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Winkler, Man., has been a hotbed of protest against lockdowns and masks as its health region makes up a huge share of recent cases in Manitoba. But church and community leaders are taking steps to keep people together

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Men play ball hockey on a tennis court near the Meridian Exhibition Centre in Winkler, Man., on Nov. 15. The game is a regular after-church activity for the men on Sundays, and includes people 'on both sides of the divide' over vaccines, organizer Paul Enns says.Photography by Shannon VanRaes/The Globe and Mail

This fall, the Southern Manitoba city of Winkler has been in the news for all the wrong reasons. Like the time a local man allegedly tried to run a woman off the road with his car because he was mad that she was taking photos of people who were not wearing masks inside a local store. Or when statistics revealed that it was home to some of Canada’s lowest vaccination rates, as was the Rural Municipality of Stanley that surrounds Winkler: an ignoble 42 and 21 per cent, respectively.

Anti-lockdown protests have become a constant presence in the largely Mennonite city of 15,000, an hour and a half drive southwest of Winnipeg.

Stores and restaurants have become battlegrounds between weary employees and protesters. On a recent afternoon, a handful wandered the aisles at Winkler’s Superstore unmasked, in defiance of the provincial guidelines.

The tension feels particularly acute in restaurants. A half-dozen, including Del Rios, King’s Deli and Szutu Chinese Restaurant recently closed their dining rooms rather than showing preference for the vaccinated alone.

Homemade signs taped to the doors appeal for calm: “Proof of kindness required at counter,” and “Kindness mandatory.”

The community, and the ones that surround it, are sometimes dismissed as backwards, or worse, in some areas of the province. But locals say they feel this is an unfair characterization of their spirit.

Conservative and traditional strongholds, they say their values have nonetheless typically emphasized pulling together – and locals say this hasn’t changed, even with the present-day tensions.

One example is a group of Winklerites who meet after church every Sunday to play street hockey. The ball drops at 1 p.m. at an outdoor rink behind the Emerado Centennial School. The men play for as long as their legs hold up.

On a recent, chilly Sunday, the game ran just shy of four hours. Above, the sky was a blinding blue. Laughter echoed frequently off the boards. Swearing was gently discouraged.

The group has people “on both sides of the divide,” says organizer Paul Enns. “But in the end, we get along.” The focus is on hockey, says Mr. Enns. “That’s what really matters.”

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'In the end, we get along' at the hockey game, Mr. Enns says.

For all the ugly stories pouring out of Winkler lately, you don’t have to look hard to find folks like these – people who are reaching across the vaccination divide, trying to accommodate those they disagree with, and figure out how to make this community whole again. They know their vaccination rates – and those of several neighbouring towns in Southern Manitoba – make them provincial pariahs, but they say reasons are complicated and in many cases stem from deeply held religious beliefs.

For most of Canada, the pandemic and all the turmoil it caused will fade by spring says Val Hiebert, who teaches sociology at Providence College, a Christian university in Otterburne, on the opposite side of the Red River. “Not here. We will have 10 years of trying to recover from all the harm, the harshness, the judgment, the condemnation of the nation. There is brokenness here. That’s not going to go away for a very long time.”

It’s not just Winkler. The Southern Health Region of the province, which oversees just 15 per cent of Manitoba’s population, including Winkler, accounted for more than one-third of COVID-19 cases and two-thirds of deaths announced in Manitoba at the beginning of November. Test positivity rates in the region hit 14.5 per cent – three to five times what would be considered a controlled spread of the virus. (In the Winnipeg Health Region, the positivity rate sits at 2 per cent.)

All of this is creating an enormous headache for incoming premier Heather Stefanson, who didn’t exactly skate through her first weeks on the job.

Ms. Stefanson, the former health minister, is facing increasingly loud calls to lock down the south, the Progressive Conservative heartland, where average daily case counts are nearing their third-wave peak. Some joke about having a wall built at Winnipeg’s border to protect from the “plague rats” – social media’s favoured slight for southern Manitobans.

This type of scapegoating has only heightened tensions in the region, says Kyle Penner, associate pastor at Grace Mennonite Church in Steinbach. “I can understand it. I’m not unsympathetic to it. But we have to remember that we’re fighting a virus, not each other.”

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At Grace Mennonite Church, associate pastor Kyle Penner faced waves of online abuse when he took part in a provincial vaccination campaign. Facebook's algorithm showed his appeal to 'the least vaccinated, the most southern Manitoba, the most Mennonite, the most Christian, and the angriest about COVID,' he says.

