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Home, complicated home

There's no shortage of civic Pride in Steinbach, even among people who've been made to feel like outsiders

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 9/7/2016 (525 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

STEINBACH — The land is partly what drew Chris Plett back to Steinbach, back home, back to the family dairy farm and fields where green things grow.

So he keeps a market garden now, on the acreage he rents from his family 15 minutes outside of town.

It's pretty. On the east edge of the property, clouds paint sunset pictures over rustling grains. In the backyard, trees dapple shadows on the peeling shell of an old livestock barn.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 9/7/2016 (525 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

STEINBACH — The land is partly what drew Chris Plett back to Steinbach, back home, back to the family dairy farm and fields where green things grow.

So he keeps a market garden now, on the acreage he rents from his family 15 minutes outside of town.

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Chris Plett in his “sanctuary,” an old farm yard he rents from his parents while working on the family farm near Steinbach. He’ll be speaking at the Pride Parade and Rally in the community Saturday.</p></p>

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Chris Plett in his “sanctuary,” an old farm yard he rents from his parents while working on the family farm near Steinbach. He’ll be speaking at the Pride Parade and Rally in the community Saturday.

It's pretty. On the east edge of the property, clouds paint sunset pictures over rustling grains. In the backyard, trees dapple shadows on the peeling shell of an old livestock barn.

It could be a postcard, a nostalgic snapshot of life on a southern Manitoba farm. Everyone who visits from Winnipeg says the same thing when they see it: "Wow."

By the time Plett returned home four years ago, after years jaunting around the country as a flight attendant, most of his old Steinbach friends had moved away.

But his family was still there, and the wide-open space, and the music that spills out from homes of people and their faith.

For 36-year-old Plett, who lends his voice to the Mennonite Festival Chorus, that was important.

"As a singer, Steinbach is, like... there's no other place like it," Plett says, sipping sparkling water in his backyard.

"I have travelled, I have lived in so many different cities. Every single time, you're just like, 'Oh, why can't people sing in harmony properly?' And you know that you could be sitting in Steinbach and say, 'Hey, let's sing doxology 606,' and everybody breaks into four-part harmony. As a musician, Steinbach is like a mecca."

That song, Praise God From Whom, is as familiar in Steinbach as birdsong in the trees. After it was published as hymn no. 606 in the 1969 edition of The Mennonite Hymnal, the arrangement became so beloved that it was dubbed the Mennonite anthem.

When North American Mennonites move away from home, it is often that tune they say they miss the most; growing up in a religious family, Plett has known the 606 melody for as long as he can remember.

He believes in the God that it praises, the one from whom all blessings flow, though he doesn't go to church the way he did when he was younger.

It used to be a big part of his life; until he was 25, he helped run a music program at a Christian youth centre. He adored the job, but then organizers made him publicly renounce being gay.

Unsurprisingly, that fact about him didn't change, and that was the end of Plett's time in that church. He left Steinbach not long after.

Eleven years later, Plett is many things: singer, aviation enthusiast and avid gardener. He is also an openly gay man in Steinbach, and he is at peace with that as part — not the sum — of who he is.

"The fact that I work on a farm is more important to me than that," he says. "The fact that I still love my God is more important to me than that. Even the fact that I love forma wurst and schmauntfat gravy is more important to me, especially when it's barbecued."

That's what Plett wants to tell the crowd Saturday, when he speaks at the inaugural Steinbach Pride march. It's still a little surreal to him that it's happening; like nearly everyone the Free Press spoke to from the region, Plett mused that it was the last place he expected to see wearing rainbow colours.

"I never thought in my life that would happen," he says, shaking his head. "I could see St. Malo. I could see St. Pierre. But I never imagined Steinbach."

Why those places, and not the thriving city at the region's heart?

Simple, Plett says with a shrug: "They're not Mennonite."

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Downtown Steinbach along the Pride parade route</p>

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Downtown Steinbach along the Pride parade route

There is little that physically separates Steinbach and Winnipeg, just a 60-kilometre ribbon of highway that links the province's capital and its third-largest city.

Though Winnipeg can suffer from Perimeteritis — if a place is outside city limits and lacks a beach, it often doesn't register — Steinbach leveraged clever branding and entrepreneurial vigour to make itself an exception.

Jazmyn Barkman, 3, and her father, Darrell, outside the windmill at the Steinbach Pioneer Days at the Steinbach Mennonite Heritage Village, Sunday, August 4, 2013. (TREVOR HAGAN/WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

Jazmyn Barkman, 3, and her father, Darrell, outside the windmill at the Steinbach Pioneer Days at the Steinbach Mennonite Heritage Village, Sunday, August 4, 2013. (TREVOR HAGAN/WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

In time, the city convinced Winnipeggers that it's worth the trip to buy a car, to show their kids the windmill at the Mennonite Heritage Village, to scarf down farmer's sausage at MJ's Kafe.

