Introduction to Alternative Service

Introduction to Alternative Service

Basic information about Conscientious Objectors in Canada.

Use the links at the bottom to go to the < previous / next > pages.

webservant Thu, 08/03/2017 - 09:41

What is a conscientious objector?

What is a conscientious objector?

A conscientious objector, or CO, is someone who refuses to go to war because it is against his or her conscience. You can think of a conscience as a sense of right and wrong. COs believe that it is wrong to go to war. They do not want to hurt or kill people. They do not want to join the military or support it in any way.

This web site will help you to understand the conscientious objector experience in Canada during the Second World War. Through pictures, words, and voices you will meet the men who chose to be COs. You will find out why they became COs and what happened to them during the war.  

The web site will also raise some questions about what you believe and why you believe it. Canada has not been involved in a war where the government imposed military conscription since the Second World War, but it is important to think about what would happen if you had to make a hard choice like the conscientious objectors did.

If Canada did go to war, what would you do?

Don't answer now.

Look through the web site. When you are done, think about what you've read, seen, and heard. Then ask yourself the question again: If Canada went to war, what would you do?

webservant Thu, 08/03/2017 - 10:01

A Short History of Conscientious Objection in Canada

A Short History of Conscientious Objection in Canada


The first protection for those objecting to compulsory military service was provided by Lord Simcoe, the Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada. He promised exemption to Quakers, Mennonites and Brethren in Christ to encourage them to immigrate to Canada. This promise became law in the Militia Act of 1793: ". . . persons called Quakers, Mennonites and Tunkers (Brethren in Christ) who from certain scruples of conscience, decline bearing arms, shall not be compelled to serve in the said militia . . ." The Militia Act did require those who were exempted to pay an annual fee to the colonial government to cover the costs of maintaining the militia. The importance of this wording is that it recognizes "scruples of conscience" rather that only religious grounds for the objection.

In principal, Quakers and Mennonites opposed payment of the fees. Despite their opposition, most Mennonites did pay as they had done earlier in similar circumstances in Europe and the United States. Most Quakers refused to pay. Penalties included the seizure of property and prison terms. Lobbying efforts to remove the requirement of the fee were successful in 1849.

1867 to World War I

In 1868, the year after Confederation, the Militia Act was amended significantly. It now limited exemption to specific religious groups (Quakers, Mennonites and Tunkers) and others of "any religious denomination, otherwise subject to military duty, but who, from the doctrines of his religion is adverse to bearing arms and refused military service." The exemption was "upon such conditions and under such regulations, as the Governor-in-Council may from time to time prescribe." Members of the named religious groups had to provide certificates of membership. This legislation limited conscientious objection to a religious basis and made it subject to conditions or regulations set by cabinet.

Between this time and World War I, several Orders in Council were issued by the government providing "entire exemption" for certain religious groups that the Canadian government wished to encourage to immigrate to Canada. These were Mennonites from Russia (1873), Doukhobors (1898) and Hutterites (1899).

World War I

A new Military Service Act was passed in 1917. It made all British subjects between the ages of 20 and 45 subject to military service. Exemption was provided for anyone who " . . . conscientiously objects to the undertaking of combat service, and is prohibited from doing so by the tenets and articles of faith in effect on the sixth day of June, 1917, or any organized religious denomination existing and well recognized in Canada at such date and to which he in good faith belongs." A "Schedule of Exemptions" identified certain types of people who were exempt. This included members of the religious groups protected by the Orders in Council of 1873 and l898.

Persons claiming CO status under this law were required to appear before a local tribunal to make their claim. If successful they were granted a certificate of exemption from combat duty. If an individual was covered by the Schedule, he did not have to appear before the tribunal and there were no conditions attached to his exemption. Men in both groups might be required to perform medical or other services that did not involve combat.

Implementation of the CO provisions was mixed, as local tribunals varied in their decisions. Tribunals often perceived a request for CO status as unpatriotic. The decision of a local tribunal could be appealed at an appeals tribunal or even a central appeals judge. Those applying for CO status without an accepted religious faith faced military discipline and possible imprisonment. Initially they received a district court martial with imprisonment of up to two years. Later, if it was determined that a CO was insincere or he refused non-combatant duty, he faced a general court martial for which the sentence ranged from five years to life in prison.

In April 1918 those on the Schedule lost their exemption. They were required to register within ten days of being called up. But, as it turned out, those persons affected were never called up and were deemed to be on leave during this period.

World War II

In World War II exemption provisions were written in regulations rather than by law. The National War Service Regulations 1940 were developed pursuant to the National Resources Mobilization Act which granted the government conscription powers.

