Healing our Divides


This past week, as I followed the trial proceedings in the shooting death of Colten Boushie, an Aboriginal youth from the Red Pheasant First Nation, I received a call from a Hutterite man in a neighbouring province. He too was watching the trial and wanted to know if I thought it was risky to buy land in Saskatchewan in light of news reports about the case.

The trial was of keen interest to Hutterites because the defendant, Gerald Stanley, was a 56-year-old farmer near Biggar, Sk. Family farms which were once the heart and soul of the prairies are disappearing largely because their successors have other aspirations and don’t want to carry on the tradition. As they get older, individual farmers often find that one way to get a decent price for their land is to sell to Hutterites.

Stanley claimed he accidentally shot Boushie in the back of the head. According to media reports, the seemingly all white jury was told that Boushie and 4 other youths had been drinking when they entered Stanley’s property and attempted to steal an ATV. Stanley felt threatened and the unthinkable happened.

The “not guilty” verdict caused an outcry from First Nations communities as well as members of the public at large. It opened fresh wounds in an already simmering racial divide between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people across the country. Aboriginal leaders wondered out loud whether another jury would have reached the same conclusion if, under the same circumstances, an Indigenous man had shot a white youth.

Hutterites have historically had cordial relationships with Aboriginal people and felt a general kinship toward them because neither group is well accepted by mainstream society. Many Hutterite communities are located near Reserves. To this day my 87-year-old mother wonders if her childhood friend, Mary Assiniboine, is still alive. Her clan pitched their tents on the banks of the Assiniboine River which at the time was on the property of the New Rosedale Hutterite colony, right by the hen house, mother explains.

Mary and her shared a first name and a birthday. “Every day I ran down to the river to see her. Our friendship was very exciting because we lived such different lives, but we just loved each other.” she says. “The Indians hunted and made rugs and our colony traded food for rugs,” mom tells me. “The rugs were very colorful and every household wanted one.” They also taught colony women about the healing power of wild plants.

Eventually the government, built Mary and her clan, houses on the Long Plains Indian Reserve nearby. At the same time New Rosedale branched out and established Fairholme Colony (6 miles to the south) where I grew up.

Fairholme employed men from the Long Plains Indian Reserve to help build the colony homes. George and Andrew Marion, brothers from the Reserve were part of dad’s work crew and he got a kick out of their self-deprecating sense of humour. He often brought them home for afternoon tea.

Fairholme maintained a cohesive rapport with the Long Plains Reserve. Once or twice a week, in the evenings after supper I remember the women arriving at the community kitchen for our leftovers. (This remains a quiet tradition between many Hutterites and surrounding Aboriginal communities to this day). They would bring beadwork or beautifully crafted birch bark brush holders decorated with wildflowers in exchange. In the summers the cadent sound of Pow Wow music drifted through our open bedroom windows, drumming us to sleep.

My comfortable life was shattered when I was a 10-year-old girl and my parents left the security of Fairholme colony for life in the outside world. I quickly realized that my Hutterite culture had no value in mainstream society. The general public was so ill-informed and said so many awful things about Hutterites I began to feel terribly ashamed of my heritage.

I realized that in order to fit in I would have to learn to be like everyone else. By the time I received my journalism diploma I felt, at least externally, comfortable with my new environment. In my line of work, I had a front row seat to the unfiltered prejudices towards Hutterites, not only by the public but by influential decision makers, as well.

There came a point when I knew I had to tell my story. I wrote my memoir, I Am Hutterite, to reclaim my identity and to stand up to the prejudices and misperceptions about Hutterites. To help others see that my culture though imperfect is a beautiful example of diversity and its manifold contributions to our country deserve to be respected. And we’re charming too!

In the opening pages of The Giller prize winner MJ Vassanji’s novel, The In-Between World of Vikram Lall (a story about post-colonial Kenya,) he writes: “I have come upon a revelation …. if more of us told (our) stories to each other, we would be a far happier and less nervous people.”

It’s going to take more than changes to the justice system to deal with racism. We all have a part to play in this. Ignorance breeds contempt and contempt is polarizing. If we want a secure society we must turn towards each other not away from each other.

“Please come to Saskatchewan,” I tell my Hutterite caller. Buy land here and befriend your neighbours including your Aboriginal ones. It is the best insurance you can buy.”

“Yes,” agrees my Hutterite friend. “Guns don’t solve anything.”

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Mary-Ann Kirkby is a Hutterite Author and Professional Speaker. Her national best-selling books, Secrets of a Hutterite Kitchen, and I Am Hutterite, are available at www.polkadotpress.ca. Contact Mary-Ann at m.kirkby@sasktel.net or on Facebook @ www.facebook.com/maryannkirkbyhutterite

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