To many of these visitors, Steinbach's visible roots read as quaint: the fact it boasts two dozen churches to tend to its 15,000 people, the way a highway billboard for Fairway Ford rubs shoulders with a sign in praise of Jesus — well, that's just how you know you're in the country now.

So if there is an understanding gap between the two cities' cultures, it is made by history and not by distance.

To understand what is happening in Steinbach now, this must be understood too: it started as a faith-based haven. For generations, Mennonites in Europe searched for space to breathe, where they could live and work and worship how they pleased. When the first Mennonite settlers founded Steinbach in 1874, Ottawa pledged the township for their "exclusive use" alone.

Time marched on, and a surging Steinbach evolved with it. The community, still deeply faithful, grew through the 20th century's sweeping changes.

Rigid gender hierarchy faded; divorce became more common. After 63 years as a dry community, the city began to loosen its restrictions on booze in 2003; its first Liquor Mart opened six years later.

Still, in 2011 about 30 per cent of voters opposed a referendum to allow alcohol sales in lounges.

Even as LGBTTQ* rights advanced nationwide, Steinbach was one of many faith-connected communities that wrestled with inclusion. Soon, youth in the community began pushing for their own space to breathe. It first peaked in 2013, when then-Steinbach Regional Secondary School student Evan Wiens made national headlines when he sought to start and promote the school's first gay-straight alliance.

MARC GALLANT / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES</p><p>Traditional fall harvesting processes are displayed at the Fall On The Farm event at the Mennonite Heritage Village in Steinbach. </p>

MARC GALLANT / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS FILES

Traditional fall harvesting processes are displayed at the Fall On The Farm event at the Mennonite Heritage Village in Steinbach.

This year, those tides of change swelled further.

In May, 17-year-old Mika Schellenberg earned a standing ovation at a Hanover School Division meeting, where she urged the board to allow teachers to openly discuss sexual orientation. Schellenberg, who is openly gay, brought many in the room to tears. When it was over, she was embraced by dozens of friends and supporters.

Underneath this movement, there is pain. Plett says he was beaten up and bullied as a teen. Wiens was harassed — on camera — while giving media interviews. The Free Press spoke to several former Steinbach residents who vividly remember that the only thing they heard about LGBTTQ* identities in school was hurled in the form of slurs. For different views, they turned to pop culture: Tori Amos records, Winnipeg punk rock shows.

For years, many kids who grew up feeling different — because they were gay or trans or just at odds with a community life centred on faith — quietly moved away. In the relative anonymity of bigger cities, some felt something akin to exhaling, leaving the expectations of a more traditional community behind.

"If you stay in Steinbach, you're going to have the same life you did growing up," says N.K., 38, who left when she was 18 and now identifies as lesbian.

"If you don't fit in, where are you going with that? I knew that I wasn't going to stay. I wasn't looking to get married, and have a house and live in Steinbach. I wanted to go to school. I wanted to get out of that town, and I wasn't going to go to the Christian university."

Now, many of those people are back home for Steinbach Pride. When the march kicks off at E.A Friesen Park (adjacent to the Jake Epp Library) Saturday morning at about 10:30, Steinbach participants will be joined by friends and allies from across Manitoba, as well as some who've travelled from as far away as Calgary and Florida.

BORIS MINKEVICH / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Michelle McHale</p>

BORIS MINKEVICH / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Michelle McHale

When she launched the event, organizer Michelle McHale hoped that maybe 200 people would show up; now, fanned by nationwide media coverage, it could be thousands.

Inside Steinbach, support isn't overtly public. A few larger institutions, such as Red River College and Scotiabank, have pledged support in keeping with their institutional values around LGBTTQ* inclusion. So has the Manitoba Teachers Society and other secular groups.

But within the community, buzz has been built mostly on social media and in individual connections.

It hasn't been without tension. The launch of Steinbach Pride drew the attention of Steinbachers and Manitoba's LGBTTQ* community, but it took Ted Falk's refusal to attend the event to draw the eyes of Canadians from coast to coast. The Tory MP's clumsy decliner gave the story the conflict that feeds news cycles and turned Steinbach into a national spectacle.

The flurry of reportage that followed left many in the community exhausted. From the outside, it was a simple clash between an anti-gay rights old way of life and an inclusive new one: stories were sharply critical, and not only of Falk. A Maclean's magazine headline was particularly unflattering: "Steinbach was famous for being Canada’s most charitable community," it said. "Now it’s becoming known for its hostile treatment of its LGBT citizens."

"Some of the stories I've read, it's sort of like, 'Let's go to Steinbach or Winkler or Ste. Anne, and find a bigot,'" says Chris Loewen, a 39-year-old Pride ally who grew up in Steinbach and now lives in Winnipeg.