The regulations recognized two categories of objectors: 1) Mennonites and Doukhobors who entered Canada pursuant to their respective Orders in Council, and 2) other conscientious objectors prohibited by their religion from bearing arms. Mennonites who arrived in Canada from Russia in the 1920s were inthe second category. Both groups could receive postponements of military training, not exemptions, but these were subject to cancellation. Both groups were required to perform non-combatant military service. Application for postponement for those in category 2 was through an autonomous local board. Consequently recognition of COs varied across the country, with some applications from members of historic peace churches being rejected.

Lobbying efforts to broaden CO status to include non-religious reasons of conscience took place. In December 1940 an Order in Council broadened the religious basis for conscientious objection to include any Christian with a conscientiously held belief. The final change came in 1942. This allowed for CO status to be claimed on non-religious but conscientiously held beliefs.

The historic peace churches (Quakers, Mennonites, Hutterites, Doukhobors, Brethren in Christ) found the performance of duties under the military as required for COs also to be contrary to their conscience. Lobbying by the peace churches started in 1940 for the provision of alternative service under civilian control. By May 1941 COs were required to report to work camps for the duration of the war. Assignments included work in forestry, national parks and road construction. By the end of World War II the work had been expanded to include essential services in agriculture and industry (this work was contingent on the COs contributing most of their pay to the Red Cross for relief work), medical and dental work in non-combatant corps, and for a small number of COs, fire fighting in Great Britain and relief work with the Friends Ambulance Unit in China. There was tension for some COs about the role of the alternative service in contributing to "the war effort." In December 1945 there were 10,831 men with CO status in Canada.

Current Status

In the current National Defence Act there is no recognition of conscientious objection. And, as Canada currently does not have conscription, there is no legislation with respect to conscientious objection. However, Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedom's recognizes the right of freedom of conscience. "Everyone has the following fundamental freedoms: (a) freedom of conscience and religion" (Sec.2). Given Canada's historic record, it is presumed that individuals could make a claim for conscientious objector status on the basis of the charter and historic precedents.

Until very recently, there was no provision for persons in the Armed Forces to apply for a release in the event that they came to a position of conscientious objection while in service. In the mid-1990s, the Defence Department made a commitment to allow persons with a genuine change of heart to leave the military before their five year commitment was up.

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Negotiations with the Government

Negotiations with the Government

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]

webservant Thu, 08/03/2017 - 10:08

Appearing Before the Judge

Appearing Before the Judge

Appearing before the judge was one of the earliest tests of a CO's sincerity. In Ontario, men did not have to appear before a judge. Instead, leaders from their church – the ones who knew them best – would decide if an applicant was sincere. If the church said that he was, the government in Ontario accepted him as a CO. In the prairie provinces, however, men had to appear before a judge. This was much more adversarial.

Henry Funk describes the proceedings.

Every second week two judges sat for two consecutive days to conduct these hearings. It was a large room and each judge had his own bench about 30 feet from each other. Both faced the room where the rest of us sat watching the proceedings. The judges dealt with the applicants one at a time, each working separately, but simultaneously. Formally we were called up one at a time to be interrogated by one or the other. They were gruff and authoritative men. At least to us timid farm boys they seemed that way. Each bench was raised a bit and from it this robed authority figure looked down at the applicant who in turn had to look up to the judge. If this arrangement was deliberate and if intimidation was the object, it worked. It worked out that way psychologically. Most of us were insecure farm boys who had perhaps been out in the field the day before.

Henry had heard stories about how frightening the experience could be, so he decided to prepare himself.

“Dad and I went to Morden a few weeks before my appointment just to sit in and observe the procedure. I think this orientation helped me – perhaps. At one point, when my turn came, the judge angrily accused me of having been too well coached by someone. In retrospect I know it was not so much that I was so well informed or that I was such a skilled debater. Maybe I came across a bit too cocky. The judge was right. Timidity is much more becoming for a young aspiring CO."

“A few boys brought their Bibles to debate their case. The judges were especially rough with them. These men were skilled lawyers and they shredded those presentations to bits.” [ASM, 138-153]

John C. Klassen gives one example of this, and the effect it had on him. 

