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Hutterites

Percy Davis, a lawyer representing a Hutterite colony in the 1950s, perfectly captured the feelings of many Hutterites living in Alberta when he noted that “although Canada as a nation has long since made peace with the German Reich, Alberta remains at war with its Hutterites.” [Sanders] Hutterite communities were first established in Alberta around 1918, and by the 1960s Hutterites numbered over 6500 scattered across 65 colonies. Hutterites are an Anabaptist Christian sect who reject personal ownership and communally own land; they are strict pacifists and refuse to vote or hold public office. “Each colony is established on a huge tract of land comprising thousands of acres, as isolated as possible from more highly populated centres … Each colony is highly coordinated and based on core Hutterite values that include co-operation, consensus, frugality, non-violence, self-discipline, and the deference of the will of the individual to the will of the community. ... All property within a Hutterite colony is church property; there is no distinct church organization in a colony because the community is the congregation. Professor Esau’s description of a colony is especially evocative: from the Hutterite perspective, a colony ‘may be though of as a communal ark of salvation that leads to eternal life in heaven, while the rest of the world is drowning in the flood of temporary selfish pride and pleasure leading to death.’” [Hamilton]

Hutterites became the target of bitter recriminations during the two world wars for refusing to serve in the armed forms. The federal government removed their exemption from military service and temporarily banned Hutterite immigration. In Alberta, newspapers, school boards, politicians and others spoke of the need to place Hutterite children in public schools to further their assimilation. The provincial government appointed two committees, one in 1947 and one in 1959, to report on the “Hutterite problem.” Both committees encountered widespread hostility to Hutterites among farm, municipal, school and community groups. Hutterites were accused of refusing to assimilate, not contributing to the economic and social life of rural communities, and controlling large tracts of Alberta farmland. Both committees sought ways to further assimilate them.

Among the most blatant discriminatory pieces of legislation in Canadian history were Alberta’s Land Sales Prohibition Act (1942-1947) and the Communal Property Act (1947-1973). The former restricted Hutterites’ abilities to purchase land. The latter required new Hutterite colonies to be at least 40 miles from other colonies, and to also seek permission to purchase land from a provincial Communal Property Control Board. The justification for the regulation was ostensibly that farmers could not fairly compete with Hutterites to purchase land (due to Hutterites’ corporation tax status as well as their supposed low standard of living).  The regulation also aimed to prevent Hutterites from taking control of vast expanses of farmland. Both laws were tailored to Hutterites’ communal property practices. The statutes were clearly discriminatory pieces of legislation directed at an unpopular religious sect. But the courts turned a blind eye. The Alberta Supreme Court and the Supreme Court of Canada refused to recognize that the legislation violated Hutterites’ freedom of religion.

The Communal Property Act was at odds with the spirit of Alberta’s new human rights legislation in the ealry 1970s, and the Act was quickly eliminated. Provincial laws no longer singled out Hutterite land acquisition. Grant Notley, the leader of the opposition New Democratic Party, described the legislation as having placed Hutterites’ “civil liberties in a state of limbo”.  According to Notley, the time had “long since past when the Communal Properties Act should be repealed – pure and simple.” A 1972 government committee rejected the previous committees’ concern for assimilation, and instead insisted that Hutterites “contribute significantly to local and provincial economies.” The committee called for cooperation and respect. Meanwhile, the former director of the Communal Property Control Board, who had characterized the Act as a potential “instrument of discrimination,” spoke in 1971 of a “noticeable change in public attitude.” The province’s major newspapers, The Calgary Herald and the Edmonton Journal, no longer supported restrictions on Hutterites; instead they characterized the law as intolerant and discriminatory. Community groups stopped flooding the government with demands to assimilate Hutterites. Rather than support the legislation as a necessary tool to restrict the spread of a “foreign” peoples, Albertans increasingly saw the law as discriminatory and as a violation of Hutterites’ rights to own property.

 

Further Reading

David Breen, "The Making of Modern Alberta," in Alberta Formed? Alberta Transformed, ed. Michael Payne, Donald Wetherell, and Catherine Cavanaugh (Calgary: University of Calgary, 2006), 551-53.

Jonette Watson Hamilton, "Space for Religion: Regulation of Hutterite Expansion and the Superior Court of Alberta," in The Alberta Supreme Court at 100: History & Authority, ed. Jonathan Swaigner (Edmonton: University of Alberta Press, 2010).

William Janzen, Limits on Liberty: The Experience of Mennonite, Hutterite, and Doukhobor Communities in Canada (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1990), 144-53.

Douglas E Sanders, "The Hutterites: A Case Study in Minority Rights," Canadian Bar Review, no. 42 (1964): 226.

 

 

 
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