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Old Mennonite surnames such as Friesen and Penner are ubiquitous among people (and some streets) in Winkler, Steinbach and other nearby towns. Some streets now also feature signs urging people to get along despite their differences over vaccines.

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Szutu Chinese Restaurant is one of the Winkler eateries that's closed its dining room rather than exclude unvaccinated people. Manitoba has required proof of full vaccination for indoor and patio dining since Sept. 3.

There is money here, and a culture of industriousness and success. The city, which produces everything from mobile homes to furniture to fibre optics, has been on a steady, near recession-proof tear since the 1960s. The fertile surrounding fields are major producers of wheat, corn, and canola.

Winkler has its own movie theatre and a brand-new bowling alley. But on Saturday nights, when the Flyers are playing at home, the Centennial Arena is still the community’s biggest draw. Watching junior hockey is part of the fabric of rural Manitoba life.

Teenagers in hoodies hold hands in the stands. Toddlers wander the lobby unattended. Between periods, older kids resume an endless game of mini-stick hockey. The community suffers, cheers, despairs and – as it did on a recent Saturday night – exults together here. That night, the Flyers pasted the Winnipeg Freeze, 7-2, jumping to third in the Manitoba Junior Hockey League rankings.

But attendance at the arena, which requires proof of vaccination for entry, was nowhere near the 800 typical of a Saturday night. There were 244 there that night, shy of the season high of 259. Just a handful of parents from Winnipeg had made the trip.

Next door, at the new, $22-million Meridian Exhibition Centre, both the indoor field house and the practice rink were empty.

Winkler’s long-time mayor, Martin Harder, says several sports teams are refusing to play in Winkler, and some parents from opposing teams are refusing to come to the city. COVID-19 has revealed “how destructive and vicious mankind can become,” says Mr. Harder, who founded local grain giant Delmar Commodities. The psychological “devastation” this is causing Winkler is “far greater than the virus itself,” he adds, looking wearied. His fourth term in office is up at the end of the year. Mr. Harder is unlikely to run again, he concedes with a sigh.

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New subdivisions are being built in Winkler to house growing population.

Winkler is not some fading Prairie town. It has doubled in size in the past decade and a half – and could soon overtake Steinbach as Manitoba’s third-largest city, aggressively recruiting immigrants from rural Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Germany to work in farming and manufacturing. Tens of thousands have also arrived from the Mennonite diaspora, particularly Mexico and South America. At this point, more than one in four residents are foreign-born.

People here are protecting a more conservative way of life, adds Ms. Hiebert, the sociology teacher.

“They’re already very used to not doing things the way everyone else does. That’s their basic orientation. It’s a well-practised muscle.”

But to fully understand why vaccine hesitancy has taken hold in Winkler and the surrounding communities, you must also consider its history, says Conrad Stoesz, chief archivist for the Canadian Mennonite University in Winnipeg.

These places began as faith-based havens, where the Canadian government promised Mennonites – who had endured centuries of persecution in Europe – that they could live and work and worship in peace, he explains.

Mr. Stoesz says that long history of persecution instilled a profound distrust for government that lingers to this day.

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A sign advertises 'borscht to go' in Steinbach, a town about 90 minutes from Winkler.

Time marched on, and Winkler has evolved. But faith is still the heart of civic life, though a different flavour of Christianity has taken root.

While most restaurants still offer summa borscht as a starter, and classrooms are filled with Friesens, Penners and Klassens, many in the region have traded Mennonism for evangelical churches. This has entrenched a libertarian culture more common to the United States, says Steinbach writer Andrew Unger. These churches have become some of the most powerful and political institutions around, he adds.

At Toppers, which serves a $14.99 “Mennonite Buffet” every Saturday, girls in dark headscarves work in the kitchen alongside teenagers in tight jeans.

Outside, women in long, modest skirts load minivans with enough seats for six or seven children.

King’s Deli, a hipster hangout with some of the best sandwiches in the area, was named to honour “a different kind of king.” A 10-foot portrait of Jesus hangs opposite the deli counter.

While vaccine restrictions might seem rational, to those that oppose them, “they function punitively,” says Ms. Hiebert, pointing out that it can seem as if children end up paying the price.

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The hockey arena in Grunthal, Man., is staying closed this winter.

Perhaps nowhere is this more true than in the hockey factory of Grunthal, just south of Steinbach. Vaccine pickup in the surrounding Rural Municipality of Hanover is 50 per cent, and 68.2 per cent for the Southern region, well below the provincial average of 83.9 per cent with two doses.

