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, 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.


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.

“Pure” – the CBC drama – Episode 6

My comments on previous episodes of “Pure”are at Episode 1, Episode 2Episode 3Episode 4 and Episode 5.

In this episode we finally learn the supposed reason for Mennonite drug lord Eli Voss’s rejection of the faith of his community. It was the death of his eight children and wife when he and they were on the way to church one Sunday and a drunk driver hit their wagon and horses killing all of them except for Voss. Because of this, Voss has seen God as a God of terror, not of love and grace. He clearly retains a strong emotional tie to his Mennonite community, but rejects all it believes. He intensely dislikes Pastor Noah Funk’s continuing faith in the goodness of God, and wishes to prove Funk wrong.

The final episode continued to integrate important Mennonite religious symbols into the conclusion of this crime story. One of the images was again gratuitous in my view and did little to advance the story. This was the martyr fire above which Noah Funk was chained.


From CBC’s “Pure” Episode 6

Eli Voss, in a speech to the watching crowd, explicitly refers to 16th century Anabaptist martyrs (forerunners of the Mennonites), and claims Noah Funk wishes to join them. Voss makes somewhat bizarre references to Gelassenheit, the Anabaptist doctrine of yieldedness and humility, and justifies killing Funk because Funk intended to destroy the drug ring and take away the technology and other economic benefits the drug trade has brought to the Low German Mennonite community. At the time of the martyr scene Voss believes that Funk’s family is already dead, as he has ordered his nephew, Gerry Epp, to kill them, perhaps to compensate for the death of his own family.

Back in southern Ontario, Anna Funk, fearing that her husband, Noah, is dead, implies to Joey Epp, Gerry Epp’s younger brother, that she will need a husband to help raise her family. She basically makes seductive overtures to him. Joey takes this to heart and kills Gerry Epp to prevent him from murdering the Funk family. Anna sees this intervention as the hand of God protecting them and refuses to run away with Joey.

Back in Mexico, a gunfight arises when the Mexican police arrive with the discredited DEA agent and  Bronco, the suspended and corrupt policeman from Ontario. To prevent Eli Voss from killing the young surviving witness to the murders that opened Episode 1, Noah Funk kills Eli Voss.

This then leads to the extended second religious symbol — that of a baptismal service, in which Noah and Anna Funk’s son, Isaac, is part of the baptismal class.


From CBC’s “Pure” Episode 6

For me this was a powerful scene, and reflected the struggle between good and evil that has run through this series. Noah, who has returned to Ontario (I guess the Mexican police don’t care that he killed someone) is ultimately unable to enter the meetinghouse to witness the baptism because of his sense of guilt, and Isaac is clearly ambivalent even as he accepts the baptism from Bishop Bergen who finally showed up in the last 10 minutes of the series.

As a crime drama the series worked reasonably well. The acting was at a high level, given the script with which they had to work. The writing and story line, in my view, was less successful, and relied on too many logical jumps in the plot to be convincing.

And the creators, in order to set this drama apart from other crime dramas, felt compelled to keep emphasizing that the characters were highly traditional Mennonites. This led to numerous gratuitous insertions of symbolic practices loosely based on traditional Mennonites, explicitly reflected in the titles of the episodes. These “symbols” were often an inaccurate mashup of the various Mennonite groups that has never been adequately addressed.

[Since first posting this blog, I’ve listened to the interview of Michael Amo, the creator and producer of “Pure” in a Writers Guild of Canada event. It can be heard at http://www.wgc.ca/files/WTTV046Pure_Amo.mp3. In the interview, at about the 9:00 minute mark, he defends the mashup of Old Colony and Old Order Mennonites as a way of not implicating any one group of drug dealing. He called it the “right thing to do ethically.” I’m not sure why this was ethical, since the inspiration for the series was a Fifth Estate program and  a Saturday Night magazine article on the Mennonite Mob in Mexico.]

If one subtracted the “Mennonite” angle, the high level of violence in “Pure”was quite clichéd. A tortured protagonist with the best of intentions ultimately triumphs over evil through “redemptive violence.” Clint Eastwood made a career out of this approach.

