I was born in Steinbach, Manitoba and spent more than fifty years there, in a variety of roles. I’ve also lived in Victoria and Winnipeg, and in Chilliwack from 2007-2016. We’ve lived in the Whiteshell for the last seven years. My forthcoming collection of short stories, “Pinching Zwieback: Made-up Stories From the Darp” is drawn in part from my lived experiences in Steinbach. I also share local legends, and (with permission) the experiences of others. It’s fiction but the writing has its underpinnings in memoir and history.
Since 1955, the nature of the town has changed. Or so I’m told. When I try to reconcile the Steinbach I knew so well with the Steinbach that seems to be emerging now, I feel confused and see many conflicting signals about the true nature of the place. It’s complicated.
Steinbach was a remarkably homogenous place of between 3,000 and about 10,000 residents during my tenure. It was—especially in my childhood—a community in which I had deep roots and numerous connections. I was known to or related to almost everyone in town. I have many memories, fond and less so, that give me a broad base from which to examine my hometown. The Steinbach of today is demographically different than that old two-traffic-light prairie outpost where a locked door was as rare as a clegywoman.
Recent articles and op-eds suggest that “this is not your Grandfather’s Steinbach” and yet, I am skeptical. Partly because of what my gut tells me and partly because there’s a certain PR ring to the tone. (I should know, having spent a few years on the Chamber of Commerce, pounding the table with my out-sized Loewen Windows fist.) Certainly, there is still a strong Mennonite presence in “the Stein,” but has that cohort given up its control and sway? Has Steinbach managed to keep the good and discard the bad and the outdated? Good question. The city’s well-deserved and continued reputation for its people’s generosity, its shifting demographics and growing diversity, and a seemingly more vocal progressive sector, even among Mennonites, appear to suggest that the place is changing in a positive fashion.
The fact is, Jan and I no longer live in Steinbach and although we have plenty of family and friends in town and we are “home” quite often (funerals and family gatherings) we can’t really offer a current opinion. I have vivid memories of my 50+ years as a Steinbacher, but, “What’s it REALLY like now?” I ask myself. My recent reading of the book “Shelterbelts” by Jonathan Dyck (Conundrum Press) asks many questions that don’t sound too different from the ones I pose in my book, even though my stories are set mostly in the 50s, 60s, and 70s while “Shelterbelts” is more contemporary.
As I said, “it’s complicated.”
How to determine what the town’s true identity is now? Here’s the list I came up with. It’s a kind of “follow the money” equation. I reason that by identifying who holds the real power in the community, I can find the clearest indicator of how, how much, since when, and why Steinbach has changed, and in what ways. Are “the quiet in the land” really quiet in Steinbach?
- Banking & Finance. Which Steinbachers (or outsiders?) run the show? Who holds the purse strings? Who owns what? Who’s in the corner office? What’s the make-up and demographic profile of the most powerful C-suite officers?
- Industry & Commerce. What sectors drive the local economy? Who are the players? What is their background? Who are the employers and who are the employees?
- Education. Who builds the schools? Who controls the curriculum? Who hires the teachers? Who are the teachers?
- Local and Provincial governance. Who are the politicians and what is their political base? From where do they draw finances needed to run in elections? Who influences their policies? What are their social connections, affiliations, and stated beliefs and values?
- Media. What are the major sources of local news and information? Who owns these outlets? What are their political affiliations? Who are the influencers?
- Clergy and Religion. What are the demographics of church membership? Which of the above categories are populated by which churches? Are there interlocking directorates? Does one church, or perhaps a few churches, dominate the gross membership? Who controls the levers of power or are the pivotal positions in the overall Steinbach power structure shared equally among the church-going populations? Are secular residents represented fairly in the power structure? Are imported theological movements usurping the influence once held by historically familiar churches? (Congregations like the Kleine Gemeinde so eloquently described by Steinbach ex-pat Ralph Friesen in his memoir, “Dad, God, and Me” (Friesen Press))
- Populism vs. Progressiveism. Is there a way to plot sensibility? What public activities, events, movements, clubs, social groups, and other tell-tales exist that we can use to gauge public opinion? What/who are the loudest voices? Are non-dominant or historically marginalized groups equally represented? (And is anyone tracking it?)
And LAST, what do the artists say? Any society that ignores its poets, does so at its peril. Artists tend to support the underdog, to speak out for equality, to express themselves in a manner that challenges—or properly acknowledges—power brokers. Sometimes with sharp observations, in other cases with subtlety that may be equally profound. What has changed since the art of past commentators put a pin on the graph at various times? How fundamentally different, for instance, are the fictional depictions of “The Shunning” (1980, Friesen), “A Year of Lesser” (1996, Bergen), “A Complicated Kindness” (2004, Toews), “Once Removed” (2020, Unger), and “Shelterbelts” (2022, Dyck)? What is the arc of Steinbach’s essence, in fiction?