COVID-19 pandemic takes a toll on prairie Hutterite colonies

Social isolation has been a key tool in fighting the virus, but the communal aspect of Hutterite life makes that difficult for colony members

Prairie Hutterites are facing the consequences of COVID-19 as cases on colonies continue to rise.

The virus has spread rapidly through Hutterite communities in the last couple weeks.

Although earlier reports linked the spread to attendance at an Alberta funeral in June, that has not been confirmed.

In Saskatchewan, between July 22 and 27, the government reported 172 of 239 positive cases were on more than 20 colonies.

Initially the areas identified were southwest and west-central regions, but on July 27 that also included Saskatoon and the North.

Premier Scott Moe said Hutterites should not face stigmas for having positive cases.

“We should actually applaud those who get tested and get tested early,” he said. “Those numbers are a result of people doing the right thing.”

There are about 6,000 Hutterites in the province, Moe said, and the outbreak is severe and could get worse.

He said the numbers could go higher as a result of aggressive testing. Public health workers will attend every Saskatchewan colony beginning this week to provide information and testing.

Alberta has had cases on at least four colonies, although a government spokesperson said the province is not identifying specific locations or numbers.

In Manitoba, the CanAm Colony threatened to launch a human rights case against the government after news releases identified outbreaks on colonies.

There have been reports of Hutterites being shunned in stores and many social media posts blaming them for spreading the virus.

Joseph Wurz, minister at Hillsvale Colony in the Rural Municipality of Cut Knife, Sask., said people are always afraid of what they don’t understand.

“It’s all over the world,” he said. “How are they blaming Hutterites?”

Some members of his colony have been subjected to comments from others, he said. But for the most part they are sticking close to home and so far have no positive tests.

“A few people have been tested and we had a visit here from local nurses from the health region,” Wurz said. “We’re keeping ourselves isolated and no traffic in and out. We stay home as much as we can.”

Still, there are those who have to leave or enter the colony. Hillsvale is a mixed farm with cattle, hogs and chickens. The colony also sells produce at market gardens in Lloydminster and North Battleford where they wear masks and keep a table between customers and the produce.

“So far we haven’t had any problems except for isolated cases,” said Wurz.

Despite posting their road with no entry signs, he said people from three nearby First Nations do come to buy vegetables.

At Rosetown Hutterite Colony, Joe Kleinsasser said they too have isolated and limited traffic.

Colony members haven’t been tested, although that is under consideration, and he said they stopped travelling between other colonies.

“We all seem good but, two-and-a-half weeks ago at least, we decided to stop intercommunity travel both in and out and last week we decided to just do a total lockdown,” he said July 27, although essential services are still provided.

The colony has gone to curbside pickup for things like prescriptions but work on the farm has to continue, Kleinsasser said.

“We started silaging today and everybody is certainly gung-ho,” he said. “They’re not happy about having to stay home. But at this point in time we need to do something to deal with this situation.”

He said he is worried about the stigma Hutterites are facing although he hasn’t left his yard in three weeks.

“The collateral damage that I see happening to the psyche of my culture and quite frankly to our interaction with mainstream society it’s becoming to the point where it’s not good,” he said. “For us this is a little bit new because we actually consider ourselves part of the social fabric of Western Canada and are proud of our contributions to that and our economic contribution to a great country.

“And not that I’m pointing fingers at anybody and saying we’re being hard done by. It’s just a combination of things that are piling up and if it goes on long enough….”

Kleinsasser said many people have reached out to ask how he and community members are doing, which he appreciates.

Both he and Wurz said they know that those who test positive on other colonies are asked to self-isolate in their homes.

The communal aspect of Hutterite life makes it hard to do that as a preventive measure, Wurz said.

“It’s almost impossible to isolate within the colony,” he said. “We are a group. We work together. We eat together. We worship together. The children play together. So how on earth would we isolate?”

Saskatchewan’s chief medical health officer, Dr. Saqib Shahab, said transmissions can occur at different types of settings and locations.

“We need to identify the settings and address them in that context but certainly not point fingers,” he said.

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