The real target of Taber’s new law: Mennonites?

The real focus of Taber, Alberta’s infamous new bylaw aimed at curbing bad behaviour

Photograph by Chris Bolin

Photograph by Chris Bolin

It’s one o’clock on a damp Sunday afternoon in Taber, Alta., three weeks after the town council enacted a bylaw that imposes a curfew, fines for swearing and yelling in public, and gives police powers to break up groups of three or more people. Like every other Sunday here, pickup trucks begin pulling into the Wal-Mart parking lot. Ten guys in jeans and ball caps, aged 15 to 21, hop out and crack open their extra-large coffees from the Tim Hortons on the other side of the lot; some light cigarettes.

Many of them have come from the morning service at the Reinland Mennonite church. Young Mennonites from all over—some have travelled for more than three hours—have gathered here every week for as long as they can remember. Alternating between English and Low German, they talk about cars and watch videos on their phones. After six days spent working on farms and in factories, it’s time to relax.

A few minutes later, a Taber police car pulls up. The officer gets out and walks toward the group. “Are you boys swearing?” he asks, looking them up and down. “We got a call from a woman who says you were swearing at her.” “No, sir,” they mumble. “Any of you been drinking? Any liquor in the vehicles?” he asks, peering into the back windows of their trucks. “Are we going to get a ticket?” one asks. “No,” replies the officer, “as long as you’re not drinking or swearing at people.” He looks at the last vehicle and drives away.

They expected this. The officer will drive by a couple of more times throughout the day, they say. “I’m used to it,” says 18-year-old Isaak Froese, who attends the local Mennonite school. “But it definitely doesn’t feel good.”

Last week, the town of Taber­—known as Canada’s corn capital­—and its 8,100 residents were thrust into international headlines because of their new “community standards” bylaw. Social media erupted with anger and confusion, with thousands of posts gleefully comparing Taber to Footloose (the movie about a rural town that bans dancing to crack down on unruly teens). But what outsiders failed to mention, and what everyone here talks about in hushed tones, is the town’s open secret: what they see as the Mennonite problem.

Many who live in Taber describe the Mennonites as rude and destructive. Local business and restaurant owners, who wished to remain anonymous, said they have to kick out groups of Mennonite kids on a regular basis for fighting, shouting and throwing things at other customers. “Nobody will even say the word. I couldn’t tell you how many police, politicians and public leaders I’ve seen do a little knowing smile and wink when it comes to issues of young Mennonites racing their trucks around town . . . drinking and driving, littering and harassing local residents,” wrote reporter J.W. Schnarr in his March 11 column about the bylaw in the Taber Times.

One resident, Richard Alberta, says he recently saw a group of Mennonite teens shooting paintball guns at stores and cars, burning picnic tables and fighting at the town campground. He wishes the bylaw had come sooner. “The bylaw is a Mennonite law,” he says. “If it targets and controls them better, I have nothing against that.”

Another resident, Jayden Dorchester, says the new bylaw makes sense because of the Mennonite kids who hang around the parking lots in big groups. “They can just be bad kids. They break into vehicles . . . chew tobacco and they’ll spit at people,” he says. “They [the cops] never seemed to be able to break them up, for some reason, so now they can actually go in and do something.”

There are an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 Low German Mennonites living in southern Alberta. Descendants from 16th-century Anabaptist denominations in central Europe­ (which also included Hutterites and the Amish­), Mennonites from Low German-speaking colonies from the Russian Empire—near modern-day Ukraine—fled religious persecution in the 1870s to Manitoba and Saskatchewan. From there, thousands of them left for Mexico and parts of South America in the 1920s to avoid provincial education laws mandating their children attend public school. Most continued their work in farming and food processing after they moved. In the ’80s, thousands started immigrating back to Alberta to escape economic hardship and drug-related violence.