The difference, of course, is that the protagonists were pacifist Mennonites who reject violence, and don’t believe that killing a human being can ever be redemptive. The tension of the series arises from Noah Funk’s ongoing internal conflict on this issue, into which the rest of his family is pulled.

The sad, and most objectionable, part about this series is that the creators presented a distorted Mennonite theology, and pasted it on to a traditional Old Order Mennonite community that has no hint of this kind of crime or violence in its 125 year history. There are something over 10,000 people in Canada that might be described as Old Order Mennonite and use horses and buggies for transportation. This feels like extremely unwarranted exploitation.

This is not to claim that crime in unknown in traditional Mennonite communities — both Old Order Mennonite and Low German Mennonite have “marred images” in their histories. These have included child abuse and drug trafficking. But neither of these communities would ever condone what was portrayed in this series.

The creators of “Pure” did not reflect any understanding of how accountability or submission to the shared Ordnung (rules) in traditional Mennonite faith communities function. A minister like Noah Funk would not have made the decisions he did in isolation; he would have felt internally compelled to consult more widely with other leaders. And no Mennonite community has only one leader, as seemed the case for these “Edenthalers.” The individualism of modern society does not function in the same way in these communities.

Let us hope that season 1 of “Pure” is the final season.

To better understand the complexity and reality of Ontario Mennonites, read In Search of Promised Lands: a Religious History of Mennonites in Ontario.


“Pure” – the CBC drama – Episode 5

My comments on previous episodes of “Pure”are at Episode 1, Episode 2Episode 3,  Episode 4 and Episode 6.

Sometime in the last week, someone at the CBC as decided Pure’s “Edenthaler Colony” in Southern Ontario is an Old Order Mennonite group (thanks to Sherri Klassen for alerting me to this change). Previously CBC’s references had been generically “Mennonite,” though the story line, geography, and language have consistently been Low German Mennonite, if not specifically Old Colony Mennonite.

Perhaps this change was done to justify the horses and buggies and the appearances of the women. This new, narrower description makes even more of the depictions in “Pure” incorrect — the family names are not Old Order Mennonite, no Old Order church members in good standing use cars, the meetinghouse (church) is designed incorrectly, the women still look more Amish than Old Order Mennonite, the cemetery seen in the last episode had incorrect tombstones, the location of the colony (near Chatham) is some distance from Old Order Mennonites who are further east or north. The list of inaccuracies goes on.


From CBC’s “Pure” Episode 5

Today’s episode was again mostly about plot, though there were some gratuitous religious references, including a “communion service” at the drug lab in Mexico, after Noah Funk “turned the other cheek” twice by being slapped by drug lord Eli Voss, before Funk agreed to serve communion to excommunicated Old Colony Mennonites. (The folks pictured in Mexico did look like Low German Mennonites.)

Communion is only served by bishops, and the “congregation” at the drug lab would have known the service had no legitimacy (as Funk did observe in the episode). The only point for including this in the story line seemed to be to display a bit of “Mennonite” content otherwise not needed for the plot.

There were many plot lines that didn’t make sense in this episode. Why did the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) have suspended cop Bronco Novack travel to Texas and then order him not to do anything? Why did the crooked DEA agent (who was subsequently killed) think her kidnapping of a child who had nothing to do with the drug business think her actions would go undetected by law enforcement? Why was Tina (Noah Funk’s daughter) not able to escape from a cheap motel room with a window?

The show has generally upped the level of violence in the last couple of episodes.

Many of my Mennonite friends stopped watching “Pure” after the first episode. To me it will be a shame if “Pure” actually gets a second season. The show is now suggesting its drama is based on true events about a Mennonite group that will not defend itself in public and has nothing in its history to justify such a portrayal.

To better understand the complexity and reality of Ontario Mennonites, read In Search of Promised Lands: a Religious History of Mennonites in Ontario.






“Pure” — the CBC Drama – Episode 3

In the past weeks I have commented on Episode 1 and Episode 2. I also have comments on Episode 4Episode 5 and Episode 6.

For me episode 3 ranged between interesting character scenes (Noah’s son talking about baptism and the daughter and policeman’s son) interspersed with highly unlikely bits of  action.

The German hymn briefly shown in the book in which Noah Funk is keeping his records of the drug operation is authentic, and appears in many German-language Mennonite hymnals.