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Chris Loewen</p>

RUTH BONNEVILLE / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Chris Loewen

"That's not a challenge. You can do that in Wolseley, if you press people on it. I think the difference comes in that there's more reluctance here (in Winnipeg) to say those things. It's more of a private matter. In some of the smaller communities, it's still viewed as OK."

No one the Free Press spoke with denies the struggles that LGBTTQ* people have faced in Steinbach. But to some current and former residents, that monochromatic picture is not a complete representation of the city they know. There's that gap of understanding that stretches longer than a highway; in Steinbach, the relationships between community members, diversity and faith are negotiated every day.

"A lot of these comments are really complicated by the fact that I was friends with some of these people's kids growing up," Loewen says. "It's quite easy to be venomous, or attack those people and define them merely on what they've been quoted as saying. Whereas there's a whole life there, and a whole network of relationships. I know these people are more dynamic and complex."

In June, satirical news site The Daily Bonnet ran a story entitled Winnipeg Media Seeks Steinbachers Willing To Make Sensationalistic Comments on Camera, skewering depictions of Steinbach as "much, much worse than it actually is."

That might resonate with Plett, who sees a side of the region that doesn't often make it into stories: he's not the only person he knows from the LGBTTQ* community who has chosen to move back home.

"When I saw so much negativity being thrown at Steinbach, I understood where some of the people were coming from," Plett says.

"But I was that worried people wouldn’t see that hey, it’s still a great town. There are great people that support us. The thing we have to watch out about is to assume that Steinbach is a gay-hating town. We don’t, no. Steinbach doesn’t do that."

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Downtown Steinbach, along the Pride parade route.</p>

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Downtown Steinbach, along the Pride parade route.

Steinbach is evolving. It always has been. The question is what shape that change will take.

In Winnipeg or Toronto or Vancouver, the evolution on LGBTTQ* rights was driven at a secular level. But in communities such as Steinbach, the road ahead may look different — not only because of religious discomfort around inclusion, Loewen pointed out, but because many LGBTTQ* people in the area share the same connections to faith and tradition.

"Forced change, imposed from the outside, can be effective at a superficial level, but it will never be deep change."-Steinbach resident and sociologist Dennis Hiebert

"Forced change, imposed from the outside, can be effective at a superficial level, but it will never be deep change," says Steinbach resident Dennis Hiebert, a sociologist at Providence University College.

"How can we engineer a long-term, deep change here is, I think, a far more important and sensitive and complicated question... I'm afraid that isn't happening. Steinbach isn't being given the chance to have an internal dialogue and discussion about this."

That's another thing that's harder to see from the highway: these internal discussions are happening. In the wake of 2013's painful debates over Manitoba's anti-bullying Bill 18, a group of about 14 Steinbach-area residents started talking about how to better support LGBTTQ* people in the region. They soon coalesced under the name Steinbach Neighbours for Community and began advancing the discussion.

Their first public effort was a play. Last October, they staged a production of Listening for Grace, about a churchgoing father who learns his son is gay. It was a smash hit: the evening performance at Steinbach Regional Secondary School sold out, so a matinee was added.

Eight months later, group members joined more than 200 people in a Steinbach park at a vigil for the victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando. That turnout, Neighbours spokeswoman Val Hiebert (no relation to Dennis, a colleague at Providence) points out, was larger, per capita, than vigils in bigger cities.

Now, her group is planning a new production, this one drawn from their own home. They are holding focus groups with LGBTTQ* residents and allies and listening to their stories this summer; their words will be translated faithfully for an onstage performance.

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS </p><P>"I hope people realize that we have to take baby steps in Steinbach," says Chris Plett.

PHIL HOSSACK / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

"I hope people realize that we have to take baby steps in Steinbach," says Chris Plett.

"I can’t describe how powerful it’s been to bring people together from the community, to hear their stories, to hear their hope, to hear the incredible amounts of grace they exercise in the middle of all of this," says Hiebert, who also teaches sociology.

"It’s been really beautiful... in the end, what matters to us is the relationships inside the community. The news media will come and will go, but we will stay, and we have to nurture the relationships inside our community."

So though it may not be the event that anyone predicted, perhaps the inaugural Steinbach Pride March for Equality will be another step in that process. As the event drew closer, Plett waited with mixed emotions: excitement, happiness, a little trepidation.

There is something else he noticed. Plett's own family has never supported his sexual orientation, though they remain close. But after news broke about Steinbach Pride, they started talking about it in ways they never had before.

"It’s baby steps," he says. "I hope people realize that we have to take baby steps in Steinbach. We can’t throw it all headlong and say we want to change right now, because it’s just not going to happen. We have to sort of meet each other at a halfway point.

"Yes, right now we have all these people from outside who are coming in to try to help us, and try to give us a voice, which is great," he adds. "That is exactly what we need. But I’m hoping that we’ll be able to build the community in Steinbach to a point where we have a strong voice ourselves."

 

melissa.martin@freepress.mb.ca

Read more by Melissa Martin .

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