5thestateNo, really.

You shouldn’t have.

At first glance, I thought that the new CBC Fifth Estate piece on the “Mennonite Connection” was just a piece shamelessly capitalizing on CBC’s Pure, a low budget filler piece reflective of reduced CBC budgets, or a kinda sad example of a show needing to remind itself and others of earlier days when they actually did serious journalism.

But after rewatching it, thinking about it and reading some of the Mennonite responses on social media, I have come to the realization that the Fifth Estate did the piece as a gift to me.

That’s right. It’s all about me.

CBC was obviously concerned that, with Pure over, I would run out of material to mock on this blog and so it quickly threw together a piece that was ready-made for mockery. I was literally stunned watching it.  No one’s ever done something like that for me before. Really, I’m touched.

I know this might seem a tad egotistical. Hey, it took me a full restless night to get over my natural (and Menno-instilled) humility to finally and graciously accept the episode as the gift it was surely meant to be.

I should have guessed it right away when the promos came out with the pictures of the Amish buggies behind the voice over. I mean, obviously the Fifth Estate knows about the different kinds of Mennonites. In their 1992 piece, they seemed to clearly know they were talking about Old Colony Mennonites and not all Mennonites. There wasn’t even a bonnet to be seen in that earlier piece. Sure, they threw in a bit of hyperbole when they said that “pretty much all” Mennonites in Ontario and Manitoba had family ties to those in Mexico. That made me wince a bit, but I’m sure they didn’t mean it.

This piece, on the other hand, threw in so many bonnets and buggies, it might have been a St. Jacobs tourism advert. It didn’t out and out say that Old Order Mennonites were connected to the Old Colony drug smugglers, but it heavily implied it.So – just ‘cuz I feel like you’re begging for it – I’ll say it again: 500 years, folks. Five hundred years separates the Old Order and the Old Colony. That’s a lot of time to build two almost completely distinct cultures.

This Fifth Estate episode used the term Old Colony once but mostly just used the word Mennonite without any descriptor at all as if we’re all one big happy family of people that “time forgot.” Regular readers will know well enough that this “many pieces, one quilt” hogwash is only there to get us buying from each others’ stalls at a Relief Sale.That’s a laudable goal and it works for us. But it doesn’t make us one and the same or party to each others’ crimes. We might, of course, puff ourselves up in pride and celebration of each others’ successes as if we had something to do with them, but that’s another matter and entirely besides the point.

Serious journalism would have made the effort to sort out some of the differences and name the relevant group(s) appropriately. As it is, the over-the-top use of  picturesque shots of buggies trundling along country roads can only be understood as fodder for comedy. Thanks for that. I feel like I already covered this territory but I appreciate the effort.

My favorite part is probably the way Bob McKeown said the word Mmennonite. I’ve been practicing for a couple days and think I can almost get the sneer just right. I find it works best if you curl up your lip and think about something that smells foul as you say it. Linger a bit on the M and then spit the rest out like a Low German curse. I expect this will be a useful skill for future congregational meetings or if I am ever called upon to provide a Sunday School lesson.

And how about the distortion of Mennonite history and theology? So rarely has so much been done in so few words. Let’s start with us coming to Canada in the 19th century. My readers all know that the first Mennonites to come to North America came in the late seventeenth century, and the first to come to Canada came from Pennsylvania in 1786 shortly after the American War of Independence. And if they lived in cloistered agricultural communities at the time, it was little different from other white settlers.  Such Mennonites – the ones pictured under the voice over – only started to shun modern conveniences about a century after being in Canada.

But the ones who eventually moved to Mexico did come to Canada in the 19th century. This particular group came in the 1870s and they settled in Manitoba. Both documentaries explain the move to Mexico in the 1920s as resistance to the Canadian government’s demand that they teach their children in English schools. While Hana Gartner seemed to find that quaint, Bob McKeown sounded like he found it downright despicable. Neither bothered with the context that the Canadian government had promised in writing just 50 odd years earlier that the Mennonites would always have control over their education system. While many Mennonites – including my grandparents – stayed and negotiated with the government, the ones who fled to Mexico felt betrayed by a secular government that wouldn’t honour its promises. Imagine expecting a government to stick to its word – what a freakish people!