Every winter, Grunthal has fielded two hockey teams for every age division – a remarkable feat for a community of just 1,600. For decades, the town’s barn-shaped, wood-ceilinged, white arena – the “Home of the Red Wings” – has been the heart of the community.

But Red Wings registration plummeted by 70 per cent after the province announced that arenas would be vaccine-only facilities. As a result, the minor hockey association had to cancel the season for the first time since 1949. The 50-year-old rink has since announced that it cannot afford to open this winter, another first.

Heather Neufeld, whose 11-year-old son and 13-year-old daughter were slated to lace up for the Red Wings this winter, says the decision to call off the season broke her heart.

The rink is a kind of oasis, she says, a place to see your neighbours and escape from the grind of the long, northern winter. Her heart aches for her “hockey family,” the people she sees two or three times a week all winter long, she adds. She manages the Patio Grill, where locals often gather after games to warm up – temperatures inside the drafty rink can dip below minus-20 C.

Though she does not agree with the choice people make to decline the vaccine, Ms. Neufeld, who lost an in-law to COVID-19 last winter, says she does respect it. “These people aren’t being selfish. These decisions weren’t made on a whim. They are deeply held convictions.”

And she’s had it with all the name calling and the shaming: “We’re not hillbillies. We’re not ignorant. We’re not self-centred.”

If you remove the vaccine from the equation, Grunthal has been “ridiculously supportive of our businesses and of each other throughout the pandemic,” Ms. Neufeld says.

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Heather Neufeld, top, manages the Patio Grill in Grunthal. At bottom, her 11-year-old son Ryan and 13-year-old daughter Tendai play shinny with father Rick Neufeld.

During last year’s lockdown, Grunthalers dropped off cash and cheques at the restaurant to support a meal program aimed at spreading cheer during the pandemic. It allowed the Patio Grill to donate more than 600 meals, including a turkey dinner for staff at the local nursing home last Christmas.

Ms. Neufeld’s observation on Grunthal’s giving nature is supported by Statistics Canada data, which regularly rank Southern Manitoba among the most giving regions in the country.

The No. 1 reason people here cite for not getting vaccinated is fear – fear that the vaccine was developed too quickly, that long-term side effects are not known. Their decisions are also entangled in a complicated web of misinformation spread by social media.

But for many in the southeast, their hesitancy isn’t all that firm. Some say they took the leap after a conversation with their pharmacist or doctor. Others struggle to explain their reasoning.

Alex Fehr, 23, and his wife, who met while working at a Winkler mobile-home manufacturer after high school, worry there may be “hidden problems” with the vaccine. “I’ve got no definitive proof,” says Mr. Fehr, who was born in Cuauhtemoc, in Mexico’s Chihuahua province, which has a sizable Mennonite population. “So, I could be mistaken. But if you look at any history book, when has the government been trustworthy?” Just two members of his extended family have received the COVID-19 vaccine.

Mennonite communities such as Winkler, on the west side of the Red River, are known as “ditzied,” a Low German word for “this side.” Those on the other side, including Steinbach, are known as “yantzied,” or “that side.” People from both sides will tell you that those from “yantzied” are more conservative.

Mr. Penner, noting that 67 per cent in the city have got the jab, jokes that “finally, we have some data to settle it.”

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Steinbach has a reputation for conservatism among people from Winkler and elsewhere on the west side of the Red River.

In seriousness, he says he believes that part of the reason for the disparity could be that authority figures, including Steinbach’s mayor, members of legislature and members of the clergy are united behind the push. The same is not true on the west side of the Red.

Winkler-area MLA Josh Guenter has said he does not believe that vaccine mandates are “fair, moral, legal or right.” Alfred (Bitz) Loewen, a councillor for Stanley, briefly allowed a giant red needle emblazoned with the word “experimental” to be erected on property he owns. And well-known Winkler pastors are defying health orders.

On a recent Sunday, some 600 people packed the pews of the Pembina Valley Baptist Church in Winkler’s south end, communing, singing, occasionally coughing. Pickup trucks were double parked in the gravel lot outside.

There was no vaccine check at the door, nor any limits to the number in attendance. Nor was a single congregant wearing a mask. All of this contravenes Manitoba’s current COVID-19 regulations.

Taped to the church entrance was a print-out of the Criminal Code’s Section 76, the provision making it illegal to interrupt a church service.