I was summoned to appear before Judge Bowman in Altona, for a court hearing, and to be accompanied by my father and represented by a clergy. I do not know how many 21 year olds appeared before the judge that day, but I know that my school classmate who was much more involved in church life than I, and had practically memorized the Bible in preparation for this hearing, was given a rough interrogation and finally rejected CO status. This discouraged me and I thought I could never make it. When my name was called, my knees were knocking enough to almost shatter the windows, as I stood before Judge Bowman. But all I did was answer a few basic questions and was then told to go home and wait for a contact from the Selective Service.” [ASM, 23-29]

A CO had no way of knowing whether his experience would be short and simple like Klassen's, or long and hard like the case Klassen describes.

webservant Thu, 08/03/2017 - 10:13

Overview of CO Service

Overview of CO Service

Service Introduction

“Get out of here, you wimp! You don't even deserve to be here! Stand up and defend your country like I am!”

Many conscientious objectors had comments like this and worse hurled at them for their decision to do alternative service instead of going to war. It may surprise you to learn, however, that COs made up only a small portion of the men who stayed in Canada instead of fighting.  

The Military Service Act of 1917 provided nine reasons to postpone military training. The government declared certain jobs to be of national importance. It knew that Canada needed people in farms, schools, and factories.

The Canadian government was less accepting of group exemptions as had been given in the First World War.  During the Second World War most people seeking conscientious objector status had to appear before a judge.  One major exception was Mennonites in Ontario. Mennonite leaders in Ontario were able to influence the registration process so that individuals did not have to testify about their own convictions.  The COs came from many different backgrounds, religious affiliations, and provinces.

J.A. Toews, Alternative Service in Canada during World War II, p. 49-50.
Dutch  4202   Welsh 16
Russian 2083   Danish 16
German 963   Romanian 9
English 706   Negro 5
Scotch 235   Icelandic 4
Irish 203   Belgian 4
Ukrainian 156   Finnish 3
Austrian 151   Czech 3
Norwegian 90   Hebrew 2
Polish 76   Latvian 1
French 70   Lithuanian 1
Swedish 62   Spanish 1
Swiss 57   Yugoslavian 1
Hungarian 19   Macedonian 1
Italian 19   Can. Indian 1
Welsh 16   Bulgarian 1
Danish 16   Unknown 1
Distribution of Conscientious Objectors According to Province
Manitoba 3021
Ontario 2636
Saskatchewan 2304
British Columbia 1665
Alberta 1184
Nova Scotia 29
Quebec 28
Prince Edward Island 3
New Brunswick 2

During the Second World War, nearly 750,000 men applied for a postponement. Some of them were temporary delays, but 262,634 had their service postponed for the whole war. Of these, only 4% (10,782) were COs.

Most of the other 96% were farmers, miners, loggers, and factory workers. Without them, Canada wouldn't have had food to eat, coal for their furnaces, wood for houses, or other essential items.

J.A. Toews, Alternative Service in Canada during World War II , p. 61
  Overview of where COs worked as of December 31, 1945.
6655 Were employed in agriculture (including men on leave from ASW camps)
1412 Were employed in miscellaneous essential industries
542 Were employed in sawmills, logging, and timbering
469 Were employed in packing plants and food processing plants
269 Were employed in construction
86 Were employed in hospitals
63 Were employed in coal mining
15 Were employed in grain handling at the Head of the Lakes
170 Were in Alternative Service Work Camps
14 Were serving jail sentences
34 Were in hands or of being prepared for Enforcement Division
201 Were in the hands of the RCMP or other agencies to locate present whereabouts
921 Were under review
10,851 Total

Canada's COs did all these tasks and more. The 10,000 COs were no different than the 250,000 other eligible men who stayed home during the war. All of them did valuable work, but for different reasons.

In this section, you'll see how the COs served during the war. For each job, consider what would have happened if there had been no one to do that work.

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The original alternative service program for conscientious objectors involved them working in national parks across Canada. This changed in May 1942. From then on, many of the COs served with the British Columbia Forestry Service (BCFS) instead. The BCFS operated seventeen camps on Vancouver Island and an additional six camps on the mainland. These were small, isolated forestry camps deep in the forests.

One of the reasons for this change from the national parks to the BCFS was the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbour, Hawaii, on 7 December 1941. This surprise attack brought the United States into the Second World War. Canada declared war on Japan as well. Both North American countries feared a Japanese invasion of their western coasts. Military strategists suggested that Japan might try to set Canadian forests on fire and cause damage that way. For this reason, conscientious objectors were dispatched to British Columbia to guard against this danger.

Ed Bearinger reflected after the War that he wished he could have done more to alleviate human suffering. While he saw value in the work he was doing he did not want to feel that the government was hiding them from the public.

Ben Bergen transferred from the camp at Montreal River to the BCFS in the summer of 1942.