And then there’s theology. I wonder if Bob McKeown had a hard time keeping a straight face when he said  we all believe that “the more harsh and devout (our) lives, the more direct (our) route to Heaven will be.” Wow. That’s a doozy. It takes a pretty simple google search to find out the basic beliefs we all hold in common. It’s a little harder if you want to learn just about the beliefs of the Old Colony Mennonites, but they clearly didn’t care about that anyway.

Later on, Sam Quinones – a journalist from LA – showed his superior understanding of Christianity by declaring that Mennonites had “lost touch with the basic tenets of Christianity and the Bible.” Never mind that Christians have spent about 2000 years disputing these basic tenets and often coming to very different conclusions. In fact, different branches of the Mennonite faith still dispute them among ourselves. If only we’d known we could just ask Quinones, who has the definitive answer.

Speaking of Quinones, I gotta say that the choice of experts for this program was inspired. It would totally shatter the image of Mennonites as all drug-dealing isolationists if they actually had a Mennonite scholar speak on air and so, instead of consulting one of these, they cleverly found a former Mennonite playwright and a non-Mennonite journalist to serve as experts.   It’s not that they couldn’t afford to talk to scholars. While the dramatic TV series Pure might have had to pay for Mennonite experts, I’m pretty sure that scholars would have gone on camera for the Fifth Estate for free.  Though they might not have agreed to say Mmennonite with that perfect sneer.

They also might not have agreed with the fairly simplistic assessment that the  drug trade  occurring among Old Colony Mennonites was the direct result of a rule-based culture that denied youth “music, TV, sports and worldly education.” Though that’s a nice little morality tale: Mamas, don’t let your babies stray from the TV, lest they all become drug dealers. Experts might have suggested it’s a bit more complicated than that. And they might have used research that’s more recent than the 1990s. Just sayin.

They might also have talked about the role of the Mexican drug cartels in Chihuahua province more generally. The cartels are remarkably absent from the story presented here, appearing at the end like an afterthought. It was as if Abe Harms and his sons – and their loyal Old Colony Mennonite stooges – grew or manufactured, transported and sold the drugs all on their own. They are imagined to be as isolationist in evil as in good.

The advantage of a story about an isolationist group is that we can imagine that we don’t need to think of the group as part of broader structures and problems in our global society. It’s so neat and tidy. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could just say that our society’s problems with drugs and violence can be traced back to a little isolationist group that everyone used to think was good but that was actually “a lion in sheep’s clothes”? (I know the phrase is usually about wolves but for some reason Mennonites are more like lions than wolves. Don’t ask me why – ask R.J. Peters). That way, if we could just take care of this one group and get them to recognize that mainstream culture is simply better, all our problems would go away.

Like magic.

I’m not an Old Colony Mennonite and never was. I can’t say I ever expected I would write in their defense. So, I gotta hand it to you, CBC. Together with Pure, this was a really thoughtful gift. I’d barely talked about Mennonites in Mexico before January but you gave me material so much richer than I could have dreamed up myself. And you gave me an excuse to mix up cocktails reflecting that semi-arid Mennonite homeland.

So, yeah. Thanks, CBC. It’s good to know that you’ve got me covered. But really, you shouldn’t have. I can find other things to write about.


Today’s cocktail is a variation on the Margarita, Mexico’s most famous cocktail export. Margaretha is also a common enough name among Mennonite women of Low German heritage whether Old Colony or otherwise. Probably some of them are in Mexico. This variation includes blood orange juice to represent the alleged violence of those involved in drug smuggling and watermelon because of its special significance to the Old Colony Mennonites. And because I happened to still havemargaretha some in my freezer from last summer. If you don’t have any in your freezer, I expect the drink would also be tasty without the melon.

  • 2 oz tequila
  • 1 1/2 oz triple sec
  • 1/2 oz blood orange juice
  • 1/2 oz lime juice
  • frozen, cubed watermelon

First, rim your glass by dipping it in lime juice and then rolling it in salt. I used coarse, pink sea salt for this but the rimming did not result in as attractive a glass as I’d imagined. Nonetheless, it did give a sharp salt complement to the sweet and sour of the cocktail. Toss the glass in freezer to frost it. In the meantime, shake the tequila, triple sec and two juices with ice in cocktail shaker. Whip the glass out of the freezer and drop a couple of cubes of watermelon into the bottom. Strain the cocktail over the watermelon cubes and garnish with a bit of lime. Raise a toast to the Fifth Estate and lazy investigative reporting everywhere. Enjoy.