The age of baptism implied in the son’s conversation with Noah is reasonable. This statement by the son should mean that he will be part of a “class” of baptismal candidates that studies a catechism before they are baptized; we’ll see if that happens in a future episode. Apparently the Edenthaler bishop lives some distance away and needs to be contacted by mail. However usually baptisms take place at a standard time of the year; a special communication would not be necessary.


From Episode 3 of “Pure”- CBC

The scene of 30 men and four horses pulling the crashed plane loaded with drugs and two bodies from the lake was ludicrous in the extreme. Apparently the Mennonites and their horses had more “horsepower” than a high-powered SUV. Bringing Mennonites from the “colony” who are not involved in the drug business into what “Pastor” Noah Funk knows is a crime scene makes no sense. Clearly this was done for visual “Mennonite” impact and was not realistic. Noah then casually lies to the group as if he knew nothing about the drugs on the plane. But if he knew nothing, why hadn’t the Mennonites simply called authorities to deal with an accident? It all makes no sense.

The pastor and his wife show increasingly limited moral agony over the crimes they know they are committing. They have no answer for the “straight” members of the community that chastise them for their involvement that has become widely known. Yet Noah still believes he’s being righteous. He makes no effort to utilize the police for whom he is now presumably a snitch. Perhaps it’s all supposed to reflect Mennonite naiveté.

The shooting scene at the end of the episode makes no sense. Why would the motorcycle gang leader move to murder Noah over price negotiations that haven’t even been discussed with the boss, Eli Voss, yet? I now that TV dramas have to move things along at a brisk pace, but they should make some sense. I guess we find out next week who killed the motorcycle gang leaders.

My previous comments about “Pure” mixing Amish and Old Order and Low German cultures remain.

Some of my reflections were quoted in the Winnipeg Free Press last Saturday.

If you want to learn the truth about Ontario Mennonite history, I invite you read my book, In Search of Promised Lands.

“Pure” — the CBC Drama – Episode 2

Last week I commented after the first episode of “Pure.”

I said it succeeded as a crime drama, though I had a number of issues with the presentation in terms of Mennonites.


Source: CBC TV

This morning I watched episode 2. I’m much less certain about the quality of drama. Too many things don’t make sense — why would you make the Ontario drug “boss” someone as highly visible and slow moving as a farmer-preacher with no criminal experience? It boggles the mind.

The visual portrayal of the group is closer to Amish this week, though the women’s dresses do look somewhat “Old Colony.” The bonnets are definitely Amish. The Saturday night “sing” had an Amish feel.

Most Old Order Mennonites and even Old Order Amish use cell phones at time. They are not as ignorant about technology as Noah Funk was. Old Orders draw the line at smart phones, but have used cell phones for business for many years. Low German Mennonites also have no issues with cell phones.

Women do not say “amen” at the end of family prayer before a meal. That’s the role of the head of the family, who is male. Certainly if he is sitting there, the prayer does not end until he says so.

Noah Funk’s “sermon” was wrong on many levels. It must always be tied to scripture, even if trying to make the point about God living within us that he did.

The women working in the drug distribution shop (or whatever it was) is not possible. Married women don’t work away from home. They might operate a business from home, but that scene was strictly for looks.

The young peoples’ singing was nice, and seemed to follow the Amish pattern.

For now let’s change our assessment to an over-the-top crime drama, with limited relationship to any previous “true story.”

See also my comments after Episode 1,  Episode 3,  Episode 4,  Episode 5 and Episode 6.

“Pure” — the CBC Drama – Episode 1

A new crime drama by the Canadian Broadcasting Company entitled “Pure” features drug-trafficking Mennonites in Southern Ontario. Interviews with cast members have emphasized the inspiration for the story comes from actual events that have been widely reported. A “Fifth Estate” telecast about  the Low German “Mennonite Mob” can be see at http://www.cbc.ca/fifth/episodes/40-years-of-the-fifth-estate/mennonite-mob. In April 2004 Saturday Night Magazine had a feature story on the Mennonite Mob (https://web.archive.org/web/20151006210521/http://caj.ca/wp-content/uploads/2010/mediamag/awards2005/(Andrew%20Mitrovica)%20Saturday%20Night%20Magazine.htm), and periodically news stories show up on the theme, for example the story from 2014 at: http://news.nationalpost.com/news/canada/mennonites-linked-to-mexican-cartels-established-cocaine-smuggling-pipeline-near-alberta-border-police.

pure-hero-2That brings us back to “Pure.” At the time of writing I have seen the trailer for the show and the first episode.

