Uncertainty with the Government

Uncertainty with the Government

In the First World War, the issue of conscription had divided Canada. Conscription meant that men of a certain age were sent to war whether they wanted to go or not. The government did this because it needed more men for the army. French Canadians, however, did not like this. Canada had entered the war to support England, and French Canadians wondered why they had to fight for an English cause.

article paper clipping
Prime Minister King's speech as recorded in Parliament's official transcript called Hansard. MHC 1321 file 928.

As the Second World War approached, Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King knew that this would be a sensitive issue. King promised Canadians that there would be no conscription during the war.  Instead, he proposed a policy of “limited liability.” This policy meant that Canada would only supply as many men and as much material as necessary. In this way, King hoped to avoid the mistake of promising too many men as they had in the First World War.  Read the government's response to the concern over conscription in this telegram.

Because of King's promise, Canada did not have conscription at the beginning of the Second World War. Men were encouraged to join the army, but doing so was voluntary. Then came the spring and summer of 1940. Germany attacked Holland, Belgium, and France, defeating them all. Very soon, Canada became England's biggest ally. In this situation, a policy of limited liability was not sufficient. King's government introduced the National Resources Mobilization Act in June, 1940. National Registration Day came on August 20. Everyone eighteen to thirty-six years old had to register with the military.

When Canadians registered, they had to tell the military much about their personal lives – when they were born, what languages they spoke, where they worked, whether they had previous military experience, and about the condition of their health. After they had registered, the military would call them up for military training. This was still not conscription. The National Resources Mobilization Act and registration were only for home defense. Prime Minister King promised that these men would not be sent into battle overseas.

Even though this military service was for home defense, and these soldiers might never have to fire a shot, Mennonites did not want to participate. Church leaders went to Ottawa to negotiate with the government. While there were difficult discussions with the government there were a few members of the government who were sympathetic to the Mennonite situation. read article 1  article 2. A few church leaders felt they could not in good conscience offer alternative service and created their own committee known which included David Reimer, Jacob Barkman, David Schulz, and Jacob Bartel.

JReimer Fri, 01/22/2016 - 10:37

Uncertainty with the Government - Page 2

Uncertainty with the Government - Page 2

Mennonite leaders met with government officials in November 1940. They included David Toews, Benjamin B. Janz, Jacob H. Janzen, Samuel F. Coffman, Ernest J. Swalm, Cornelius F. Klassen, The Mennonites proposed a “Christian Fellowship Service.” This program would be active in relief work, public works, forestry, farm service, and public health and welfare services. In this proposal, churches, not the military, would administer the CO projects. For T.C. Davis and L.R. Lafleche, two government representatives, this proposal was unacceptable. Instead, they suggested non-combatant service under military control. The Mennonite leaders firmly rejected this idea. Both sides became frustrated.

Two weeks later, they met again. Historian Ted Regehr describes a heated exchange between Deputy Minister Lafleche and Rev. Jacob H. Janzen, one of the Mennonite leaders from Ontario.

“Lafleche asked the delegates: “What will you do if we shoot you?” That was too much for Janzen, who had survived several desperate situations in the Soviet Union. Obviously agitated, he replied: “Listen General, I want to tell you something. You can't scare us like that. I've looked down too many rifle barrels in my time to be scared in that way. This thing is in our blood for 400 years and you can't take it away from us like you'd crack a piece of kindling over your knee. I was before a firing squad twice. We believe in this.” [Regehr, 48]

Both sides seemed unwilling to budge. Fortunately, the Mennonite delegation later met with Jimmy Gardiner, the minister of national war services. As premier of Saskatchewan in the 1930s, he had enjoyed strong support from the Mennonite communities. He listened to their ideas on alternative service and gave them a reassuring response: “There's one hundred and one things that you fellows can do without fighting; we'll see that you get them.” [Regehr, 49]

JReimer Fri, 01/22/2016 - 10:53

Uncertainty with the Government - Page 3

Uncertainty with the Government - Page 3

When it came to negotiating alternative service with the government, the Mennonites were not united. The Swiss Mennonites living in Ontario, who had been in Canada the longest, were open to service as long as it was completely non-military. The Mennonites who came in 1874 wanted the full exemption from all service that they had been promised in 1873 and that they had received during the First World War. The third group of Mennonites, those who came in the 1920s, were mostly open to a wide range of alternative service.

In the first months of the war, Canada relied on volunteer soldiers. Then, after Germany 's defeat of France and the passing of the National Resources Mobilization Act, Canada became heavily involved in the war. Mennonite leaders could no longer sit back and wait. They felt that they had to take action to ensure that their values would be protected.  

In November, 1940, eight church leaders went to Ottawa to negotiate an alternative service plan. Although the Mennonites who had arrived in 1873 still claimed full exemption, the government ended unconditional exemptions. Instead, the government offered three options for COs .

•  They could be sent to a military camp for non-combatant military training.

•  They could take first-aid training of a non-combatant nature at a civilian facility.

•  They could be assigned to civilian labour under civilian control. 

The first option was impossible, since many military and Mennonite leaders thought that there could be no conditional service in the military. Each man in the army, the military said, had to be trained for all aspects of warfare. Therefore, non-combatant service, even with the medical and dental corps, was impossible during the first stages of the war.

The second option was also impractical, since no such facilities existed, and the government did not build any during the war.

The only option left, therefore, was civilian labour under non-military control. In some ways, this was unfortunate. Conscientious objector work camps were not established until the middle of 1941, so those seeking CO status earlier than that were often given a hard time. Judges were reluctant to give CO status to someone when there was nothing they would be doing. Until the government set up these camps in June 1941, judges had nowhere to send COs to serve. A number of persons called up during this period were actually sent to jail.

Eventually, the government agreed to let the COs do alternative service under civilian control. But another hurdle remained: the judges.

JReimer Fri, 01/22/2016 - 11:02