Community RelationsCommunity Relations
“When I returned on the bus from Rosthern after graduating,” writes David Janzen, “a couple of drunken soldiers sitting behind me raised questions as to why I was not in the army and threatened to hang me with the belt from my raincoat which they snatched from me. No attempt was really made to harm me. They were very obnoxious and uncouth.”
Anti-German and pro-war sentiment ruled Canada during the Second World War. Despite this, incidents such as Janzen describes were uncommon. The wider Canadian community may not have agreed with COs, but neither did they think that it was right to harass and persecute them.
Janzen continues his story. After the drunken soldiers stole something from a store when the bus was stopped, the driver refused to let them on board. The driver wasn't defending Janzen. He was defending the Canadian values such as honesty, decency, and integrity. Despite the incident on the bus, Janzen felt respected in his community. “My witness in the community was never under question,” he says. “[I] never heard of any one who said I should be in the army, or who objected to my being on the farm.” [MHC, 1015-32]
Although the Mennonites and other conscientious objectors suffered some persecution because of their beliefs, on the whole, the Canadian government and Canadian citizens treated COs very well. Most of the problems happened because of misunderstandings. There were few problems after people got to know the COs and realized that they were not cowards. It is a credit to Canadian citizens and to the COs that the two groups maintained such good relations throughout the war.
Gerhard Ens did his alternative service on a farm and in a hospital. His experience with the community was very positive. He writes that he has “nothing but praise” for other Canadian citizens.
My farm boss was very, very fair. He did not necessarily agree with my view but he was a decent human being. So were his wife and family. I was not made to feel in any way that I was not a Canadian citizen. Basically I was treated well. And the same goes for the hospital. The only negative input we got over the fact that we were COs happened one day when the nurses mentioned to us (we were single fellows and occasionally dated some of the nurses and some of the single female staff) that their head nurse, their matron, had reprimanded them for having anything to do with the “yellowbacks”, such as we were. But that was an isolated incident and incidentally was resolved in a marvelous way because later this very same lady asked us for a particular favour – us CO boys – and we cooperated as wholeheartedly as we could with her. This apparently, completely changed her mind about us. She was very friendly after that. I met her once after I was out of the CO work. She stopped me on the street and chatted with me, and asked me how things were. By and large, our treatment was excellent really. I have no complaints. [TTbP, 50-51]
David Schroeder also worked at a hospital. He agrees with Ens.
The Grey Nuns and especially Sister Dupres treated us very, very kindly. Workers were very hard to get in those days and most of the Mennonite boys knew how to work, so that they were more than pleased with what they were getting. [TTbP, 51]
Many times, people weren't even interested in the COs' beliefs, as long as they were good workers.
Community Relations - Page 2Community Relations - Page 2
Norman Levi Weber worked in a forestry camp in Ontario. There, unlike in the BC Forestry Service, the COs interacted with non-COs on the job.
“What was the reaction of our boss and the other lumberjacks to us? They had never heard of a Mennonite, let alone a CO. They were not very interested in our beliefs, but accepted us and in time we earned their respect. Mr. Krause [the camp boss] was more interested in work ethic. When we first came to camp, the timekeeper told us, 'Boys, you should know that this man usually has three gangs of men, one coming, one going and one working.' So we really wondered what lay ahead."
“Since each skidder worked by himself, Mr. Krause felt he should check up on our work habits. Several times I spotted him back in the timber, trying to hide behind a tree watching while you worked. I guess he was impressed by what he observed, because one evening, after several weeks at camp, he told us, 'You guys are the best crew I have ever had. Usually I have trouble with the bush gang not putting out.' Needless to say, this compliment made us feel good.” [ASP, 205]
The Victoria Times also praised the hard work of the COs. Near the end of the war, they noted that the
“Withdrawal of conscientious objectors from the B.C. forestry camps on Selective Service orders returning them to their farms, will cost the provincial forestry branch the most effective fire fighting service it has ever had.” [ASM, 287]
Even when people in the community did not agree with pacifism, the COs often won them over. People could seldom deny that the COs worked hard and did valuable service. A.J. Funk was working in BC when he and some friends met an unfriendly businessman.
“When we were looking at and discussing gifts in a gift shop with some soldiers one time, the proprietor asked us to leave, saying it was a disgrace to see us beside a person in uniform. After we told our superiors about the sad event, they apparently had a serious discussion with the gift shop proprietor, explaining to him that COs were improving the parks, repairing telephone lines, building and gravelling trails, supplying the mines with props, and cutting firewood for stores and fire places where needed. A few weeks later the proprietor apologized through the daily paper. This experience strengthened our faith and gave us new courage to help build our beloved country.” [ASM, 219-220]
There is no doubt that the COs worked hard, but that is not the real measure of their success. If we look at why the COs chose not to fight, it was often for spiritual reasons. No matter how many fires they fought or how many trees they planted, the witness of the COs would not have been successful if they had not been able to maintain harmonious relationships with the wider community.
One CO, assigned to Elmira, Ontario, to chop fuel wood, shares an experience of a remarkable transformation of community and military opinion.
“We were not immediately accepted in the area, but, after proving ourselves at a number of fires etc. we were even accepted by the military. I personally developed many friendships lasting to the present time, among the people living in the area. It seems we were respected, and quite frequently we had members of the armed forces spend their week-end leaves in our camp.” [MHC, 1015-3]
David Goerzen tells an even more powerful story.
“A neighbor, an ex-soldier of [World] War I who just lost a son on active duty happened by the day I had to leave [for the forestry camps]. After being told of my departure he said “It is good that some people stand up for their convictions.” I do not live within a Mennonite community. My neighbors have never held a grudge. Without exception my Christian convictions are respected to this day. No one has ever mocked or made fun of this stand I take toward my God. May God be gracious that I do not let Him down.” [MHC, 1015-47].
While COs were at times ridiculed for their stance, some of these services that grow out of the CO experience softened the attitudes of others. At the veterans memorial dedication in Winkler, Manitoba in 2011 Brian Minnaker shared his father's experience.
Dad was a D-Day Veteran… he had choice words for conscientious objectors. How could the God of justice possibly be with the likes of them? That was his opinion until some of his buddies began to have mental troubles… Who was it that went into institutions like that and found deplorable conditions [but COs]…. Dad would realize that yes God was truly with the group of people that gave up so much to improve the medical and psychiatric care in our country.
[ Speech by Brian Minnaker at the dedication of the City of Winkler Veterans Memorial Cenotaph, September 18, 2011]