Members of a Manitoba Mennonite sect whose children have been apprehended by Child and Family Services -- amid charges of physical abuse of children using cattle prods, whips and leather straps -- described the loss as a "huge void" that has left the small community in despair.
One elder who spoke to the Free Press on Friday isn't optimistic the children -- who number around 40, according to sources -- would return to the quaint, orthodox cluster of farms soon.
"We very much want them back," the man said. "It's a huge void. (But) I'm expecting a difficult case, long and drawn-out. It could be hard."
The man spoke from a buggy seat just outside his farmhouse. He gave the name of his horse, Beauty, but not his own. The community, which can't be named because of a publication ban, includes about a dozen families who follow Old Order Mennonite customs, which include no motorized vehicles, no electricity, no computers and limited use of the telephone.
Four adult community members face multiple counts of assault and assault with a weapon. Two men, described as one of the community leaders and his son, first appeared in court in March. At that time, it was alleged at least seven children, aged seven to 14 years, were assaulted.
'We very much want them back. It's a huge void. (But) I'm expecting a difficult case, long and drawn-out. It could be hard' -- member of community
With two other individuals charged, the number of children said to have been assaulted has reached 13.
Earlier reports quoted residents saying children were taken by CFS officials out of the crib. One was a Down syndrome baby, under the age of two, the man said, adding, "They are entrusted in our care. We still feel that responsibility for them."
The man would not acknowledge allegations that whips and prods were used on children. But he admitted leather straps were used. "We're a little more old-fashioned and disciplined and we crowded those boundaries," he said. "Some of it, I wouldn't call assault. I was speaking of discipline. It was for the betterment of our children."
Now, only one child remains in the community.
"There's an awful lot of grief about being separated from their children," offered Peter Rempel, the former executive director of Mennonite Central Committee Manitoba, who has been working as a liaison between the community and CFS administrators. "They're quite distraught. They love their children the same as any other parents love their children."
Rempel said CFS officials have attempted to place the children, who were home-schooled, in homes that "approximate their culture."
Royden Loewen, the chairman of Mennonite studies and a history professor at the University of Winnipeg, said Old Order Mennonites might reject much of modern culture -- most pay their own medical bills and run their own schools -- but they are not ignorant of the government they wish to avoid.
"They're knowledgeable of the Canadian state," said Loewen, who visited the community 18 months ago. "In fact, their whole life is based on negotiating how not to associate with the state."
Loewen claims while Old Order Mennonites believe using the metaphorical rod is "something they take as a moral imperative," the use of whips and prods is out of character.
"Obviously, something got out of hand here," he said. "They've gone over the line. Nobody in the wider horse-and-buggy community would tolerate the excess of force we hear about here. It's definitely not the norm. They're a loving, kind, gentle people, generally."
So what happened? Rempel believes the clashing of two cultures certainly plays a central role. For example, some residents were under the mistaken impression leather straps were still used in the public school system. The situation was exacerbated when parents were faced with "some severe internal problems within some of their families," Rempel added, using his words cautiously. "The problems they were dealing with were serious and real. They stuck to their practices in trying to deal with the problem internally... until they couldn't."
At that point, around six months ago, the community leaders approached the RCMP in an attempt to deal with what they believed to be the source of community strife. When police investigated, they became aware of the nature of punishment and laid charges. Later, CFS officials moved in to apprehend the children.
In effect, the cause for the parents' concern was trumped, in the judgment of the RCMP and CFS, by the methods they originally used to deal with the problem.
The community member interviewed by the Free Press insisted parents understand their actions were not acceptable.
"They have told me on numerous occasions, 'We get the message,' " Rempel added.
Parents have agreed to attend parenting courses and counselling sessions with Mennonite parenting counsellors approved by CFS.
But Rempel conceded the process will take time. "The message I'd like to get across is those of us who know the community are looking for restorative measures to get the community back together. That may take some time. There's an education process involved. CFS has to do their interviews and investigations. This story is far from over. I hope it has a happy ending."
The man on the buggy wasn't so sure.
"You wonder," he said. "I don't understand the rules."