In the last two months I’ve taken significant exception to the Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC)’s entertainment production, Pure, and the Fifth Estate “investigation” about the Mennonite Mob. This might lead some readers to believe that I don’t want criminal activity by Mennonites to be aired in public.
That is not the case. Mennonites, like any other religious or ethnic group, have a shadow side. Whether crime among Mennonites is greater or lesser than other groups is hard to tell, since usually one’s religious affiliation is not mentioned in crime reports. It is interesting that on occasion a Mennonite or Amish connection is mentioned in news reports even when it doesn’t seem particularly relevant.
I have discussed the “marred images” of Mennonites in an earlier blog, and have a short section on the topic in my book In Search of Promised Lands: a Religious History of Mennonites in Ontario, but I didn’t talk much about actual criminal activity. I’ll do so briefly below.
Crimes by Ontario Mennonites and Amish that have seen individuals charged and/or convicted have ranged across the gamut of seriousness. A sampling is listed below:
- Animal Cruelty — Menno Streicher, an Old Order Amish Bishop in the Milverton area, and his wife, Viola, were charged with animal cruelty in connection with a dog kennel they owned. Viola was convicted in 2013 of having a dog in distress, operating a kennel without a license, and obstructing justice. She was put on probation and fined.
- Drug Smuggling–There are numerous newspaper accounts of arrests and convictions related to Mennonite drug smuggling from Mexico. A recent conviction involved Abraham Klassen, who received a six year sentence and forfeiture of his home after pleading guilty in a Simcoe court in June 2016. He and an accomplice were caught selling drugs to undercover police from September 2013 to May 2014. Apparently after his arrest Klassen worked at personal rehabilitation, and received support from his church community during sentencing.
- Sexual Abuse — a former Mennonite Brethren youth pastor in St. Catharines was convicted in 1996 of sexual abuse of a parishioner between 1975 and 1981 when she was between 16 and 21 years of age. He was sentenced to 60 days in jail and three years probation. I’m not publishing his name because he served his penalty over 20 years ago. The crime was fully reported in the Mennonite Brethren Herald (June 14, 1996), p. 16.There are numerous accounts of sexual abuse by Mennonite pastors in North America, though most do not end in criminal proceedings. Many of these stories, including some from Ontario, can be see on the Our Stories Untold website or the Mennonite section of SNAP.
- Child abuse–The arrest and trial phase of the well-known “Old Order Mennonite” abuse case took place near Brandon, Manitoba, but had its origins in Ontario. A splinter group of Orthodox Old Order Mennonites left Ontario in 2006 when it came into conflict with the larger Old Order community over its practices.The leader of the splinter group continued the abuse he had begun in Ontario. The leader was unnamed, as was the name of the community, in order to protect the children. He was convicted in 2016 both of physical and sexual abuse, and was sentenced to 5 1/2 years in prison.
- Attempted murder–an unidentified devout Mennonite man in the Kitchener area was convicted in 2010 of trying to get his three children, aged 16, 14 and 11 at the time, to murder his wife in 2007 by drowning her in the bathtub. The attempt was made and failed, though a child called 911 and claimed the mother had tried to kill the children. The father was sentenced to 12 years in prison. He had a retrial in 2015 because the prosecutor in 2010 had described him as a “Jesus Nut.” He was convicted again in 2015, but was released for time served. He was never identified, in order to protect the children.
- Murder–Helmuth Buxbaum was the wealthy owner of a nursing home near London, Ontario, and a prominent lay leader in the Komoka Community Church, a Mennonite Brethren congregation. He was convicted in 1986 for the contract murder of his wife, Hanna, in July 1984. The case was widely publicized, and several books were written about Buxbaum. He died in prison in 2007.
- War Crimes–In 1999 Jacob Fast of St. Catharines, Ontario was charged with war crimes and lying about his past when he immigrated to Canada in 1947. Born in 1910 in a Mennonite village in Ukraine, Fast was drafted into the German army when the Germans invaded the Soviet Union. In that process he became a German citizen. Many Mennonite men in Ukraine had the same experience. He became a Canadian citizen in 1954. The Canadian government alleged that his failure to divulge his involvement as a collaborator with occupying German forces (namely as part of the auxiliary police) and his German citizenship warranted revocation of his Canadian citizenship. On October 3, 2003, the Federal Court ruled that Mr. Fast had obtained his Canadian citizenship by deceit, in that he had failed to reveal his German citizenship when applying to come to Canada in 1947. The court also found that Mr. Fast had collaborated with the German Security Police responsible for enforcing the racial policies of the German Reich, but on the balance of probabilities had not been asked this question directly and therefore, had not lied nor concealed his wartime activities. The Minister of Citizenship and Immigration recommended to the Governor in Council that Fast’s citizenship be revoked. The Government of Canada announced the revocation on May 24, 2007. Jacob Fast died three weeks later on June 11 at the age of 97.
I have not mentioned here the Poplar Hill Residential School run by Mennonites in northwest Ontario. Although part of the Canadian government’s compensation program, and the process of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, no one connected with Poplar Hill was charged with a crime. I discussed the Poplar Hill residential school in an earlier blog.
Today’s blog has felt like my hands are left soiled. I remind myself and the reader that these accounts do not reflect the lives of the vast majority of Mennonites. They simply concede that all Mennonite groups have their dark sides.
To learn more about the diversity of Mennonites in Ontario, read In Search of Promised Lands.