Amish arrivals: Old ways are new again in quiet Manitoba town

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Months after the first Amish families in Manitoba started arriving in the town of Vita, the sight of their horse-drawn buggies rolling down the highway still draws crowds to the windows.

« People are always quite excited to see them, » said Eva Dyck, who owns Eva’s Restaurant along the town’s main highway. « I think it has brought people out from the surrounding areas to see if they can catch a glimpse of the buggies driving by. »

Last year, signs warning drivers about the black buggies started appearing along the roads, and local officials installed hitching posts in town for the Amish to tie up their horses. In April, a group of 11 families began arriving by charter bus from southern Ontario, which until recently had been the main home for Canada’s Amish population.

The Amish community in Vita, Man., a town of 500 people 120 km southeast of Winnipeg, is the first in Canada to settle west of Ontario, according to a professor who studies the issue and the new Amish transplants.

The Amish moved west in search of new farmland. In the same vein, other Amish communities have moved east in recent years into other parts of Canada, including P.E.I. and New Brunswick.

Much like Old Order Mennonites, the Amish live simply, eschewing modern conveniences that tie them to the wider world, and mostly relying on their own power and that of their animals for work and transportation.

The Amish in Vita put orange reflector triangles on the backs of their buggies to warn other drivers on the highways. (Cameron MacLean/CBC)

« We are overwhelmed almost in seeing that people in the 21st century here are making a livelihood the way our forefathers did in the 19th century. That is quite an eye opener, » said Edward Penner, a councillor for the rural municipality who helped the Amish settle in the area.

New farmers

The desire to become farmers, coupled with the high price of farm land in southern Ontario, motivated the move to Manitoba, said Edward Miller, one of the recently arrived Amish men.

The 30-year-old smiles and waves when a CBC reporter pulls into his driveway. He and his family have just returned from his brother-in-law’s house in their black buggy with an orange, reflective triangle on the back to warn other drivers there’s a slow-moving vehicle ahead.

As Miller unhitches his horse from the carriage, his wife and his six children go inside their two-storey home, which Miller and other community members built themselves.

Edward Miller lives with his wife and their six children in this house just outside of Vita, Man. (Cameron MacLean/CBC)

A herd of young cows stands in a fenced-in pasture, beside a tall, narrow building that serves as a henhouse and a place to store their water tank.

Miller wears dark blue coveralls and a straw hat over his curly red hair. A thin beard covers his face except for his upper lip, in the traditional Amish style.

Amish people don’t allow photos or recordings of themselves, because their faith considers pictures to be sources of pride, which is antithetical to their values of humility and simplicity. But Miller is happy to talk about what brought his family to Manitoba.

Back in his parent’s community near London, Ont., most of the families made a living making various products to sell, but Miller wanted a different life.

« We kind of thought it was good for the young people to work on a farm, because in a shop, the father isn’t at home as much with the children, » he said. « If the children want to be out there [in the fields] with Dad, that seems to work good. »

These young cows will be sold to dairy farmers in the area once they are fully grown. (Cameron MacLean/CBC)

The land Miller and the other Amish purchased has never been farmed, so they have spent the past summer weeding, clearing brush and pulling out boulders, all without the aid of machines.

Miller’s parents wanted his family to stay in Ontario, but he says land prices made purchasing a farm impossible.

« They weren’t really too happy. We didn’t really want to [move away], but there was no way we could farm back there. Any farm would cost you a million dollars. »

The families live on properties scattered over about 10 square kilometres. They started looking for property in the area about two years ago, when Penner said a group of Amish showed up on his doorstep.

Edward Penner, councillor for the rural municipality of Stuartburn, Man., helped the Amish settle in when they moved to the area. (Cameron MacLean/CBC)

Penner sold some of his own property to the Amish, and housed some of them while they explored other options. They have continued purchasing properties that come up for sale, in preparation for at least three more families expected to arrive in the spring of next year.

Before then, the families already here will have to survive their first winter on the Prairies. By placing their water tank in the loft above their chickens, Miller hopes their body heat combined with the force of gravity will keep their water from freezing.

« I don’t know what’s going to happen when it goes down to minus 40, » he said.

All heat in Miller’s home is provided by burning wood in a stove. (Cameron MacLean/CBC)

Emergency compromises

Without cars or telephones, the Amish rely on others to help them travel long distances or to make phone calls in an emergency.

In late October, Miller’s brother-in-law Tobias suffered a brain bleed and needed to be rushed to hospital. His wife ran to a neighbour’s house to call an ambulance, and he was taken to hospital in Steinbach and later Health Sciences Centre in Winnipeg for emergency surgery.

Tobias temporarily lost some of his cognitive functions and had difficulty recognizing family members and everyday objects, but slowly he’s bouncing back.

