Teaching Japanese Children

Wilson Hunsberger grew up in Waterloo , Ontario attending Erb Street Mennonite Church. His first alternative service experience was in Montreal River , Ontrario in 1941 where he worked on what became the Trans Canada highway. In June 1942 He was transferred to Koksilah camp on Shawnigan Lake, BC . Here he collected a series of photos of his experiences which have been preserved at Mennonite Archives of Ontario, Conrad Grebel University College in Waterloo.

Because Hunsberger had taught school for one year before his alternative service he was chosen in the fall of 1943 to be the teacher for 6 Japanese children from 3 families in Nays, Ontario. The children and their families were taken out of Vancouver and sent to Chalk River, Ontario because they were seen as a threat to national security. The parents complained that their children were not receiving any education in Chalk River and thus were sent to Nays where they met up with Wilson Hunsberger.

Hunsberger taught grades 1-8 using the Ontario curriculum. The children were excellent students and some went on to careers as engineers. This had been a great experience for Hunsberger who maintained contact with the students for decades.

Teachers in Northern Manitoba

Only a handful of conscientious objectors served as teachers in northern Manitoba. Other teachers were either needed in their home communities or, in the early years of the war, stripped of their teaching permits.

The United Church, a large Canadian church, had established schools and churches in many Native areas. Because these areas were isolated – often in northern Canada far away from any city – working there required dedication. Often, United Church ministers in these small northern communities also taught school. When the Second World War started, many of the United Church ministers volunteered to serve in the army. Mennonite COs were among those recruited to take the place of these ministers.

  At times there was no school building and pupils need to be recruited.  Listen to Henry Gerbrandt tell of his experience.

George Groening was one the teachers asked to go up north.

“In summer 1944 I was given a choice to return to forestry work or go to teach on an Indian Reservation at Norway House. Seeing it as an opportunity to broaden my experience, I opted to teach at the Indian School. Nettie and I decided to get married so she could join me. We were married August 13, 1944 and two weeks later we were on our way to Norway House. I was to be the senior teacher and Nettie would assist with children at the residential school. Learning to know the Native people was a very good experience. I was deeply impressed by some of their elders. The schools, however, left much to be desired – no records of previous work and no supervisor or inspector to check up on our work. I often wished there would have been someone to ask how to do things.


“I was disappointed in how the organized church and the Department of Indian Affairs viewed the Native people. They were treated like possessions and seemingly had no say in what was done. I felt that the Native people should have had more say about their education and welfare system, as well as more control of the justice system. Taking young six to eight-year-olds out of their homes for a whole year was very painful, since these children felt extremely lonely.”

Groening's time in Norway House changed him forever.

“In retrospect, I gained a deep respect and love for our Native people. For this reason, I served as chairman of the Mennonite Pioneer Mission Board, later known as Native Ministries Board, for 12 years. We worked to improve teaching and health care, and at Pauingassi, helped build new homes for the entire settlement.” [ASP, 98]

Henry Gerbrandt also served in northern Manitoba. He agrees that the time spent in northern service had many positive effects.

“I believe it was [a good Christian witness]. Because of our work, in all we were twenty-seven young men in this northern service, the Mennonite Church began its northern mission work. Through it also we bridged many gaps to the United and the Catholic churches. As COs we worked with these groups. I visited the Catholic activities and they did mine. I still find that some of those connections have been good.”

Gerbrandt's CO stand was not popular. The overall effect may have been positive, but he had to endure some harassment along the way.  

“I had more trouble getting my permit to teach as a conscientious objector than I had getting that status [as a CO]. During my first year I had no restrictions. During the second year I paid Red Cross money, and the United Church, under whose umbrella I taught, was very suspicious. I possibly endured more persecution from co-ministers, teachers and doctors in the north than from official government people.


“They used strange tactics. It was always rumored that I had German connections. The Indians even believed a story that a German U-boat had come up the Nelson River to get instructions from me. I received a letter from the United Church Head Office that unless I discontinued my German activities they would have to release me. This puzzled me. Finally the source was discovered. A doctor, school principal, and a minister had spread the stories to get rid of us. When the United Church Head Office discovered the plot they forced these men to come and apologize and kill the rumours on threat of being dismissed.” [MHC, 1015-4]

Listen to Henry Gerbrandt tell of the accusations against him.

JReimer Fri, 03/04/2016 - 09:54

Teachers - Page 2

Teachers - Page 2

Teachers in Norther Manitoba

Jacob Toews' father-in-law encouraged him to do northern service. Toews had been in a work camp in Kapuskasing, Ontario, but he was destined for other things.

“One day I received a letter from Dad Neufeld which put me in some internal turmoil. He informed me that because of the war some of the United Church mission stations on Indian reservations in northern Manitoba were in need of missionary-teachers. The United Church office in Winnipeg, possibly through Dad's prompting, had reached an agreement with the authorities whereby these vacancies could be filled by Mennonite COs. He suggested that Anna and I take over such a position. The request posed a new turn of events. After prayerful consideration I consented. A new adventure loomed ahead.”

Toews left his alternative service work camp just before Easter. 

“After Easter we made plans and preparations for our move to Poplar River where we were to take up the position of missionary-teacher. Upon the recommendation of the Rev. Dr. Cormie of the United Church office the Department of Vital Statistics issued me a dispensational certificate to perform marriages and register births and deaths.”


