Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Toews and a history of torture

A tale of two ministers

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If Public Safety Minister Vic Toews has reached a point where he is prepared to accept information gained through torture, he has forgotten his own history. Toews is the son of Mennonite immigrant parents, people who understood how morally corrosive and destructive such violence can be.

The directives to the RCMP, Canada's border services agency and the Canadian Security Intelligence Services appear to be setting safeguards against abuse of people who may be in the custody of other governments. Yet they also argue because "exceptional circumstances" may arise when information gained through torture may "mitigate a serious risk of loss of life, injury or substantial damage," the agencies "may need to share the most complete information in (their) possession." So, using information gained by torture may be acceptable.

I have two volumes of Mennonite Martyrs, a book produced by a great-uncle of Toews. In it, Aron A. Toews tells the stories of scores of Mennonites devoured by the Soviet apparatus during the 1920s and '30s. Terror was always the tool. These were ministers, teachers, farmers, industrialists and ordinary workers.

Accused of anti-Soviet, counter-revolutionary activities, they were exiled to northern Russia or Siberia, or summarily executed. They were the victims of state-sanctioned terror. Are we to become complicit with systems that do the same?

Despite what we now see as blatant injustice, the Soviets almost always found ways of placing a veneer of legitimacy upon the so-called "crimes" attributed to these people. They accumulated accusations, many of which came from pressure and torture on others within their communities. Usually they were false, though someone could be found to make them. It was done for the "well-being and protection" of the state.

From decades of reading within the Russian Mennonite story, I am quite aware of those who bent to torture and pressure and gave authorities information that condemned others. In one account, a young teen reported on his community -- already in exile -- with the result that it was broken up and sent into even worse conditions in which many, including some of the young man's own family, died.

Torture is, of course, intended to generate fear. And fear can make people say just about anything. There really can be no equivocation about torture: Once we find some reason to accept its results, we've lost any ethical basis to argue against its use. We've become like the torturers.

I'm reading the account of yet another Toews. His name was Aron P. Toews, a Mennonite minister of exceptional talent and public appeal in the years when the Soviets were consolidating their hold on Russia. During the 1921-22 famine that followed the Communist revolution, Toews took a leading role in food distribution in his part of Ukraine. In 1925, the Mennonite church of his region asked him to be its minister. Oddly, that same evening, the Bolshevik leadership invited him to be chairman of the regional government. He chose the role with the church.

Ultimately, it sealed his fate. Despite pressure, Toews worked tirelessly for the church. He advocated for young men who asked to do forestry service rather than enter the military. As a minister, he lost his right to vote and then such high taxes were placed on his property that he had to sell his house and cattle to pay them. People of the church took them in.

The years that followed were utterly bitter. He served a circle of churches that he mostly visited by walking, because he had no horse. The family built a small house with lumber salvaged from a hog barn.

He often interceded with authorities, under threat of being sent off to the "white death" (to exile and death in the north). In late November 1934, two men took him away. He never returned.

After a couple of days of interrogation, he was suddenly told he was free. It was a trick. He had confessed to nothing so he was taken to the door and then re-arrested.

He was tortured and threatened until he was nearly driven insane. When his daughter saw him some time later, his hair had turned snow white. He held her head in his hands and she says she wept -- his hands, those dear hands, were missing their finger nails.

Eventually, Toews was sent off into exile and there he died, though his family never discovered where. The last word came in a furtive note thrown from a prison train window in 1941 with the information he was with a group being sent off -- no one knew where.

Such treatment is the stock in trade of countries that employ torture. As a Christianity Today writer said in a 2006 article that argues why torture is "always wrong": It violates human dignity, it mistreats the vulnerable and violates justice, it trusts government power too much, it dehumanizes the torturer and it erodes the character of the government. How can we possibly yield to the use of any information from torture without selling our collective soul?

No argument should attempt to justify its use.


Harold Jantz lost five uncles to Soviet terror.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 1, 2012 A15

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