« That was pretty scary, but he’s coming along good, » Miller said.

When it comes to modern medicine, the Amish will use it when necessary to save someone’s life.

« Who’s going to define the line that it’s not in the religion to help someone? » said Chris Hershberger, Tobias’s brother.

Instead of covering medical expenses through the public health system, however, the Amish choose to pay for their care out of pocket. Other members of the Manitoba community, as well as people in communities in Ontario and the United States, pooled money together to pay Tobias’s hospital bill.

Miller uses this machine to spread manure over his fields. (Cameron MacLean/CBC)

Hershberger and his family live on a farm about half a kilometre away from Miller. Whereas Miller’s home is two storeys, Hershberger’s is a low single-story structure made from concrete blocks, with soil piled up around three sides for insulation.

A gas-powered generator sits just inside Hershberger’s front door. Although the Amish choose not to take power from the grid, they will generate their own if needed. The family has a fridge and freezer to preserve food when they are away from home — and to keep ice cream from melting, Hershberger says.

« My way of thinking is keeping it in the centre is the right path. One extreme is as bad as the other, » he said.

Horse-and-buggy people

According to the most recent census data from 2011, there are more than 3,300 Amish people in Canada. They began arriving in what was then Upper Canada in the 1820s.

They didn’t migrate beyond that until the last couple of years, when some groups established settlements in New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island.

A Mennonite horse and buggy travels on the side of the road near St. Jacobs, Ont., just north of Waterloo on March 31, 2012. (Adam Gagnon/Canadian Press)

The Amish are a denomination of Anabaptist Christians that broke away from the larger Mennonite church in 1693, and are largely indistinguishable from Old Order Mennonites in terms of their religious beliefs, said Royden Loewen, chair of Mennonite studies at the University of Winnipeg.

« The Amish tend to wear beards without moustaches and the Old Order Mennonites tend not to wear beards. The Amish meet in homes and barns for their church services whereas the Old Order horse-and-buggy Mennonites will have a church, simple church, meeting houses, » he said.

Although Old Order Mennonites are more common in Canada — there are about 9,000 in this country — Amish are more well known. When a group of Old Order Mennonites settled around Gladstone, Man., in 2006, many media reports mislabelled them as Amish.

This is because « the Amish outnumber the horse-and-buggy Mennonites in the United States very significantly, whereas in Canada, it’s the other way around, » Loewen said.

New neighbours

Inside Eva’s restaurant in Vita, three women sit chatting about the new neighbours.

« I’m not sure how everyone feels about them. I have no qualms with them. I like the sound of the clippy-clops coming down the street, » said Alice Brasseur.

Alice Rondeau recalled a scene from earlier in the summer when one of the Amish men tied his horse up outside the laundromat in town. Rondeau was sitting outside drinking coffee, when she noticed the flies starting to bite the horse.

« The horse reared up, broke his lead, he turned around and they’re so smart, he got onto the highway, he looked up and down, and went home and left the fellow here, » she said with a laugh.

A group of women sit discussing the new Amish community in Eva’s restaurant in Vita, Man. From left to right: Eva Dyck, Anne Brasseur, Iris Osadchuk, and Alice Rondeau. (Cameron MacLean)

Although the horse-drawn buggies have provided a new source of entertainment for the locals, their droppings on the town’s streets and highways have caused frustration for some.

« We’ve had a couple complaints about them, about the horse droppings on the road, » said Penner. « We approached the group and they are cleaning up inside the town. Out in the country they’re not, but in the towns or in the streets they clean up after themselves. That has calmed the town down. »

The women in Eva’s look forward to reaping the benefits of the hard work of the Amish when they sell their garden vegetables and baking at next summer’s farmers’ market.

« This way we won’t go to the store and buy it, we’ll go and buy it fresher, » said Iris Osadchuk.

Despite his uncertainty about what the winter will bring, Miller says there are good people in town willing to help out.

« Everybody that met us here in Vita, they were good as pie, » he said.

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A quiet lull, and then the shooting started again

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A scraping bow, as yet another body was added to the homicide heap.

It was only a matter of when, of course, with six weeks left in 2018. But the kill count had stalled for a while — four mercifully murder-free days passed between No. 89 and No. 90.

And some three full weeks without a homicide recorded before No. 89.

“I don’t know if that’s a sign we’re going to slow down,” acting Insp. Hank Idsinga, head of the homicide squad, told the Star Sunday night, confirming the murder, sounding more weary than hopeful. “But we’re on a 100-pace over the past 12 months.”

It had been a death watch over recent days, waiting for that shoe to drop.

A beating near Moss Park on Friday evening, the male victim apparently stabbed as well, but he’s hanging on in hospital, listed as critical.