John Hiebert, the bishop of Taber’s Reinland Mennonite church, says around half his congregation have lived in the area for generations, while the other half are newcomers from Mexico, who still travel back to Mexico a few times a year for work and to visit relatives. Hiebert, who was born and raised in the Mennonite community in Chihuahua, Mexico, says it can be a major culture shock for families starting a new life in Canada, especially when it comes to relations with law enforcement. “In Mexico, if you get pulled over by the police, you could pay them off and be free to go—no consequences,” he says. “The attitudes are different down there, and these kids bring that with them here. That’s why some of them have such a hard time obeying authority.”

Discussions about a new bylaw started in 2014, a year after the Taber Police Force received 70 complaints from residents about disturbing goings-on around town, mostly involving Mennonites. Insp. Graham Abela says most of the complaints were about “used condoms, urine and other bodily fluids” found the day after “large gatherings” took place in parking lots around town. “We needed some more tools in our toolbox to deal with these groups,” including Mennonites and non-Mennonites, he says. “It’s very few people actually that cause the trouble, which gives everyone a black eye.” Town council will review the bylaw again in six months.

In areas that include Taber, the literacy rate among Mennonites of all ages remains low as many parents prefer to home-school their children or send them to Mennonite church schools, which are rarely taught in English. But there has been significant improvement lately, says George Epp, liaison for Mennonites at the regional school board and coordinator for newcomers at the Mennonite Central Committee, which helps more than 3,000 Mennonite families a year with employment and social services. When Epp first started his work 13 years ago, there were only 80 Mennonite children enrolled in the local school board. Today, there are more than 1,200. Epp says it’s not the bylaw itself that’s bad for the community, but the hateful ways people have responded to it. “We still have a long way to go in Taber,” he says. “This bylaw is another bump in the road to creating a more tolerant society, and I’m looking forward to it blowing over. Then, we can get back to trying to get people here to care more.”

Young Mennonites agree that some of them cause trouble, but they also resent being blamed and judged for the actions of a few. “We know everyone thinks Mennonites are bad people, that they ruin stuff. I don’t disagree,” says Johnny Wiebe, 20, who attends the Reinland Mennonite church and works in manufacturing. “Some drink, litter, rev engines and drive recklessly. But usually, we’re on the receiving end.” Wiebe says he has had rocks thrown at his car and was beaten up by non-Mennonites last summer. “They often tell me to go back to Mexico, and call me a ‘f–king greasy Mennonite.’ ”

Back at the parking lot, Pete Red, 21, stands outside Tim Hortons with a coffee, and crosses paths with non-Mennonite Taber local Kim Foster and her two sons. Her husband, Danny, is close behind. Foster shouts for her husband to hurry up; she claims Red just swore at her and the kids.

Photograph by Chris Bolin

Photograph by Chris Bolin

Just then, the same police officer returns, and Foster bolts toward him: “That kid back there, he swore at me and my kids! He called them faggots and told them to f–k off!” she screams into the car window, pointing at Red as he drives out of the parking lot. The officer goes after him. Foster smiles and watches as Red gets pulled over. “Now the police are going to take care of him and the rest of them,” she says, “because that’s the law now.” Her husband nods his head. “These are the Mennonites,” he says. “We’re trying to get in here, do what we need to do, and these guys come here and run Canada.” He says he hopes the police will use the bylaw to control the Mennonites who gather here.

Red drives back to Tim Hortons and says the officer gave him a verbal warning against swearing, not a ticket. He says he didn’t swear at Foster or her kids, but that he defended himself after she told him to get out and go back to his own country. “I told her that I’m from this f–king country, and that’s when she ran to the cops,” he says. “And I know the cop that just pulled me over, he’s a good one. I don’t think the police will actually write tickets to us. I think they know this whole thing is stupid.”


The real target of Taber’s new law: Mennonites?

  1. Whatever happened to “When in Rome, do as the Romans do”?? It’s such a simple concept and aids getting along with one’s new neighbours very well. It also shows respect for the community you’ve chosen to live in, even though you’ve had nothing to do with it’s settlement or its progress. It sits there, already organized and planned and quite willing and ready to accept newcomers. It’s hard to have any sympathy for the newcomers here – you’ve obviously brought disruption and fear, in fact, to your new community. Is that how you say “thank you for welcoming me”?

