The Hutterites are an extreme Anabaptist sect started by Jakob Hutter in Moravia, located in the present-day Czech Republic. Like other Anabaptist sects, Hutterites believe in baptizing adults rather than children, that daily life is linked to religious convictions, and that a communal lifestyle is ordained by God. According to Hutterite belief, the turmoil and problems that exist outside the Hutterite colony are caused by people’s rebelliousness and sins. As a result, Hutterites live a simple, agricultural life, avoiding such temptations as dancing, playing cards, and liquor.
In the Hutterite colony, the preacher commands the most respect. Under him are the men of the colony who make decisions democratically. In the social hierarchy, women are inferior to men, children are subordinate to their parents, and elders receive more respect than young people.
After fleeing religious persecution in the rest of Europe, the Hutterites came to Russia at the invitation of Catherine the Great. In 1872, the tsar took back the promise that the Hutterites could abstain from military service. To avoid persecution, the Hutterites came to the United States and settled in South Dakota. At this time, the Hutterites also broke into three groups.
When, in 1917, the United States entered World War I, every able-bodied man was expected to enlist in the army. Because of their pacifist beliefs, however, the Hutterites could not do this. Some of them were forcefully made to enlist while others were imprisoned. As many Hutterites as possible immigrated to Alberta.
Once in Alberta, the Hutterites continued to suffer persecution, especially at the hands of war veterans who considered them to be Germans because they spoke German. The three Hutterite groups formed individual colonies in Alberta. Hutterites often tended to have large families of in excess of nine children. As a result, between 1918 and 1922, fourteen new Hutterite colonies were established, many of them off-shoot daughter colonies.
During the Great Depression, Albertans began to look favourably upon the Hutterites whose hard work and austere lifestyle meant that they did not suffer as severely as many of their neighbours. Their time as accepted Albertans, however, did not last long. When, in 1939, Canada again went to war against Germany, Hutterites were the victims of serious persecution. They attracted attention to themselves by speaking German, refusing to fight, and living in concentrated colonies. As grain prices went up, the Hutterites began to buy more land around their colonies. Despite their contributions to the Red Cross and other war relief efforts, Hutterites were thought to be taking advantage of the war to increase their personal profits and were therefore the brunt of many Albertans’ resentment. As a result, the Land Sales Protection Act was passed in 1942, preventing Hutterites, Doukhobors, and other enemy aliens from buying land during the war.
Because it mentioned “enemy aliens”, the Land Sales Protection Act was considered unconstitutional and repealed in 1942. After the war, many people, with the exception of the Hutterites, began moving to urban centres. Albertans felt the rural areas would soon be controlled by Hutterites. As a result, in 1947, a new law, the Communal Property Act, was passed. It was the first provincial law to discriminate against a particular ethnic or religious group: under this act, Hutterite colonies could not be larger than they were in 1944 nor could they exceed 6,400 acres. Colonies also had to be forty miles apart.
Because of the high Hutterite birth rate, these land restrictions caused serious problems. Hutterites began forming colonies all over Alberta and, by the 1970s, there was a colony as far north as Peace River. Many of these new colonies were located in regions unsuited to grain farming, and the Hutterites began diversifying into cattle, hog, and honey farming. In 1959, the Communal Property Act was reassessed. The forty-mile restriction was removed and Hutterites could purchase more land on the agreement of the region. If Hutterites wanted to buy land, public hearings were held; unfortunately, however, these hearings ended up as places at which to vent anti-Hutterite sentiments. The Hutterites felt the law was unconstitutional and took it to the Supreme Court of Canada. Although the Supreme Court upheld the law as legal, it did agree that it was discriminatory. It was not until 1972, however, that the Communal Property Act was repealed.
In the 1940s, the Hutterites decided to allow the use of tractors, combines, trucks, and other farm equipment. They also began improving their houses with the addition of indoor plumbing, electricity, stoves, and refrigerators — improvements intended to make life easier.
Today, the Hutterites are being forced into more contact with the outside world. They depend on outside markets to sell their produce and use lawyers and chartered accountants to help them with their business transactions. Although some Hutterites leave the colony, many return after finding themselves unprepared and uneducated for life outside. As a result, most Hutterites are staying on the land and not following the general migration to the cities. Although they are required to send their children to a public school offering English instruction, Hutterites work hard to maintain their children’s traditional education. The public schools are located in the colony, and children have German instruction before and after their public school classes. Children are also strongly discouraged from mimicking the lifestyle of the public school teacher. The Hutterites’ distinctive clothing further helps cement their group identity and keep them isolated from others.
The Hutterites have contributed greatly to agriculture in Alberta. In 1971, they produced three percent of all farming revenue using two percent of the land. As of the 2001 census, Alberta’s Hutterite population of 13,715 was the largest of all Canadian provinces.
As part of the CKUA's “Heritage Trails” radio series, host Cheryl Croucher discusses the Hutterites’ immigration to North America. (Running Time: 2:57 minutes)