Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Internet no longer an un-Hutterite thing

Laptops, cellphones, iPods on colonies -- with restrictions

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NEAR HAMIOTA -- Every time reality TV series American Colony: Meet the Hutterites airs, even reruns, the hits on Mark Waldner's website (he views them on a Google Analytics line graph) spike like a high-steepled church on the flat prairie.

The National Geographic Channel show is a 10-part series that could be called Redneck Hutterites. The Hutterites in a colony in Montana curse and drink and party.

Many Hutterites from other colonies (there are about 500 colonies in North America) fear people will think all Hutterites are like that.

But the show piques the public's curiosity. Then people get on their computers and Google the word Hutterite, and up comes Waldner's at the top of the page. He's had up to 16,000 hits in a day, versus the norm of about 700 hits.

Hutterites on the Internet? Wasn't there a case just a few years ago where an Alberta Hutterite colony went to court because using their photos on driver's licences is against their beliefs?

Waldner is a teacher on Decker Colony northwest of Brandon and about 200 kilometres west of Winnipeg. He patiently explains there are three sects of Hutterites -- Schmiedeleut, Dariusleut and Lehrerleut -- each with differing levels of orthodoxy. The Lehrerleut are strictest about resisting technology. The Schmiedeleut, the dominant Manitoba sect, are considered the most progressive.

Waldner, 43, is a Schmiedeleut. He completed his Grade 12 and went to Brandon University, where he studied computers. He became a teacher at Decker Colony, and part of his course load is teaching computer programming and digital video production.

"Hutterites have a big concern with the Internet," Waldner acknowledged. While televisions are banned in virtually every Hutterite household in North America, the Internet is harder to keep out. But it also threatens their hermetic lifestyle.

Hutterites weren't always so isolated. Five centuries ago, there was more missionary work and outreach among Hutterites, Waldner said.

"Since 300 to 400 years ago, we've become more isolated and tried to keep the world out. The Internet brings the world in."

Waldner believes that history of outreach is one reason elders approved his website. He has actually run a crude website since 1996. Last April, he had it professionally designed by James Waldner of the Wingham Colony near Elm Creek. It is the premier Hutterite website in North America.

"It's an opportunity for Hutterites to explain to people why we do the things we do," Waldner said. "The message is that Hutterite people are just like you and me, except we live communally and share most of our goods in common."

In some Hutterite schools today, students have more access to computers than in public schools. At the Wingham Colony school, kindergarten-to-Grade 3 students use iPads (one for every two students). Grades 4 to 8 use Macbook Pros (one per student). Grades 9 to 12 each have a 24-inch iMac.

"Apple tends to be pricier, but I find it much more in tune to a creative environment," said principal James Waldner, no relation to Mark, but the one who designed his website.

Even so, some Hutterite colonies have no Internet at all, and some have Internet just for teachers. About 30 colonies in Manitoba have Internet, said Mark Waldner.

Colonies typically block everything on the Internet, then punch holes in the wall for certain sites. Decker has about 1,000 sites open. They are educational sites, including Wikipedia, sites related to business, such as agriculture, and news sites such as the Winnipeg Free Press, Los Angeles Times and New York Times.

The Internet is only available in school and places of business on Decker Colony. Facebook and YouTube are blocked in school to students, except with special permission. Neither do Decker Hutterites get Internet in their homes.

These rules change from colony to colony. For example, many at Wingham Colony now have Internet access in their homes.

"There's always that conflict about how open we can be and how closed we can be," Waldner said.

But young people will find a way to go online, often via cellphones, he said.

The reality is cellphones are surprisingly ubiquitous on Hutterite colonies. On the Decker Colony, for example, everyone gets a cellphone when they obtain their driver's licence. It's partly a safety measure for when people are off the colony and partly a tool for pursuits such as agriculture. Some of the cellphones don't have data capabilities, but many do. It's not uncommon for adults to have iPods.

So while Facebook may be blocked on colony computers, kids do log on when they're off the colony. Sometimes they borrow their father's iPod. That is, young people will encounter the cyber world in their lives somewhere, somehow. For that reason, said Waldner, "we need to teach the dangers of the Internet, but also its use as a tool."

"I don't think the things Hutterites are concerned about (with the Internet) are a lot different from non-Hutterites," he said. "It's a new thing, and no one really knows how it's going to turn out."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 22, 2012 A1


Updated on Saturday, December 22, 2012 at 10:03 AM CST: replaces photo

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