- Manitoba Human Rights Commission Journalism Award (1994)
- Canadian Mining Institute News Award (1998)
- co-winner of the National Newspaper Award for coverage of Manitoba’s 1997 Flood of the Century
Thus, when I started planning for these Pen Pal Posts, I thought Bill would be an interesting person to interview, and he graciously agreed, when I asked him.
How long have you had your Winnipeg Free Press column? Have you ever written for other newspapers?
I’ve been the rural reporter for 14 years. It’s technically not a column as I don’t state opinions. I first wrote for the Manitoba Co-operator for eight years, where I learned about agriculture, although I also got a taste of farming when my dad had a hobby farm in the Interlake.
I learned something already; I always referred to you as a columnist. I know you’ve been the rural reporter for a while. Has your role changed since you first started with the Free Press?
Yes, my role initially was agriculture reporter, particularly the “wheat beat.” We don’t have such a thing anymore, but my agriculture background has always helped me immensely writing rural stories.
As a rural reporter, you must have written some Hutterite pieces. If so, which ones come to mind?
We tend to write stories about Hutterites that others would find surprising, like the use of technology, or like your blog! or something that seems progressive, although we probably have a bias about what’s progressive. I wrote about former Hutterite, Mary-Ann- Kirby, and her tremendous success as a writer, but also her positive take on colony life, even though she was an ex-member. That was different. I kind of avoided writing about the 9 dissidents in part because I didn’t think their book was so much of a book as a long magazine article, but also it’s been done before. That is obviously always an issue for colonies.
I wrote about teacher, Mark Waldner at the Decker Colony and how every student has a computer at their desk. I also wrote about the Green Acres Colony making fire trucks. That seemed pretty impressive to me for a colony of what, 150 people?
I found an extraordinary story about the family of Johnny Hofer at James Valley Colony, and their struggle with CPT-1 deficiency, a very rare metabolic disease that can cause repetitive comas, seizures and sudden death, and which has surfaced in Manitoba Hutterite colonies. I really appreciated the family sharing their story.
I mentioned Hutterites when I wrote about the Plymouth Brethren Christian Church in 2013 because people often compared them, because both separate themselves from the rest of society, although PBCC don’t live in colonies. I don’t think the comparison is fair. The PBCC are far more extreme. For example, members won’t eat in the same place as non-PBCC members, meaning they don’t eat in restaurants. Neither can their homes or place of building touch those of non-PBCC members, so they don’t stay in hotels, or apartments. When they travel, the billet with other PBCC families. And PBCC does a complete shunning that’s more severe—and cruel-- than anything I’ve ever heard of on a colony. They throw people out of their group and cause severe pain within families, splitting up families, for offenses that are more political in nature, like speaking out against something, than are sins. That threat, and creating incredible dependence among membership, is the threat is used to keep people in the group. They have about 700 rules, many of them ridiculous.
One other thing I will say about my encounters with Hutterites is how secure in themselves they are. At least, that’s how you seem to me. I’m always impressed by how sure of themselves Hutterites are, and I’ve discussed this with some members. I wouldn’t call it confidence so much as just comfortable with themselves. I don’t find Mennonite people, which is my background, as sure of themselves as Hutterite people.
I always have to chuckle when people find our use of technology surprising; it seems they think we're like the Amish, which of course is not the case. I remember reading the stories you mention, and I know both Mark and Johnny very well. Mary Ann Kirkby wrote a nice endorsement for Hutterite Diaries. I agree, most Hutterites are comfortable with themselves, but I would also venture to say, many are confident individuals as well. It must take a fair bit of research to maintain a 'column' like yours. How do you find the people/places you write about?
I started by doing it all by word of mouth but ran out of material in winter, so I had to start following rural newspapers, too. When I visit someone, I try to find out about them and their area. You can’t just ask someone, ‘What’s new?’ because they’ll tell you there isn’t anything new. But once you start to have a normal conversation, you hear a lot of interesting things about an area. I used to think of it as if I was a forester. I would go visit someone about a story, and felt like I’d felled a tree, but if they told me of other stories that I could come back and write, that was like replanting the tree I’d taken.
I love the simile of you seeing yourself as a forester. What do you most enjoy about your job as a writer? Do you have favourite columns or have met people who have left a lasting impression?
This is a very good question. Well, I like writing the most. I’ve always been a writer from the moment I learned how to spell words. Yes, most people have left some impression or other. Someone said to me recently that I was lucky in that I got to meet a lot of special people, and that’s very true. It sounds cliché to say “special people” but it’s more like in fiction writing in that you don’t really have to have won something, or obtained worldly success somehow, to be interesting and worth knowing. That’s often the premise in journalism, but then you try to get beneath it. That’s how I looked at it.
Your 'characters' are always real people, not figments of your imagination. That's part of what it is that makes them special, I would think, and they all have interesting stories, that most likely nobody would ever get to read if you wouldn't write them. Thank you for bringing these stories to us! As a reporter, have you ever had unexpected responses to some of the pieces you published?
Absolutely. One thing I learned is never write about family, or if you do, be prepared because someone will have a different take on what you saw. Family members have been mad at me from time to time, not seriously, but then they have reacted positively at other times. But I don’t make a habit of including family.
I understand you’ve written some books as well. Can you tell me about them? What motivated you to write them?
Every book I’ve written was someone else’s idea first. I’ve written four books for three different publishers, and each time I was approached by them. I like that because then I don’t have to go searching for a publisher, which can be hard, as you know, and I’m busy enough with my day job. I wrote “Crimes of the Century” in 2002, and a follow up, “Crime Stories,” in 2004. Both were historic true crime stories in Manitoba. More recently I had published a compilation of some of my Free Press stories, Made in Manitoba. I also wrote an environmental story, about the politics behind the Rafferty-Alameda Dam in Saskatchewan, that resulted in the first environmental law in Canada. It’s called Dams of Contention: The Rafferty-Alameda Story. I wanted it to be called Dam Stupid, but some people didn’t like that title.
For both my books, I didn't have to look for a publisher either, which I'm very grateful for. I know from talking with other authors, though, that looking for a publisher can be a very discouraging time. The fact that three different publishers approached you, speaks well of you as a writer. I'm intrigued by Made in Manitoba. Will have to see if I can find it. Would you ever consider publishing a book with your own story as a rural reporter?
Ha! Interesting question. No, it’s never crossed my mind, but it’s an interesting thought. I’m not sure what would drive a book like that. I know you wrote about your life as a Hutterite woman, but I don’t think insight into what I do is as unique or interesting. Probably Made in Manitoba is as far as I can go with that.
Thank you so much for agreeing to this interview, Bill. I wish you continued success and joy in bringing us fascinating stories.