Mary-Ann Kirkby was only 10 years old when her family left their Hutterite colony near Portage la Prairie, Manitoba. It was a difficult transition into mainstream society, she said, because of people’s negative views of Hutterites.
Fast forward five decades, and Kirkby—who now lives in Prince Albert—is outraged by the amount of discrimination she’s seen as COVID-19 has clustered in several Saskatchewan colonies.
In mid-July, the provincial government began warning the public of ongoing transmission of the virus in Hutterite colonies, particularly throughout the southwest and west-central regions. COVID-19 has since spread to colonies in the Saskatoon and northern areas.
As numbers began to significantly increase by as many as 60 new cases in one day, the province started disclosing how many of those new cases were located in colonies.
“I will say this: Hutterites have been in Canada for 100 years, and they have allowed themselves to be defined by rumours and innuendo,” said Kirkby.
“So when something like COVID happens, all of those underlying misperceptions surface because, for the most part, people have no clue who the Hutterites are—their faith, their culture, their extraordinary history is lying on the ground in Europe.”
Hutterites are one of three major Anabaptist groups, along with the Amish and Mennonites, tracing back to the 16th century.
What defines Hutterites, though, is their communal way of living. They’ve established small communities, known as colonies, where they farm.
In Canada, Hutterite colonies are mainly located in Saskatchewan, Alberta and Manitoba.
Kirkby hopes that other Hutterites will follow in her footsteps and share their history and culture.
She was driven to create her memoir, I am Hutterite, to right the misconceptions that have lingered in society far before the pandemic.
In it, she writes about how her family was thrown into a society that knew little about Hutterites. Kirkby then learned to talk and dress differently in order to fit in, until she gave birth to her son.
“I realized, ‘Wow.’ Maybe I have a responsibility to set the record straight and to tell people we are not Utopia, but we are a fascinating and an extraordinary culture,” she said.
On Thursday, Kirkby published a blog post discussing discrimination against Hutterites because of COVID-19. She wrote that while she refuses to stay silent about the misconceptions, she won’t “defend a small minority of Hutterites who have contributed to this unfortunate situation.”
Still, she said, this doesn’t excuse the public grouping all Hutterites together, assuming all of them have COVID-19. She said she’s heartbroken reading discriminatory comments on social media and seeing Hutterites being rejected from entering certain stores.
“There are almost 100 Hutterite colonies in Saskatchewan and there’s a handful who have it,” she said.
“If the public tends to target them and stigmatize them on mass, which is so inappropriate and that’s a huge, huge problem.”
“Because for example, if there’s an outbreak in Weyburn, people across Saskatchewan don’t stigmatize Weyburn because you know that it’s a few (people).”
Kirkby said people should put themselves in the Hutterites’ shoes.
“Probably all of our communities have had some (cases),” she said.
“I live in a town house that is next door, within breathing distance, of another and I wouldn’t want to stigmatize my neighbour or be stigmatized because my neighbour has it. That’s wrong.”
Kirkby said that for the most part, the public trusts that people in larger cities are self-isolating if they have COVID-19. People in Hutterite communities are also isolating, she said.
“The houses are further apart than many of the houses here. They have gone through great lengths to separate themselves from each other in the sense that they don’t serve in their community kitchen, they don’t go to church, the church service is broadcast through audio systems and into their homes, they carefully go to the kitchen to get their food two by two,” she said.
“They’ve taken tremendous precaution. Now to see some of their stalls at the farmers markets being shunned and they’re being called names is just outrageous, even for those that have no COVID-19 cases in their Hutterite colonies.”
When I am Hutterite became an instant bestseller after its publication in 2007, she said she realized two things: “That Canadian hearts were really open to listen to our story and number two, that we really need to tell it.”
“The Hutterite story is missing from bookshelves, from any media in the mass market. The Hutterite story is missing. That is the lesson that they should learn in this crisis,” she said.
“Let’s face it, who are we without our story?”