Vaccine suspicion pushes conservative families in Canada to emigrate

Misinformation, mistrust make Latin American destinations more attractive

Photo: Steven Cornfield, Unsplash. Photo: Steven Cornfield, Unsplash.

Opposition to COVID-19 vaccinations is causing some Low German-speaking Mennonites in Manitoba to leave for places like Mexico, Paraguay and Bolivia.

The Winnipeg Free Press reported more than 100 Low German-speaking Mennonites from southern Manitoba have left the country in the last three months, with more likely to follow.

“They are trying to get out of Manitoba as fast as possible,” said Winkler immigration consultant Mary Friesen.

The moves have been prompted by government campaigns encouraging people to get vaccinated. Some are leaving because they worry proof of vaccination may be required to cross the border in the future.

The Low German-speaking Mennonites, also known as Kanadier Mennonites, have dual citizenship in Canada and countries in Central and South America, allowing them to move between places.

In Manitoba, they mainly live in the Winkler area southeast of Winnipeg, making up a quarter of the population of 25,000 people in the city and surrounding municipality of Stanley. Those areas have the province’s lowest vaccination rates. About 27% of ­Winkler residents are vaccinated; only 14% in Stanley.

Kanadier Mennonites vaccine opposition is based on historical mistrust of government but also misinformation circulating on social media, said Kennert Giesbrecht, editor of Die Mennonitische Post.

He said misinformation includes vaccine-borne government-control tracking chips, infertility, end times and the biblical “mark of the beast,” and that getting vaccinated will result in a mass die-off.

“There is so much false information out there,” he said, adding that they are also leaving because they feel this is just the first step in more government control. “The issue is splitting families apart, with non-vaccinated people breaking off contact with vaccinated people.”

The Post, which is aimed at Low German-speakers across North and South America, “tries to be a reliable source of information” about the pandemic for its 12,000 subscribers, Giesbrecht said.

This has resulted in canceled subscriptions, since “lots of people don’t consider my information accurate,” he said.

Giesbrecht warned in a recent editorial that discontent with the government rarely goes away when switching countries.

“Those who run away from problems and things they don’t like will probably bring most of them with them,” he wrote. “You can’t run away from problems, mainly because you are generally the biggest problem yourself. . . . Very often the ‘grass in another country’ is only greener because we don’t know so much about that country, because most things in life always look better and rosier from a distance.”

Giesbrecht knows COVID is real, based on increased obituaries.

“We usually have 500 to 600, but we had over 1,000 last year,” he said, noting most don’t mention COVID but say the cause of death was a lung infection.

The paper is on pace for a similar number of obituaries this year.

Giesbrecht has heard the virus is hitting colonies in Paraguay, Belize and Bolivia hard, such as one extended family in which eight adults died and another where a husband, two sons and an uncle all died in one week. Three of his own cousins in Paraguay died in May.

“My sense is the colonies are being hit hard,” he said. “People agree it is a serious illness but are not willing to get vaccinated or stop gathering or practice social distancing.”

Abe Janzen, a former executive director of MCC Alberta who is involved with Low German-speaking Mennonites in northern Alberta, has heard of some who are leaving that province, where resistance to vaccination is high.

“Some are getting vaccinated, but they won’t tell anyone” for fear of being ostracized, he said. “I hear wild stories about the vaccine.”

People he talks to say they won’t let the government tell them what to do, and they need to be separate from the world.

“They are also quite fatalistic about life,” he said, seeing death from COVID as part of God’s will.

Abe Harms, executive director of Mennonite Community Services in Aylmer, Ont., which serves Low German Mennonites in southwestern Ontario, promotes vaccinations and other ways of preventing illness from the virus.

“But they don’t believe us,” he said. “They are very opposed to the vaccine, and to restrictions.”

He has also heard of a few families leaving Ontario for Mexico, but nobody has told him directly it is due to vaccines.

As in southern Manitoba, vaccination rates in the Alymer area are low.

“We have the lowest uptake of anywhere in Ontario,” he said.

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