holidays. Judy felt as though all their eyes were upon her, even while their voices chanted “. . . called for the doctor, called for the nurse — called for the lady with the big fat purse!” Judy had hardly slept the night before, knowing that today she would be vulnerable before alien eyes which

would stare at her polka-dot prayer veiling, her long black skirts and apron, her shapeless home-cobbled shoes. She had been certain that “they would eat her up.” Simply by standing in the McNally school yard near Lethbridge, Judy was unique as the first woman astronaut: the first Hutterite child to attend a school outside the colony.

Her own colony is not a typical one; the Walters’ house and those of other families could be the homes of prosperous irrigation farmers, with white paint on wide cedar siding. Other things set the colony apart from more traditional colonies: patches of clipped lawn; a pinto pony running along the caragana windbreak hedge; a longhaired, mostly Spitz dog; a station wagon. This was one of the first colonies to have a walk-in refrigerator, electrical appliances, propane gas. Convinced that progress and loyalty to Hutterite tradition should not conflict, Darius Walters has brought his people into closer touch with the twentieth century. This was the first and basic condition necessary for the destiny of Judy Walters.

The second was a mother like Barbara Walters, deeply religious and convinced that she must obey the command of Matthew: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind . . .” How better to carry out this first and great commandment than to encourage her children to read and study and improve their minds? Thirdly, when Judy Walters was ten, there was Mrs. Kate Andrews, Presbyterian and schoolboard chairman. The board did not feel it economical to keep the Feiger school open for only five pupils — and anyway there was no teacher available. On orders from Mrs. Andrews a school bus was sent to transport the five Hutterite children to the McNally school, four miles away. The bus drove into the colony yard with geese gronking their hysteria. No one came out of doors. Each morning for two weeks the bus stopped and waited for ten minutes.

At this time another piece fell into place, in what Mrs. Andrews sees as a predestined jigsaw puzzle: a teacher was found for the five-pupil school

and the impasse was ended. The teacher, however, felt herself unfitted to teach physics and chemistry, especially since there was no laboratory in the Hutterite school. She took her class over to the McNally school on Saturdays. This broke the ice and four years later Judy enrolled for Grade nine at McNally. She went on to her grade twelve and senior matriculation and in the fall of 1962 started her course in Arts at Lethbridge Junior College.

Each school day in a blue station wagon Judy drove into the low, functional college building that blends effectively with the prairie landscape behind the historic spot where once stood the old whisky traders’ Fort Whoop-up. Soon she found she did not represent the only minority group; singularly cosmopolitan, this university makes it difficult for bigotry to flourish; a third of its students were Mormon; there were students from the Coaldale Mennonite colony, and a number of Buddhists. That year the University’s drama society did Ibsen's Wild Duck, and the part of Hedvig was played by an exquisite little Japanese-Canadian girl.

In her year at Lethbridge Junior College Judy wore her Hutterite clothes with dignity and grace. Her carriage is fine, her complexion flawless; while there was no obvious secularization of her dress, her stockings were nylon, her oxfords gleamed; her prayer veiling of shining black rayon was worn well back on her head, tied in a big bow under her chin. She was not the slightest bit wistful about pointed shoes, the latest haystack hairdo, cosmetics. She observed that this sort of thing could become the final and all-important goal to a girl, and she considered it a cheap and shallow way to score in popularity. Friendships, respect and affection from her friends were more important to her, and these she received bountifully. Her success has been a matter of great pride to her parents, though Barbara has had moments of doubt; Othello and Lady Chatterly’s Lover on the curriculum were difficult to justify.

True, there has been talk and criticism from their own people, for Hutterite bosses and preachers, the temporal and spiritual leaders, know very well that to immerse themselves in the outside world is to lose the way of life they have kept pure since the time of Martin Luther. They particularly fear education, admit frankly that higher education means frustration and discontent with their primitive society; an educated Hutterite is a sophisticated Hutterite and a lost soul to the colony.

It is hard for Judy and her family to have both their own and the outer world against them. They have been used to the misunderstanding of nonHutterites, feeding on rumor and prejudice, founded on fear and the need for a scapegoat. But the Walters’ determination is not dulled; they listen to the inner applause of their own conscience.

Thirty years ago when Judy’s father and mother were children, a Hutterite boy by a café juke box, his domed toe tapping to the bounce of Western music, might yearn for a mouth organ so that he could make his own sinful

and worldly music; today the same boy may have a transistor radio. Once most Hutterites rode into town with thick sheepskin coats to keep them warm in a team-hauled grain wagon. One progressive colony bought a truck and a fundamentalist warned: “You can go to hell in a truck.” And the retort was: “Lots of people drive to hell in a team and wagon.” And the answer came back: “Maybe — yes — but you get there faster in a truck.” Today all the colonies have

the most modern of farm machinery.

Hutterites still receive no personal income, and yet it is common to see them enjoying the small luxuries of life when they come to town — including the beer parlors. (Hutterites are not rabid abstainers, and indeed make the most delicious cherry wine I have ever tasted.) One of them I met in a beer parlor explained to me how he managed to do it: “When you have reason to come to town, the boss gives you money for bus fare and lunch. So

you hitch a ride and pass up lunch . ..” Hutterite boys come in with religious regularity to the town hockey rink to follow the fortunes of a junior club with which they identify themselves, cheer for their side, boo the referee, and bedevil the opposition goalie. Somehow all the youths of a colony have replaced the black felt with straw' hats; the w'ide brims, with encouragement, seem to curl up at the sides just like those on Rawhide. A boy has his own puppy, a little girl her kitten, pets

which their elders were denied since they might deplete their owners’ reservoir of love for the Lord. There are sleighs. In a fifteen-year-old Hutterite girl’s hope chest is a kewpie doll, a bottle of Evening In Paris perfume, a pinup of Ringo Starr; her older sister had Elvis Presley. Always there is the world hunger, insatiable, overcoming shyness—blurting questions ingenuous and blunt; “Do you have a lot of money? Are you married? How many kids you got? Boys? Girls? How long you been married?”

Invisible little elastic compromises

are common to all the colonies, yet all close ranks each time the Communal Properties Act is invoked, each time an indignant and inflammatory meeting is held in a rural district where a colony wishes to start up. Then the grey-hearded Hutterite bosses can tell their restless young: “See how they persecute us and hate us. Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.”

There may be others who will follow Judy Walters; it is a long hard trail that has taken her to the last year of

her course for a Bachelor of Education degree at Western Merinonite College in West Virginia, which she has attended the past two years. She doubts that she will teach in a Hutterite colony. “They wouldn’t have me,” she says.

One thing is certain: so long as they can resist the worldly influence, they will continue as gentle, stubborn Christians, sharing love and possessions. They could just possibly be the Lord’s ace in the hole for a new game of civilization, if this one comes to an atomic end. ★