Then, around 8:30 Sunday morning, discovery of a deceased male on Shuter St., in front of Haven Toronto, a drop-in centre for homeless men. An orange tarp had been laid over the corpse but there was little police activity in the area and it was soon made clear this wasn’t a homicide. Just another dead guy in the street and there have been plenty of those in this city.

Four hours later, emergency services responded to reports of gunshots at an apartment building near Lawrence Ave. E. and Kingston Rd. Paramedics found a male suffering from apparent gunshot wounds, pronounced dead at the scene. Officers found a clutch of shell casings inside.

Members of the Emergency Task Force drove up to the 13-storey building, lights flashing, at around 3 p.m., and entered with guns drawn. As of Sunday night, no charges had been laid and the victim had yet to be identified.

It never really signified much, except symbolically, that four-score-and-ten figure, overtaking the record set in 1991 when Toronto was in the grip of a gangland feud. The inevitability of rising to a new threshold of murder — inflated by 10 killed in April’s van rampage along north Yonge St. — has been part of the grim conversation for months, triggering memories of the Year of the Gun: 2005, when gun-related homicides soared to a record 53 out of 80 murders.

Half of this year’s murders have been shooting fatalities, clustered largely around defined urban neighbourhoods, the more worrying aspect — whether resulting in death or not — of multiple shots fired from multiple guns, sometimes in running gun battles; out in the open, daytime, nighttime. Brazen and utterly heedless of innocent bystanders.

Last Wednesday, as Det. Sgt. Mike Carbone told reporters, four guns had been fired, an unknown number of shooters blasting away at each other — between 10 and 20 rounds — on a quiet street near Weston Rd. and Hwy. 401, a pocket of the city not known for violence. A fifth gun was found beside the slain victim, 22-year-old Yohannes Brhanu, in the driver’s seat of his car.

“That was an example of the proliferation of firearms,” said Idsinga. “More guns, more shootings. That’s what we saw in 2005. It’s not just one person in a group who might pull out a gun; it’s several people and they’re shooting at each other. That’s how innocent people get killed.

“It’s scary.”

What that says about Toronto, in 2018, would be speculation and probably not fair, based on emotion more than statistics, as dismaying as those may be.

Police are leery of conjecturing about patterns or trends or motivation, although gang activity and drug turf seem common denominators.

“I don’t want to mark it down as gang-related because that would be giving these guys too much credit,” said Idsinga. “What I’d say is a group of individuals potentially from a common area, neighbourhoods where they’ve grown up and become engaged in criminal activity, and then rival groups going after each other leading to more shootings getting back at each other. It spirals.”

The resulting mayhem is predictable, blood splashed across the city. Idsinga points out, however, that the solve rate, for this year at least, has been relatively high at about 70 per cent, if fluctuating. “I wouldn’t say these gun murders are getting easier to solve but we’re getting a lot more feedback from the public. Homicides are very labour-intensive but the technology is better now. There’s a lesser reliance on eyewitness evidence, more little pieces of the puzzle we can fit together.”

There’s not a great deal of solace to be taken from the fact, often raised by the mayor and policing officials, that Toronto remains a tremendously safe metropolis, compared to American cities of the same size. “It’s a large city and really, on a per capita basis, (90) is not really an outrageous number,” said Idsinga. “Still, we shouldn’t have 90 people killed on the streets of Toronto. Even 10 homicides is unacceptable as far as I’m concerned.”

The homicide surge can be placed on a graph tracked from September 2017. “The pace picked up last September and it’s never gone down,” said Idsinga.

Equally alarming is the number of shootings: 362, as the sun rose Sunday.

It feels closer to home, even when it isn’t. It feels overwhelming, a danger that lurks down every street, in playgrounds, at dense housing complexes, in malls, around schools, in lively entertainment districts, in the quiet of the night or in broad daylight.

“People are fed up,” agrees Idsinga. “Frustrated and a little bit scared.”

Except you can’t live your life that way, seized by dread, too fearful to walk around at night, barricaded behind triple-locked doors, eyes down.

That’s not who we are.

That isn’t Toronto, even on its darkest of days.

Rosie DiManno is a columnist based in Toronto covering sports and current affairs. Follow her on Twitter: @rdimanno

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Quiet heroes inspire change through a personal tragedy

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If we didn’t use the word “extraordinary” at every turn, it would be a perfect word to describe the actions of both Anita Cenerini and Audrey Parker.

Cenerini, 56, of Winnipeg, lost her soldier son to suicide in 2004. Parker, 57, from Halifax, lost her life to metastatic breast cancer in a widely publicized medically assisted death last week.