    • Totally agree with when in Rome, do as the Romans do!!! To a certain extent though. If there are things that are against your faith then don’t do them. But these mennonites have not been taught to do the things they do. I can be sure of that. The things they are doing is going against their faith. These children are rebelling against their parents. That’s it. Children don’t get enough attention and positive influence at home from their parents & they find themselves friends who also lack attention at home. There are other reasons yet too but I just can’t think to mention them all. This is one specific area.

    • “Red drives back to Tim Hortons and says the officer gave him a verbal warning against swearing, not a ticket. He says he didn’t swear at Foster or her kids, but that he defended himself after she told him to get out and go back to his own country. “I told her that I’m from this f–king country, and that’s when she ran to the cops,” he says. ”

      Did you miss that part, or do you just think that racism and hatred, and assuming someone is from a different country and also assuming you have the right to tell them to “get out”, is all acceptable behaviour? And then lying to the Police about the whole thing is acceptable, too? Great example for her kids, NOT.

      I am Canadian born, but I “got out” and never plan to return because of racists and this kind of pathetic attitude. I have been on the receiving end of this kind of racism and petty, self important behaviour in my adopted country, like the Mennonites in Taber, because of the bad behaviour of a few other North American immigrants here. Stories like this one prove that I am right when I say that Canadians have no business looking down on people from other cultures, because they are just as racist and badly behaved as anyone else in the world, sometimes worse, and it seems to be getting worse by the day.

  2. Rachel Browne: Thank you for a brilliant article which sheds light on the (seemingly wonky) Taber bylaw. The root cause is alarming and ugly. I live in northern Canada and the treatment of these Mennonite youngsters reminds me of the similar risk young First Nations males face in my community. Targetting young marginalized males in this manner is cruel. Featuring one instance of intolerance and prejudgement — the treatment of Pete Red – was sad to read but clearly demonstrated the factors involved and the challenges community leaders, law enforcement are facing. Please keep us posted and thanks again, Rachel.

    • The people bring it upon themselves to be treated this way. The unruly Mennonites, I mean.

      That there even has to be a bylaw put in place to keep the youth on a leash is just silly, but necessary at the same time. Maybe the town should be handing out community service for their foolish behaviour. And the parents have to stand behind the law & go with the flow of what they are requesting. We’ve had some youth that have been misfits in our town as well & community service has been great. Maybe their town officials should get in touch with ours & learn what to do. I am not saying that our town is at all under control 100% of the time. But your Youth justice committee is an amazing tool that many youth have had to go through. Instead of going to court & dealing with it at that level. I know there is much I am leaving out but this would be a start.

  3. “…I know the cop that just pulled me over, he’s a good one…”
    Bad law + good cop = no immediate issue (but it’s still unconstitutional).
    Bad law + stupid cop (and there are always a few) = disaster.

  4. As a former Mennonite, I understand both sides of this all too well. The way a lot of them act is despicable. But if they took the time to understand why before acting against them, I think there are much better options. The problem starts at home, because every Mennonite I have ever known (and I can’t count how many), was raised in a home with corporal punishment and zero affection. Literally. My parents started taking us to a different church when I was 8, but still they never told me they loved me, never hugged or kissed me. Well, my mom actually hugged me twice, the first time when I was leaving for summer camp at age 13, and the second time when I was 16 and was almost killed. It just isn’t done among more conservative Mennonites, it wasn’t how they were raised, to be so open with affection. I always had an idea that my mom at least cared about me somewhat, but it never even occurred to me that my dad cared about me at all until I was 18. And to top all that off, I got tormented in school by all the privileged kids, for being different. When you combine all that, what’s a kid going to do? Although I wasn’t Mennonite anymore as a teenager, I had friends who still were, and parents made no effort to be involved in what they did when they went out with friends. So you end up with a group of kids, all of whom have most likely been whipped and maybe beaten for as long as they can remember, by parents who likely never showed much, if any, affection, and they’re gathering in public with zero supervision. They’re going to lash out. I know because I did it too, after I finally worked up the nerve to threaten to put my dad in jail if he laid a hand on me again. I just didn’t have such a large group of friends. I understand the need for something to be done about it, but I think it starts with education. And I don’t mean send some English person who can’t relate, to tell them what they should do. I’m sure if they put their heads together, they can come up with something more effective than that.