As my friend, Armin Wiebe, wrote in a Facebook post, “It’s a tightly written, relentless crime drama.” On that level I think it succeeds very well. I’m not embarrassed by the writing or the acting.

Others will have to speak to the “Low German” accent of the actors; I suspect it’s somewhat off. One “Pure” actor in an interview on CBC spoke of listening to Mennonites at a farmers’ market in Nova Scotia. Now there aren’t that many Mennonites in Nova Scotia; he may have been listening either to Holdeman Mennonites (two congregations near Waterville and Tatamagouche) or some Kleine Gemeinde Mennonites near Truro that came from Belize.

As a historian I do have some problems with numerous aspects of the presentation. Reading comments on the “Pure” Facebook page, it’s clear that many people are confused about Mennonites and their history. This drama doesn’t help the confusion. For Mennonites, the show has many distracting elements because of the obvious “mistakes” in confusing various Mennonite cultural and historical streams. The producers of “Pure” try to avoid the issue by identifying the group as “Edenthaler,” a group that doesn’t exist, though they are identified as Low German Mennonites with connections to Mexico. However the producers then proceed to mix the cultures of Low German Mennonites, Old Order Mennonites and Old Order Amish in many visual aspects of the drama.

For me the horses and buggies are a complete distraction from the story line. No Low German Mennonites in Canada use horses and buggies. I guess it makes a certain kind of visual statement, but only the Old Order Mennonite and Amish groups still use this form of transportation, and their history has no relationship to Mexico except for the most recent decades when some Amish schoolteachers have provided some assistance to Old Colony Mennonite schools.

Some of my concerns about the show lessened when I saw how pointless the horses and buggies were to the plot. I felt it less likely than I first feared that the general public will confuse this story with the “real” Old Order Mennonites and Amish in Southern Ontario.


Old Colony Mennonite women, Durango Colony, Mexico, 2013. Canadian Mennonite photo

By and large the physical appearance of the players is also confusing for anyone familiar with Mennonite culture. The men are clean shaven and sort of look like Old Order Mennonites, except that they’re wearing Amish-style straw hats. The women look much more Amish in their clothing and bonnets, with mostly solid color dresses. They look nothing like traditional Low German Mennonite women in their clothing or headgear.

I suspect this was done because Old Order Mennonites are more quickly identifiable as “Mennonite” in the wider Canadian culture than traditional Low German dress would be. Is that a good enough justification for deliberately “borrowing” Old Order Mennonite culture? I would say no.

There are more problems with the worship and polity of the Edenthalers. The senior clergyman in any traditional Mennonite group is the Bishop or Ältester. Among the Edenthalers it seems to be the “Preacher.” Interestingly, Noah Funk is chosen by lot, a practice not used by Low German Mennonites, but only by Mennonites of the Swiss-South German historical tradition. The way the lot process was run was also incorrect; only a Bishop ordains, and he would have been the person checking the books indicating which man had the slip of paper.

Additionally, although the Edenthaler appropriately located women on one side of the church and men on the other during worship services, they allowed women freedom to speak in the service. This would not happen in a traditional service, which is much more stylized and formal in how things are done than was indicated here.

Noah Funk’s ploy to introduce the child, Ezekiel, as a nephew, would not have worked in a traditional Mennonite community. People in close-knit Mennonite communities know relatives and family lines, and would have known of the existence of any such child.

I’m sorry the CBC didn’t adhere more closely to the research they must have done. Adulterating the Low German culture with Old Order Mennonite imagery doesn’t help the plot, and simply confuses the general public.

Through my experience with Gadfly: Sam Steiner dodges the Draft, I have some understanding of what dramas “based on a true story” can lead to — what was true and what was fiction? The CBC could have done a better job on that part of the production.

I’ll enjoy the rest of the series for the drama, but not for its informational value about Mennonites.

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.

See also my comments after Episode 2Episode 3Episode 4,  Episode 5 and Episode 6.