Anita Cenerini and Audrey Parker, in acting bravely and publicly, have changed the national conversation around a pivotal and painful social issue, writes Judith Timson.
Anita Cenerini and Audrey Parker, in acting bravely and publicly, have changed the national conversation around a pivotal and painful social issue, writes Judith Timson.  (The Canadian Press file photos)

It’s doubtful either woman would have made it into our public consciousness if it weren’t for these personal tragedies that befell them.

Yet it wasn’t simply their tragedies that made them newsworthy. It’s how, as ordinary citizens, they reacted to them.

Each of them, in acting bravely and publicly, have changed the national conversation around a pivotal and painful social issue. How many of us can claim that kind of impact?

For one year, Cenerini will represent all mothers who have lost a son or daughter to military service. What makes her honour significant is that she will be the first mother of a soldier who died by suicide to hold the title.

Her son, Private Thomas Welch trained as an infantryman, served in Afghanistan in 2003, and less than three months after returning to Canada, hanged himself at the army base at Petawawa, Ontario. Thomas was 22 when he died.

Cenerini, after researching symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) fought for years to have her son’s death reclassified as a military death. It finally was reclassified in 2017. An investigation in the Globe and Mail revealed he was the first soldier to die by suicide after serving in Afghanistan.

Private Thomas Welch was an infantryman and member of the 3rd Battalion based in Petawawa, Ont., who committed suicide less than three months after returning from Afghanistan. His mother, Anita Cenerini, will place a wreath at the National War Memorial in Ottawa on Remembrance Day, November 11.
Private Thomas Welch was an infantryman and member of the 3rd Battalion based in Petawawa, Ont., who committed suicide less than three months after returning from Afghanistan. His mother, Anita Cenerini, will place a wreath at the National War Memorial in Ottawa on Remembrance Day, November 11.  (THE CANADIAN PRESS/The Royal Canadian Legion Dominion Command)

Cenerini made public painful details of the changes in her son’s mood and demeanour after his tour of duty. Once quiet and cheerful on the job, Welch became agitated, angry and withdrawn after his stint in Afghanistan. He was never diagnosed or treated.

After being named Silver Cross Mother, Cenerini issued a statement: “The emotional, psychological and spiritual injuries our soldiers endure in service to their country may be injuries we have difficulty understanding or accepting … but we can no longer allow fear and ignorance to deny these soldiers the honour they deserve in their deaths, and the dignity and respect for the families left to mourn.”

You can bet she will use her year long position to reinforce that point. Bravo to the Legion for giving her the opportunity to do so.

In Halifax, on the same day Cenerini was announced as a Silver Cross Mother, Audrey Parker, 57, was getting ready to die.

She had been diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer in 2016, which had now spread to her bones and she had already been approved for a medically assisted death.

There was just one problem. Parker would have liked to hang on at least until Christmas but she was worried that because the cancer had begun to invade the lining of her brain, she might not at a future point be able to give the legally required late stage consent.

And so she went public with her decision to end her life before she was quite ready to do so, hoping it would spur the policy-makers to change the requirement for late stage consent in her category.

Like many others who saw her being interviewed, I was struck by how cheerful and even glowing Parker looked. It unnerved me. This woman can’t be ready to die, I thought.

Yet die she did, surrounded by loved ones and leaving a poignant Facebook post saying “I died a beautiful death.”

She also made the point that if it weren’t for a rigorous legal stipulation that she, who had a right to live and die as she wished, had to give that final late stage consent right before a lethal injection (in place no doubt to protect the vulnerable) she’d still be with us, no doubt wearing her cluster of bracelets and paying fastidious attention to all the details that made her who she was.

I loved her self written obituary, talking about her childhood, her education, her love of dancing (she was an “underage disco queen”) and chronicling her years as a businesswoman and fundraiser who never dreamed that with her dire medical diagnosis she would turn into an advocate for changes in the laws around medical assistance in dying.

Dying With Dignity Canada will submit “Audrey’s Law” to the federal government, asking for an amendment that will abolish late stage consent for those like Parker already approved for a medically assisted death.

This Friday Audrey Parker will be celebrated at a memorial service in Halifax. Before she died, she invited everyone to come, and even better, petition their member of parliament for changes to the law.

Two days later, Silver Cross Mother Anita Cenerini will lay her wreath in Ottawa and be honoured at a luncheon.

In an era in which politicians suck up so much oxygen loudly proclaiming to be doing what they’re doing — good, bad or unspeakable — on behalf of “ordinary people”, it’s worth saluting these two women. For their quiet heroism, and their grace and persistence in using their personal tragedies as an opportunity to change lives.

Not so ordinary after all.

Judith Timson is a Toronto-based writer and a freelance contributing columnist for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @judithtimson

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