Wendy Crocker calls herself an “edgewalker” on the border between two cultures.
As a principal in two Ontario elementary schools, she developed a passion for understanding the children from Old Colony Mennonite families. Now an assistant professor at the University of Western Ontario, her work with Old Colony students fuels her research interests.
Old Colony children face challenges in public school due to differences in cultural expectations, religious values and language barriers. Crocker’s mission is to increase cultural sensitivity toward them in Ontario schools.
“I would love a time when all Old Colony Mennonite families see public education as a place where they would be welcomed,” she said.
Old Colony Mennonites migrated from Ukraine to Canada in the 1870s. Many moved to Mexico in the 1920s to escape Canadian educational requirements, but the latter half of the 20th century saw families return to Canada — some on a seasonal basis, following the asparagus, strawberry and apple seasons, and others permanently.
There are about 50,000 Low German-speaking people in Ontario, according to Lily Hiebert Rempel, Low German program coordinator for Mennonite Central Committee Ontario. Of those, she estimates about one-fifth are Old Colony Mennonite.
“They’ve always been around, but they live apart,” Crocker said. “People don’t really know about them until they have an intersection — in a local business, or, in my case, a school.”
Though she grew up in southwestern Ontario, Crocker didn’t cross paths with any Old Colony Mennonites until she became a school administrator in 2001.
On the first day of school, she noticed two little girls and their brother hanging back as children exited the buses.
“The girls were dressed in beautiful homemade clothing. . . . The boy had a baseball cap, overalls and a plaid shirt,” she said. “They were speaking Low German, but I didn’t recognize that.”
Once she was excited to tell an eighth-grader named Sarah she would receive an award.
“I told her, ‘I have such an exciting surprise for you at your grade eight graduation.’ She said, ‘But, Miss, I won’t be at graduation, and I won’t be going to high school.’ ”
She began to realize the cultural differences went deeper than language or religious beliefs.
“I realized that as a principal, I wasn’t doing a good job with these students,” she said. “From that point, I kind of went on a crusade.”
Crocker became a Mennonite ally in the public school system. She met with other principals who had Old Colony children in their schools and networked with MCC. She took a research trip to the Mennonite settlement at Cuauhtémoc, Mexico, to immerse herself in Old Colony culture.
One of the biggest challenges is the lower literacy rate among Old Colony Mennonites.
Rempel said there is little written material in Low German, which is their first language.
“They learn High German in school and in church, but that’s not a living language for them,” she said. “Because they don’t have literacy in their everyday language, it makes it very complicated for them to learn to read and write another language.”
Within the past 15 years, the whole Bible has become available in Low German, and many Old Colony sermons are now in Low German, though historically they were in High German.
“The use of [the Low German Bible] is limited to whether the church leaders can read Low German or not,” Rempel said.
Not all Old Colony families send their children to public school. When they first began returning to Canada, they thought public education was a requirement, since that was a major factor that had influenced them to move to Mexico decades earlier. Later, provisions for alternative schools were made, and the Old Colony Mennonites began developing their own schools in 1989.
Close to 1,000 children in Ontario attend Old Colony schools, Rempel said.
“Parents are really afraid of having their children assimilated,” she said. “They tend to work very carefully that children don’t visit the homes of non-Low German children. It takes a fair amount of time for trust to develop between a Low German and non-Low German family.”
Rempel said enrollment in Old Colony schools has increased due to misunderstandings about what the public school health curriculum was teaching about sexuality and gender.
“School boards have tried to reach out to the Low Germans, and time will tell whether these children will continue to go to the private school,” she said.
A challenge to beliefs
More Old Colony students are earning high school diplomas through public school programs that work with the students’ domestic and family-business responsibilities.
“As a public school system, we want to be inclusive,” Crocker said. “Equity and diversity is a huge topic. There are things that are challenging to the spiritual beliefs of some of the more conservative Old Colony Mennonites who attend public schools.”
Crocker remembers a time when a fourth-grade child took home from the school library an illustrated book about farming.
“The next day, I had parents, a pastor and someone with more English saying the book had to be taken off the shelf because the last page showed the birth of a calf, and that was not something it should be showing,” she said.
She worked for a compromise to promote acceptable books for the Mennonite students.
“Being the edgewalker is about trust,” she said. “It takes a long time to build it, but it can be destroyed by one little crack in it.”
Old Colony families are at different levels of assimilation. Often, this correlates to how much time a family has spent in Canada versus Mexico, with those who split their time tending to retain their traditional dress.
“You’ll have parents who probably experienced traveling back and forth to Mexico, and now that they’ve chosen to come to Ontario, they decide to relax a bit on dress,” she said.
“They may still attend an Old Colony church or another church with Mennonite roots; they’ll still have their culture and speak Plautdietsch [Low German], but they may also send their children to public school.”
Sometimes, children from a family that has moved around a lot will have birth certificates from different countries and different levels of access to language support in public schools.
Crocker takes lessons in Low German and is planning another trip to Old Colony settlements in Latin America to promote greater accommodation of Old Colony students in public education.
A Roman Catholic, Crocker said she is “guided by my faith in the way I work with families and children and how I view the importance of education and how it should be available to everyone.”