“In the last week of June, Dad Neufeld, Anna and I boarded the “SS Keenora” in Selkirk and embarked on a new venture. The unknown always brings with it a feeling of apprehension, but we saw in our new avenue of service the leading hand of God and this gave us confidence. 

The SS Keenora was a large boat. It dropped them off at Berens River, a community on Lake Winnipeg. Toews' final destination was Poplar River, but it did not have proper docking facilities, so they would have to take a skiff for the final 80 km. J.J. Everett, a man from Berens River, piloted the skiff.

“The day after our arrival was a Sunday. J.J. showed me how to handle a canoe and outboard motor. We took a ride up the river to get the feel of the canoe, which was to be our main means of transportation during open water. Mr. Shanks [the previous missionary-teacher] showed us the church in which I was to hold divine services, and the school in which I was to teach Indian children the English language and good Canadian citizenship.”

Then, all too soon, J.J., Mr. Shanks, and Toews' father-in-law left, leaving Jacob and Anna to explore their new home.  

“We set about to put the house in order and make a home of it. There was also outside work to be done. I went into the bush and cut some dry trees for firewood; I dug up the garden plot and planted some seeds under the watchful eye of the dog, to whom we never really gave a proper name. Anna tried her hand at baking bread in the wood stove – with disastrous results. But then we had a good axe to crack it open. The dog found it quite palatable.”

Since Jacob and Anna were working as teaching missionaries and not bakers, this mistake didn't matter.

JReimer Fri, 03/04/2016 - 10:13

Teachers - Page 3

Teachers - Page 3

Jacob needed to be a minister, teacher, social worker, and doctor all rolled into one.

“My duties were to be four-fold. As missionary I was to conduct services in the church, baptize, marry and bury members of the congregation as the occasion demanded. Then I was to teach the Indian children according to a program of studies issued by the Department of Indian Affairs…. Next I had to hand out food rations to widows and other destitute people on the reserve…. Lastly, I was expected to tend to the minor medical needs of the people. Here I felt entirely inadequate. I tended to minor aches and pains, but refused to pull teeth. I realized that I should have gone to a sympathetic dentist and gotten a few points on basic procedures.”


“One day toward the end of June we heard a knock on the door, the first of many more to follow during the net year. I opened the door. There stood two Indian fellows. They said they had come from Black River to look after some things and to get some “medsin”, but it seemed to me they had come or had been sent out to see and size-up the new “Aneemawee Okeema” (praying boss). Anna and I had a friendly chat with them and I think they went away with reasonably favourable impressions.” 

Soon after that the fishing season ended and the residents returned to the community.

“Now that the people were back on the reserve again, we could begin our church services, one in the morning and one in the afternoon…. Charlie Franklin was the official organist (we called him the organ grinder), who was able to elicit the strangest chords and harmonies from the instrument. What he lacked in talent and musicianship he made up with open pride on his accomplishment. The hearty congregational singing was bilingual: Cree for the ones who knew no English, and English for those who knew no Cree…. What I had to say by way of prayer, announcement or sermon was translated by an interpreter…. After the service Anna and I had to shake everyone's hand. We came to love these people, who stoically accepted their many misfortunes and still found time to laugh. The winter proved to be the saddest and at times the most depressing in my experience. TB was rampant, infant mortality was high. Of the 9 babies born that year 7 died, as well as several adults – a large number for a band of about 120 people. Proper medical care was sadly lacking.


“In September I started to teach in the log schoolhouse. The school program was designed to acquaint the Indian children with the white man's culture, so that they might be assimilated into our culture – an utterly hopeless and impossible prospect.”

Toews performed a variety of tasks around the community. The happier occasions included performing marriage ceremonies.

“The first couple I married were a widow and a widower. They were married at a regular Sunday service. The bridegroom sat on the right side of the aisle and the bride on the left. I called them to come to the front of the church. The ceremony was conducted through an interpreter. After each one had muttered “aha” in answer to the questions of mutual commitment to each other, both went to their former places in the congregation. Then we continued with the church service.” 

After a time, Jacob and Anna decided that it was time for a change. They liked working in northern Manitoba and so, when they were offered a similar position to the one in Poplar River, they accepted. 

“Another piece of news came our way. The position of minister at the Berens River mission had become vacant and Dr. Cormie on the suggestion of Dad Neufeld asked us to take over the work at Berens River. Since Miss Jean Reid was the teacher in the Indian Day School there, I would just be in charge of the Mission. We readily agreed, for we had come to enjoy the life and work far from the “madding crowd”. There were several white families at Berens River.... Furthermore there was a R.C. [Roman Catholic] hospital there with a competent, efficient nurse in charge who looked after the medical needs of the people.”

Jacob soon fell into a routine at Berens River. He held two church services on Sundays, visited homes, registered marriages, births, and deaths, and made a bi-weekly trip to meet the SS Keenora collect mail. Jacob and Anna enjoyed their work there.

“The termination of our work up north was determined by several factors. The war had come to an end, and the United Church could now more easily have its own members take over the Mission stations. After a second stillbirth the doctor advised us to leave the north if we wanted to have a family, and this we wanted.” [ASM, 65-73] 

Looking back at his time in the north, Jacob writes that he came “under its particular spell and felt quite a home there.”

JReimer Fri, 03/04/2016 - 10:29