“Our group landed at C3-Shawnigan Lake, on Vancouver Island, not far from Duncan. There were men from Ontario, Alberta, Victoria, and the Mainland. We lived eight men to a cabin. It was a hot, dry summer, and fires were numerous as a result of the tinder dry conditions. We were three groups of thirteen men, each group carrying cross-cut saws, axes, pick-axes, shovels and two water tank sprayers. We were on call any time day or night. At night we pulled out with all our gear in the trucks, within ten minutes of receiving the call. We only used a water hose at one fire, where we were close to a water supply. Otherwise it meant cutting away brush, digging two to three foot trenches and shovelling the dirt towards the fire. When we were not fighting fires, we worked on a road, felling trees, cutting them into four-foot lengths and splitting the big ones. A truck hauled the wood to Victoria.” [ASM, 55-58]

webservant Wed, 08/23/2017 - 15:56

Tree Planting

Tree Planting

Most people today understand the need to respect our environment. In the past, however, people either didn't know or didn't care about the harmful effects of pollution and resource exploitation. Today, however, most people agree that it is better to recycle a can than to throw it in the garbage and that is better to replant trees instead of cutting them down and leaving an empty field.

Trees are a renewable resource. There is a limited amount of coal and gas in the world, but you can always plant more trees. But forests need to be carefully managed for them to survive. In Canada, 700 million trees are planted every year. Sixty years ago, however, not only would planting that many trees would have seemed impossible, but people might not have even thought that it was necessary.

During the Second World War, Canada's conscientious objectors were part of a tree-planting program. One of their biggest accomplishments was planting 17 million trees on Vancouver Island and reviving the burnt-out Sayward Forest near Campbell River.

Read some articles about tree planting from The Beacon, the CO newspaper, and watch some videos. The first video shows what the tree nursery looked like, and the second one shows a close-up of the seedlings.

Gordon Dyck worked as a tree planter. He describes the history of the forest and some of the obstacles the COs faced.

“As the logging method had been extremely wasteful, taking out only the best and convenient trees, the area was left with a great number of trees killed by the fire, that needed to be cut down to be able to control future fires. A dead and partly rotten standing tree, called a “snag,” was considered a great fire hazard, as the fire would run up and the wind could then blow burning embers a considerable distance. So during the winter we cut them down and left them where they fell. Then in the cooler seasons of spring and fall, we planted seedling trees in these areas, right among the felled snag. Occasionally where loggers had taken nothing, these dead trees now lay crisscross in a six to eight foot layer. We simply walked on top of this mess and jumped down here and there to plant a tree. We wore special loggers' boots called caulk boots, with soles covered with short spikes. Every store in town had a sign prohibiting wearing them inside. The damage done to our bunk house floors was considerable."

“Each tree planting crew consisted of about 15 men spaced about 6 feet [1.8 m] apart. The area had been surveyed and so the end men had to keep a sharp lookout for the stakes and the rest of us in the line just kept about 2 paces from our neighbour. The seedlings were strategically placed in beds ahead of time, and we never seemed to run out. We were always able to re-supply our burlap shoulder bags in time. The trees we planted were all Douglas Fir and came in bundles of 100, about 12 inches [30 cm] long. Each of us had a mattock (a heavy tool similar to a hoe) with a 4 foot [1.2 m] handle.

David Jantzi explains the method trees were planted.

"We would chop into the ground, pull a little, slip a seedling in behind the blade and then pack it down by stepping beside the seedling as we took two more steps to plant the next one."

“We learned to do this quite rapidly, hardly even stopping – just chop and plant, chop and plant. Soon our straw boss, Pete Unger, would call out “Take five!” meaning a five minute rest. The reason for these many rest stops was that the forest service would not permit a man to plant more than 1000 trees a day, since they felt that at that speed, the seedlings were just being thrown away. But the work was supposed to last all day, hence the many “Take fives.” Actually we never threw trees away and could have easily planted more, but “rules are rules.” So why complain. Having visited these areas later in life, I was surprised to see the country covered with forest. It seems they all grew.

The COs who return to Vancouver Island to look at where they worked can hardly believe how tall the trees are. After sixty years, these trees are reaching maturity. In 1995, Ed Janzen estimated the value of these trees. He called up some lumberyards to find out how much each of those trees was worth. They gave him a surprising answer. The trees planted by the COs are now worth $1.75 billion.

webservant Wed, 08/23/2017 - 16:00

Medical Corps

Medical Corps

The most popular poem from the First World War is John McCrae's “In Flanders Fields.” The first two lines are “In Flanders fields the poppies blow / Between the crosses, row on row.” This poem is a major reason why, today, the poppy is worn on November 11 as a symbol of remembrance.

