Mother's testimony key to family's fate
Video exempt from judge's publication ban
ST. THOMAS, Ont. - The mother of seven children snatched from their home in the nearby town of Aylmer last summer took the witness stand yesterday here at the child-protection hearing that will determine her offspring's fate and in large measure her family's quality of life.
In what was at the time a highly public apprehension, as such an action is called in the social work profession, the youngsters were abruptly seized by the local children's aid society and temporarily placed in foster care.
The same society, Child and Family Services of St. Thomas and Elgin County, is now seeking to have the children formally declared in need of protection, with the young family left intact but only subject to a year-long supervision order that would see them closely monitored by society workers.
The parents, and the children through their own counsel, oppose the order and want to live normally, out from under the scrutiny of professionals.
Because of a sweeping publication ban imposed on the proceedings by Ontario Court Justice Eleanor Schnall, the hearing of this case whose every twist eight months ago was conducted in the glare of the limelight has been effectively rendered secret.
The judge last week extended the ban to preclude the media even reporting the demeanour of the parents, who have been in the courtroom every day, and who both will have testified by the end of the proceeding.
As a result, not only is the mother's testimony yesterday off-limits, but also so are descriptions of her reactions to reliving the events of the day, July 4, which so shook her world -- and the reactions of her slim, bearded husband, with his improbably long-lashed gaze, who was in court to hear it.
She went to the witness stand in the traditional Mennonite garb worn by the women of the fundamentalist Christian Church of God Restoration to which the family belongs, this day an ankle-length full skirt and matching vest of grey flannel, underneath the vest a high-collared, long-sleeved white blouse. Her pleasant face was bare of makeup, and her long hair gathered in a tight bun at the back of her head.
She gave her evidence in the low German dialect, a mix of Dutch, German and Russian-Prussian, which is the first language of many of the so-called ''Mexican Mennonites'' who, like this family, lived in Mennonite colonies in Mexico before emigrating back to Canada, where, in many cases, their grandparents were born.
An interpreter stood beside her, translating her words into English, and the questions from her own lawyer, Valerie Wise, into low German.
Before the mother began testifying, Ms. Wise played a short video for the court, which at the media's request the judge later exempted from her wide-ranging ban and allowed reporters to describe in part.
The film is called Migration North, Mennonites from Mexico, and explained the movement to Canada.
These Mennonites began arriving here from Russia, most to Manitoba, in 1874, after obtaining assurances they would be allowed to school their children privately. When, about the time of the First World War, there was a strong push to have the children assimiliated in public schools, virtually the entire group left for Mexico, settling there primarily in two colonies.
There are now an estimated 50,000 Mennonites living in that country, many clinging steadfastly to strict religious doctrine that prohibits them even using vehicles with rubber tires, has their children learning to write on archaic slates and memorizing the Bible in the classroom, and stubbornly using the low German language in a Spanish-speaking nation.
But, the video made clear, a growing number are also chaffing under the iron hand of the Old Colony church and feel themselves -- and more important, their sprawling families, for these Mennonites have one of the highest birth rates in the world, with the colonies' population doubling every 15 to 18 years and some elders with as many as 85 grandchildren -- doomed to lives of scratching poverty and stunted futures.
It is from the ranks of these hardy souls that Canada's Mexican Mennonites, including most of the 200 who joined the Church of God Restoration in Aylmer, hail.
And like traditional Mennonites, Church of God members have earned a local reputation as reliable hard workers happy for employment, such as toiling on tobacco farms and strawberry picking, which ordinary Canadians scorn.
The video features interviews with adult men in Mexico who have been either excommunicated or punished by the church for daring to drive a truck, or for something as benign as holding mid-week Bible study classes so their children could more fully learn about the life of Jesus Christ.
It is clear that while they are different from typical immigrants in that they arrive here as returning Canadian citizens, the Mexican Mennonites share the usual dreams of a better life for their youngsters, and that they reasonably quickly obtain it.
All of the adult men in the Church of God, for instance, have full-time jobs in Aylmer, most in local factories, and many already own their own homes. Children attend a bright and cheerful school adjacent to the modern one-level church on the outskirts of town, and where in Mexico, girls leave school at the age of 12 and boys two years later, here they are encouraged to complete Grade 12.
While the lives of Church of God congregants are cloistered compared to the mainstream -- television is not allowed, faith healing is preferred over modern medicine, corporal punishment on children endorsed, and values such as modesty revered -- their Canadian world nonetheless appears a bastion of liberty and progress.
By dint of language, custom and devotion, the Mexican Mennonites here are a separate enclave, but they do participate in the larger world.
One night this week, for instance, about 30 congregants showed up at the annual meeting of the children's aid society whose actions last summer caused so much turmoil.
In the wake of the seven children's seizure last summer, 55 church members bought annual $5 memberships in the society, which at the time would have given them a majority of the votes in the group, which then numbered about 90.
It is from the general membership that each year, four of the 12 seats on the society board of directors are chosen.
As in the past few days, church members began renewing their society memberships, the society, fearing an attempted takeover, mustered up a sheaf of new members of its own -- with society employees gently muscling parents and grandparents and friends into buying memberships.
As a result, the Wednesday night meeting at a local seniors' centre, usually sparsely attended and unremarkable, was packed to the rafters. But the Church of God members, arriving in twos and threes, were warmly greeted by society officials, took their seats in the hall, and sat quietly throughout the 90-minute meeting.
The guest speaker was Jeanette Lewis, the executive director of the Ontario Association of Children's Aid Societies, the umbrella group to which the St. Thomas and Elgin County organization belongs and which supported the unsuccessful bid last year by the Canadian Foundation for Children, Youth and the Law to have the Ontario Court of Appeal declare Section 43 of the Criminal Code of Canada, which allows parents to use reasonable force in disciplining chidlren, unconstitutional.
Ms. Lewis, bravely in the circumstances, spoke about what she called the nagging ''wicked questions of child welfare,'' those which address the intrusions of children's aid societies into the lives of families.
One of the lines she quoted was that ''taking a child into care is like starting a war -- it's easy to fire the first shot.''
As for the mother who found herself last summer on that very front line, if I cannot report her demeanour, I can at least report my own: I found her testimony moving, and it made me cry.
© Copyright 2002 National Post