CBC, the Fifth Estate and the Mennonite Mob

If you want to watch relatively balanced investigative journalism on the Mennonite Mob you need look no further than the CBC’s Fifth Estate. Unfortunately it’s the Fifth Estate program from March 10, 1992, not the self-promoting show from February 24, 2017.

The 1992 episode was hosted by Hannah Gartner. She provided a (very) brief history of the Old Colony Mennonites and their move to Mexico in the 1920s. Although she over-generalized  (“almost all Mennonites in Manitoba and Ontario have relatives in Mexico”), she did better than many journalists, particularly with the more limited scholarly resources available on Low German Mennonites in 1992.

helen-dyck-1992

Helen Dyck, an original Old Colony immigrant to Mexico, interviewed by Hannah Gartner

In addition to border officials in Texas and Windsor, Gartner (or CBC researchers) interviewed undercover police in Windsor,  an Old Colony community leader in Mexico and 90-year-old Helen Dyck, one of the original Old Colony settlers in Mexico. She also talked directly to Abe Harms, the “godfather” of the Mennonite Mob, his son Enrique, and Abe Froese, a Mennonite farmer from Manitoba that helped to smuggle drugs. Finally she talked to a former mayor of Cuauhtémoc, Mexico and two Loewen brothers who were described as the “brains behind the operation” of the Mennonite Mob. (Abe Harms was described as “in position number 2 or 3” of the Mob.) Finally, it was clearly stated near the end of the program by a Canadian border official that the drug dealers were “a very small element of the overall Mennonite community, and I don’t know if they [the community] realize how much impact it has in this particular area.”

The 1992 Fifth Estate had its problems, but it represented significant and thorough journalistic effort.

In contrast, the 2017 Fifth Estate program, narrated by Bob McKeown, did very limited “investigation.” CBC’s researchers appeared to travel no further south than Oklahoma. They interviewed no Mennonites from the Old Colony community either in Mexico or Ontario and no academics (like Royden Loewen or Kerry Fast or Luann Good Gingrich or many others) who have studied Low German Mennonites, including the Old Colony, very extensively in the past two decades. The show also reflected little evidence researchers had read any analysis beyond their 1992 show.

Their sources of information were three: Ryan Cortez, an undercover drug agent in Oklahoma, Cindy Cunningham, an agent in Oklahoma drug enforcement, and Sam Quinones, a former reporter for the Los Angeles Times. Quinones writes books about Mexico and colorful Mexicans. His knowledge about Low German Mennonites is narrow, based on the last chapter in his book, Antonio’s Gun and Delfino’s Dream: True Tales of Mexican Migration (2007) that described his 1999 encounter with Enrique Harms, the son of Abe Harms, who by then was apparently the head of the Mennonite Mob. Quinones admitted in his book that “by the time it was over, I couldn’t say I’d gotten to know Mennonites well.” Quinones’ major book on Mexico and the drug trade, Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic (2015), makes no mention of Mennonites.

The 2017 show opened with a re-enactment of Abraham Wiebe’s 1999 arrest in Oklahoma for drunk driving, and Wiebe’s willingness to become a paid police informant in their drug investigations to avoid losing his driver’s license. We later learn that Wiebe soon disappeared and was probably killed by the Mennonite Mob.

Then McKeown provided a quick explanation about Mennonites, “many of whom lead lives as if it were a century ago,” against a backdrop of images of Old Order Mennonites in Elmira, Ontario. Then we met R. J. Peters, a former Mennonite and playwright, whose claim to authority for this show was that he’s written a musical about the Mennonite Mafia and Abe Harms.

fifth-estate-2017

Old Order Mennonites illustrating the Mennonite Mob in Fifth Estate’s 2017 show

After a break we got a number of scenes from “Pure,” while McKeown intoned “CBC’s new hit drama, ‘Pure’ is art imitating life.” McKeown than suggested the Fifth Estate knew this story well. He informed us that Mennonites came to Canada from Europe in the 19th century, and many have remained cloistered in farming communities in Ontario and Manitoba. (All this against a backdrop of Old Order Mennonites in Waterloo Region riding a buggy down a snowy road.) We learned that many Mennonites shunned modern conveniences like automobiles and electricity. He said they (the Mennonites) all spoke Low German. We saw a map of where the Mennonites moved in Mexico, with Cuauhtémoc misspelled. Then Quinones became the expert explaining the Mennonites in Mexico

None of this reflected any serious research, and revealed no attempt to understand the complexity of the Canadian Mennonite community, and continued the generalizations so evident in “Pure.”

The show then launched into extensive cherry-picking from the 1992 program, with none of the context provided by the earlier show. It added innuendos that Enrique Harms killed his father, Abe, who died in a single-car crash in Mexico in 1994. The 2004 Saturday Night article on the Mennonite Mob had speculated Harms might have been killed by the Mexican police. Nonetheless, McKeown suggested 22-year-old Enrique Harms took over the mob after his father’s death. The program concluded with Quinones describing his 1999 encounter with Enrique Harms, and Ryan Cortez speculating about the current state of the Mennonite Mob.

There is no denying that a “Mennonite Mob” that has its roots in the Old Colony Mennonite community in Mexico is a reality. Like any ethnic/cultural group, there is a dark side to the Mennonite community, and not just the Old Colony Mennonites.

It is also true that the Mennonite Mob has no connection to the Old Colony Mennonite Church, unlike the implications of the “Pure” series for which the Fifth Estate saw fit to provide free advertising. It is true that in the early 1990s people like Abe Harms were still members of the Old Colony church since church leaders were unsure what to do.

The Old Colony Mennonite world in Mexico has changed dramatically in the last quarter century. Educational practices have begun to change, and leadership is more aware of the issues faced by the community.  In Ontario the Old Colony Mennonite Church does not tolerate this kind of activity.

When I watch CBC journalism, I expect to see context and evidence of research. Neither was in evidence on February 24. It felt more like a program quickly slapped together to take advantage of the publicity created by “Pure.” It’s a shame. A real update on the 1992 program would have been nice.

See my comments on “Pure” at Episode 1, Episode 2Episode 3Episode 4Episode 5 and Episode 6.

If you are interested in a more accurate historical account of Mennonites in Ontario, see In Search of Promised Lands: a Religious History of Mennonites in Ontario.

6 thoughts on “CBC, the Fifth Estate and the Mennonite Mob

  1. Pingback: Ontario Mennonites and Criminal Behavior | In Search of Promised Lands

  2. Pingback: That’s sweet, but really you shouldn’t have.

  3. Yes, the few sources, the mixing of groups, the limited understanding of Mennonite history–all do not serve the CBC, or its viewers, well. In both the earlier and current documentaries, one gets little or no sense of how Mennonites-Anabaptists are a modern diverse group theologically and culturally around the world (Mennonite World Conference). This is hardly accurate, proper, or fair. The Anabaptist faith is a positive one that centres on Christ, is concerned about honest discipleship, and is to seek social justice. Most of its members relative positively, though challengingly, to wider society, and acceptance of most forms of technology is a given.

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  4. No big surprise that Fifth Estate did a quick and dirty reprise of their Mennonite Mob story. I’m sure the producers of Pure are hoping for a Season 2. And No doubt you are too Sam. This has given you so much to write about on your blog and likely drove a bit of traffic too, perhaps even generated a sale or two of your Ontario History. 🙂

    By the way do you know anyone who actually watches CBC TV? Its just plain bad. Netflix is so much better, even the Canadian version.

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