    • WOW!!! Annie. Your post describes my life to the T. I did get spanking & some of them would be deserved. Others not. Although my dad had an angry streak, he was very protective of me. He wanted me at home helping mom instead of hanging out with my friends where I might get into trouble. And yet my parents weren’t even as conservative as what they were raised, while I was growing up.
      No hugs, no “I love you” being said. ZERO affection.
      When we hurt ourselves whether is was from fighting with each other (intentional) or whether it was accidental, we were always told to go do it again. & never shown affection.. & if we have been shown affection at some time or other it would of been very very few & far between. So few that I just can’t even recall.

      I nominate you Annie to go talk to these young folks.

  5. Small town Canada can proudly boast yet another win for the rationally challenged.
    ~oddly these low-germans speak a language near identical to Yiddish. ..yet if these laws were aimed @ the speakers of THAT language, the ‘final solution’ for these towns people would more resemble the revoking of their charter as a town :)
    ~accusations are not facts.

  6. Wow, an overtly racist law in canada. how is that possible? ..a law passed, because existing laws did not cover what the un-liked group of people were doing. hmmm. I am told that the same thing happened to the group in Bolivia. In this multi-lingual paradise, .. is it still possible to think that another person’s language sounds like swearing, ..and on that note, technically, everything that is not Latin, is vulgar. Apparently Taber missed the memo on the separation of church and state.

  7. There are different types on Mennonites just like there are different types of Christians. I think bringing religion into it in general is discriminative and unfortunate. It is just as likely that a youth from another religion, or from no religion, will misbehave. That is what youths do. I’ve known many people from the Taber area over the years, and many were not part of the Mennonite religion, but were still very far from being model citizens. I’m sure that this law has reasons for existing and though I do not agree with it, it is still there. As to being created to target and deal with Mennonite youth, however, I think is narrow minded and this article should be noted as such.

    It is also important to note that many things written in this article regarding the actions and education of Mennonite youth should not be seen as fact, but instead as opinion.

    It is time to start seeing people for who they are and how they act, not for the religion they identify with.

  8. An immoral law is not a law. If it were a valid one, one could expect to see it universally enforced.
    I believe that a national news team would benefit from being present for the first mass arrest of a stadium-ed sporting event. Is there any argument from the broad-minded of the potential for public yelling there?
    Further I would buy the DVD of a SWAT team ‘taking the door’ of an evangelical or fundamentalist church as they enjoy their Sunday morning lap-dance from jesus. I am sure that I have heard things resembling cursing & swearing emanating from such places in loud voices. In our youth we heard of such things occurring in the USSR. I have always wanted to see such scofflaws billy-sticked into submission.

    To be clear, the victims of this law are GITMO-innocent enough that the charge of mischief cannot be applied. Officer friendly by all accounts, obediently, further abuses these boys, victims of on going hate crimes mentioned.
    To the uninformed, Canada does not enjoy what Americans call the ‘god given right to hate’.
    Here, a racial slur (like go home immigrant) + menacing = a 5 year prison sentence, or at least theoretically. But that is in the same way as Canada has the death penalty. It can be accomplished by resisting arrest on multiple jaywalking tickets, theoretically.
    If the churchgoers resisted would there be gunplay? Run hypocrites run!

    The woman with the children, incensed by profanity should not have provoked it in front of her children. An uncharitable mind might suggest that they be removed to state care. A simple test may be done, (in a where did the bad man touch you format), by asking where they think immigrants should live.
    While impersonating a police officer, officer friendly engages in ‘abuse under the guise of law’ by allowing the perpetrator to cowardly flee after sniping then scolding these nice boys for responding to it. But really, no joke, what does it take to provoke a Mennonite son to wrath?

