Sunday, January 22, 2017

For Some Canadian Mennonites, New CBC Show is Anything but Pure

For two Mennonite historians, the new CBC drama about a drug-running Mennonite colony is anything but Pure.
For those unfamiliar with the show, Pure is the fictitious story of Noah Funk, a newly-elected Mennonite pastor who wants to rid his community of drug traffickers led by “Menno mob" leader Eli Voss.
Filmed in Nova Scotia, the show is loosely based on the real-life experiences of a few Old Colony Mennonites who were caught smuggling drugs from Mexico to Canada.
As a viewer, Royden Loewen, Chair in Mennonite Studies at the University of Winnipeg says he was “mildly entertained” by the show. 
But “as a Canadian who loves this culturally diverse country I was troubled and dismayed,” he adds.
Loewen, who has written extensively about both the Old Order ‘horse and buggy’ Mennonites of southern Ontario and the Low German Mennonite migrants from Mexico, says Pure is “based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the horse-and-buggy community in southern Ontario, and creates an error-ridden depiction of a vulnerable and highly visible religious minority group.”
To him, the show also “seems sloppily researched and produces a caricature of what it purports to be a real community.”
Among the things the show gets wrong, he says, are the accent, the names, the theology, the buggies they use, the church architecture, “and the very notion of the existence of a ‘colony.’” 
The show also “conflates a story” about a drug smuggling ring within a Low German-speaking Old Colony Mexican Mennonite immigrant community with the horse and buggy Old Order Mennonites of Ontario, he adds.
Sam Steiner, former librarian and archivist at Conrad Grebel College in Waterloo, Ont., feels the same way. 
Like Loewen, he also says the actors get the accent wrong. (Which isn’t surprising, since Ryan Robbins, who plays Noah Funk in the show, said one of the ways he picked the accent he uses in the show was by listening to what he called “Anabaptist” women, who were “presumably” Mennonites, in a market in Nova Scotia.)
Steiner also notes that no Low German Mennonites in Canada use horses and buggies, nor do they wear straw hats—that’s what the Amish wear.
There are other problems, he says, such as the way the fictitious colony members choose their preacher; the role of women in worship services; and even the title of the preacher himself. It is always “minister,” not “pastor”—the title used in the show—Steiner says.
Both feel that the CBC has let down Mennonites in Canada, and Canadians in general, by making the show.
“It would seem that CBC, for reasons of entertainment, has contravened its mandate to bring understanding and respect to vulnerable groups within the Canadian multicultural mosaic,” says Loewen.
The broadcaster, he adds, is failing in its “responsibility to enhance respect and understanding among Canada’s diverse ethnic and religious groups.”
Canadians, he says, “expect much more from our national publicly owned media.”
Steiner agrees. He wishes the CBC had not “implicated part of the Mennonite community they knew had nothing to do with the ‘true story’ they based it on. I suspect it was deliberate, not sloppy research.”
While thinking about Pure, I was reminded of another CBC show about a religious group: Little Mosque on the Prairie.
That show, about Muslims living in the fictional town of Mercy, Saskatchewan, ran from 2007-12. 
As with Pure, it also got things wrong. But the spirit of the show was light and generous, and Canadian Muslims generally felt positive about how it depicted them. 

“At first there were some reservations, but younger Muslims like it right away while elders took some time to warm up to it,” says Shahina Siddiqui, a Muslim community leader in Winnipeg.

What she liked about the show is that it “normalized the Canadian Muslim community in all its diversity and dimensions. It encouraged conversations.”

Pure is encouraging conversations, too, at least in the Mennonite community. But it doesn’t sound like they are all that positive—or complimentary towards the CBC.

Click here to read a Q & A with Dan Dyck of Mennonite Church Canada about his response to Pure.

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