Pastor Michael Sullivant, a native of Tennessee, who founded the church in 1988 says the Scriptures “mandate God’s people to meet together.”

Whenever he spoke, three elementary-school-aged brothers in matching blue collared shirts and navy pants took careful notes in their journals.

Mr. Sullivant told his congregants that they were only able to “worship unmolested” – by health inspectors and police – because “Jesus put a hedge about us.”

“Many days, I just give my head a shake,” says physician Eric Lane, who practises in the area. “My colleagues and I feel that our advice is no longer valued.” Dr. Lane says that some doctors are considering leaving Winkler because of it.

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Antique cars fill a commercial lot on the highway into Winkler.

Despite the idea that these communities have of themselves as co-operative, vaccine tensions, stoked by online misinformation, have driven a wedge between some. People here describe seeing their neighbours, co-workers and family members become zealots seemingly overnight, radicalized by propaganda spread through Facebook and WhatsApp. Mayor Harder had to beg two of his nieces to stop sending him COVID-19 misinformation. He had to block a cousin.

When Kyle Penner took part in a provincial vaccine campaign, Facebook’s algorithms, he says, directed his appeal to those who are “the least vaccinated, the most Southern Manitoba, the most Mennonite, the most Christian, and the angriest about COVID,” he says. He spent the next several weeks sifting through hate mail and abusive phone messages.

We need to learn how to get along again, how to disagree, says Richard Bage, pastor at South Park Mennonite Brethren in Altona, a community of 4,200 on the west side of the Red River. Vaccine uptake there is 54.6 per cent. Initially, Mr. Bage was vaccine hesitant. A conversation with his pharmacist changed his mind.

“It used to be we could have opposing views on any number of things, but at the end of the day, you knew that you were still my sister, still my friend – our relationship wasn’t in jeopardy. I still loved you. These days, it feels like, if you’re not going to get the vaccine, then I want nothing to do with you. We’ve been friends for 40 years, our children grew up together, but I am going to cut you out of my life. And vice versa.”

Mr. Bage urges parishioners to remember that people with different opinions about vaccination are still great parents and great friends. “They are still capable of love. They are still capable of remarkably unselfish acts.” He ended a recent sermon with an appeal for understanding: “If we here at our church cannot at least pray for the people in our church who are making us mad, whom we disagree with, then I don’t know why we’re here.”

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Author Andrew Unger, who runs a Mennonite satire website called The Daily Bonnet, convinced the Manitoba government to make stickers in Low German to start conversations about vaccinations.

Where preaching doesn’t work, Mr. Unger, author of the novel Once Removed, a gentle send-up of Mennonite Prairie life, is hoping that humour might: “Mennonites aren’t actually as stoic and serious as the stereotype suggests,” he says.

This summer, he persuaded the provincial government to print a run of vaccination stickers in Low German – “Etj sie jaegen COVID-19 Jeimpft” (”I’m vaccinated against COVID-19″). He hoped they might produce a smile or help start conversations in the community.

For the past several months, his popular Mennonite satire website, The Daily Bonnet, has been poking fun – and holes – at anti-vaccine reasoning, with headlines like: “Freedom Loving” Pastor Won’t Let Women Wear Pants” and “Steinbachers Excited to have “Shots at the Legion.”

Mr. Unger says he’s optimistic that minds may change: “People here get all worked up. And then a few years later, they don’t even remember what it was that they were concerned about.” Harmonizing while singing hymns was once considered sinful in Steinbach, he adds. The opening of the first liquor store in Winkler in 2013 was not without controversy. There was outrage when Steinbach held its first Pride parade in 2016. None of these things are controversial any more, he says.

Mr. Penner, whose blue eyes shut completely when he smiles deeply, something he does frequently, invites people to join him in getting vaccinated: “Because I think that’s where the life is found. I think that’s where human thriving is found. But I cannot hate, or give up on people who disagree with me.”

Every morning, Mr. Penner begins his day by praying for them. Then he recites the Prayer of St. Francis. “Where there is hatred, let me sow love,” it begins. “Grant that I may not so much seek to be understood as to understand, to be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive, it is in pardoning that we are pardoned.”

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'I cannot hate, or give up on people who disagree with me,' Kyle Penner says.

COVID-19 and vaccines: More reading

Vaccines for 5- to 11-year-olds: Pediatric Pfizer doses explained

Where do I go to book a vaccine appointment for myself or my kids? Latest rules by province

Vaccine tracker: How many COVID-19 doses have been administered?

Virus tracker: How many cases are there in Canada and worldwide?

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