Jun. 14, 2002. 01:00 AM
Long history underlies spanking case
Court sees video on family's religious heritage
By Kate Harries
ST. THOMAS Descendents of Canadian Mennonites who fled to Mexico 80 years ago have faced immense hardships in their determination not to submit to state interference in their beliefs, a trial has heard.
A video documentary about the Mexican Mennonites was the first piece of evidence introduced by lawyer Valerie Wise, representing the mother in an Aylmer family embroiled in a high-profile child protection case. The purpose was giving background, she told Madam Justice Eleanor Schnall.
The mother later testified for 3 1/2 hours through a Low German interpreter.
Although the 1995 documentary Migration North was obtained from a local library, its contents are covered by a sweeping publication ban.
Schnall has ruled that evidence being heard in voir dire, or a trial within a trial, can't be reported. But yesterday she agreed, with stipulations, to lift the ban as regards to the video.
The couple, whose insistence on using corporal punishment to discipline their children led to a child supervision application, are former Mennonites, now with the fundamentalist Church of God Restoration.
The Mennonites are a Protestant group that began in Europe in the 16th century, named for the former Dutch priest who became a leader, Menno Simons. They emphasized personal adult choice in faith, rejecting the baptism of children into a state church.
Religious persecution drove many Mennonites east, first to Prussia, then to Russia, where they were promised religious freedom, their own private schools and exemption from military service, in keeping with their pacifist beliefs.
In the late 1800s, Russia reneged on its promises and many Mennonites moved to the U. S., while about 7,000 came to Manitoba. The federal government had offered elaborate guarantees of religious freedom.
But after World War I, they found themselves at odds with provincial governments in Manitoba and Saskatchewan that insisted their children attend public schools. Those who refused had to pay onerous fines, and when they could not, their property was seized.
Some 5,000 of them moved to Mexico in the 1920s in search of a place to practise their religion unmolested; it's now estimated that about 50,000 Mennonites live there.
But economic hardship, a shortage of land and a high birth rate have split them.
Traditionalists insist on a low level of education to ensure that young people remain on the land, and a ban on modern comforts such as rubber tires on farm vehicles. Many who want to modernize are ostracized, and those who leave are considered to have abandoned their faith. Some 27,000 now live in Canada.