    Mennonites are culturally different. They might not now have been illiterate if the RCMP had not burned their books. To this day, no recompense has been offered. Priceless books and articles of germanica were burned in a time when Canada had just armed Hitler to attack Stalin. (~Several natural medicine books with the cures for cancer, pregnancy & other nuisances were lost).

    Mennonites are a stand and take it bunch. It would not even occur to them to phone 911 when abused by English. (Here I use the term loosely as we know that nationalism is most extreme at the periphery.)

    Historically, to avoid burning at the stake in Holland for the crime of insisting that there is no authority between a man and his god, they accepted Catherine the Great’s offer. When Bolshevism came, they walked away being shot at. No fucks given.

    Now here, an authority embarrasses itself with idiocies like a non-wartime curfew. This is a presumption of guilt where none is proven. (not to mention reeks of superstition that some hours are holy while others are foul.)
    I take also umbrage with the assertion that one might not utter in the King’s English (of he with whom the covenant with these people was made), an extremity of displeasure. Fuck the lot of you. I am currently at a loss to decide if I should boycott Taber corn as what staves up fascism or to just stop eating it when the Mennonites too have enough of this country and leave.

    Perhaps the solution here is to invite the other gang with guns to oversee justice.
    The young men shown, could be visited in their Wal-Mart post church coffee sessions by no less than two full colour flying Members of The Hells Angels. Coffee could be drank, cigarettes & things could be smoked, fun could be had.
    With these present officer friendly would have 3 hours of homework for each encounter & English taunting would in all likelihood be reduced.
    Who knows? These Sons Of Pacifism may be thug enough to be patched over to 1%.

  9. These unruly Mennonites need to grow up and learn a little about respect so it sounds, I would of gotten a good spanking had I ever disrespected any human being with swearing, screaming or spitting on a person, Grow up people

    • If the Mullahs have spoken and such shall be the law, let there be no ambiguity.
      Explain it to us in plain language; will it just be the language of bodily function or will it also be for blasphemies? And what of euphemisms for profanities? (I could go either way on darn or fudge.) Is it just to be English? These things must be plain if it is to be law.
      Let us all see plainly the written language of the law. We demand it.
      Let no man think that in a bed of other than his wife, he might whisper such and such, nor another man think that he might mutter in his garden shed an obscene utterance being no one shall hear. For if it is a law, then all should know and fear the law, in all cases.
      Yes, in the public places as markets and the Post Office, let the law be written and posted and understood by all. This so that no one think themselves above the law. One law for all, neither exception nor private interpretation, this is the law.
      Let it also be posted on the highways and roads that enter the town, for the edification of the unknowing heathen who may pass thereby! (Post ye also in the spirit of generosity alternate routes to circumvent entrance to those with the affliction Tourette’s).
      Let us see the list of words that one may not legally enunciate. In no general terms, let the law be specific that the letter of the law may be kept. Let the children recite them in the morning and night that all may know the words and say them not! Let the words be taught in full declension that none err by slovin teaching. Let a child say in all earnest, “nither shalt thou say ‘motherfucking’ when roth with man, beast nor object inanimate, (justifiable or not)” and know it to full conjugation that they err not. Teach it as was once taught the Ten Commandments. That one may know the letter of the law that none be caught and be able to say that they did not know. Suppose nothing! Teach all clearly.
      Let these words be posted on the placards of the highways with the prices for each word when said to whom, like a menu, lest German & eastern block tourist wander about cussing at all not knowing at whom to effectively cuss to acquire a coveted swearing fine ticket. Let it be sure that prices are fixed for each word that all may cuss within their budget, causing ruin to an unsuspecting for this law is an abomination to all others. (I use that word correctly.)
      A framing shop might be attached to the place of payment for cussing that all may long treasure the souvenir of their visit. Let also T-shirts be sold which state, “I got a swearing ticket in bum-fuck Alberta!”(..Because that is how it will be known globally.)

      I cannot tell one prairie town from another from the air, but the highway always strikes one with wonder why more wasn’t done with it. The height of prairie culture and inducement to tourism has long been the highway speed trap with a pay-here kiosk. I hope this helps.

  10. Just privileged White kids having their way, Nothing new about this.

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