Do you know what McCrae was doing when he wrote the poem? He wrote it in 1915 while treating the wounded in Ypres, France. He was a surgeon in the medical corps of the Canadian army. 

Many Canadian COs also wanted to serve in the medical or dental corps. In this way, they hoped to be able to relieve the suffering of war instead of participating in it. Not all COs thought that this was an appropriate option; some thought that COs should not be under military control, even if it was as a non-combatant. Mennonites in Russia had performed medical duties during previous wars, so this seemed like a good option to them.

At the beginning of the Second World War, this didn't matter, because COs were only allowed to serve in the medical or dental corps if they took weapons training. For some, this concession was worth it. Jake Bartel, for example, felt called to this service, so he enlisted and took basic training in Portage la Prairie. He served with the 10th Field Ambulance, 1st Canadian Army Headquarters and the 21st Dressing Station from 16 July 1941 to 17 December 1945. [MHC, 1015-77] 

In September 1943, however, the government and the military changed their regulations to allow medical service. Historian J.A. Toews estimates that 227 COs volunteered for medical service. Jacob K. Wiens, for example, writes that he was in the Royal Canadian Medical Corps “under restricted enlistment.”

A special arrangement [was] worked out in 1943 where COs were not required to handle weapons of any kind during training [for medical service work].

The medics were set apart from soldiers. Not only did they not carry weapons, but their duty was to help all wounded soldiers, friend or foe. Peter Klassen served as a CO in the medical corps.

The medics were to be identifiable during duty on the war front and were not to be targeted for shooting. Therefore they wore a 2” [5 cm] round red insignia on the sleeve and a 10” [25 cm] round insignia on the backs of their uniforms. It was also understood that the medic would treat comrade or enemy soldier without distinction. The lectures from the medical officers were geared to teaching the medic to quickly identify the nature of the patients' wounds. The army chaplains [directed] them to the needs of critically wounded and dying soldiers. They were to assure the sufferers that help was coming and give them spiritual and moral support. Again their duties were to both friend and enemy soldiers.

Joining the medical corps was one way for COs to show that they were not afraid of danger or sacrifice. Many wished this option had been available earlier than September 1943. Jacob Wiens explains why he chose this service.

I took the stand I did because of my personal convictions. I had several alternatives open to me: a) deferment as a university student by re-enrolling at the university b) farm laborer on parents' farm. I made my decision after careful consideration of my responsibilities to God first and country second. There was no pressure or even suggestion from parents or church what they would like me to do. When the Bible is used in the home, Sunday School, and [in] church related functions, [it serves as the foundation on which individuals should make their decisions]. The home and church teach and set examples but individuals must decide for themselves.

In many cases, the men who volunteered for the medical corps were ones who had already been granted CO status and were performing alternative service.

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Alternative service took many different forms. Farming is one of those we know about least. Of the 262,634 Canadians who delayed their military service, 65% did so because they were needed on the farm. Among conscientious objectors, the percentage is similar. At the end of 1945, 6,655 out of 10,851 conscientious objectors were employed in agriculture. With this in mind, why do you think the other areas of alternate service receive so much more attention? Why is it that of all the types of alternative service, we have the hardest time finding pictures and stories about agricultural activities?

There are a number of reasons.

Men on farms did not have regular contact with other COs. Those men in forestry camps, on the other hand, were surrounded by other COs. They were also a long way from home, so they took more pictures and wrote more letters home. They were doing something they had never done before, and they were excited. Today, these records survive in archives. Many COs on farms served in their home community. Even though their work was vital to the Canadian economy, it did not seem very glamorous.

At the beginning of the war, many COs went to alternative service camps. Those COs who farmed usually had a special reason and had some of the men had to sign contracts.

Henry Poettcker was a young man in Alberta when he received his military call.

Because I was the son of a widow I received an agricultural postponement to remain on the home farm.

John Dyck was in a similar situation.

My mother being a widow at the time I worked for her on the farm and she paid monthly to the Red Cross [on my behalf]

Like both of these men, Henry A. Wiens probably could have avoided military service by claiming that he was essential to the family farm. Wiens, however, would not deny his beliefs in that way. He declared himself to be a CO to take a stand against war.

Since I was the oldest boy in the family, the others still in public school, I was allowed to remain as a farm worker on my father's farm. He had to pay a certain amount of money every month, for the duration. While I could have remained a farm laborer without declaring myself a CO, I was glad to witness to this.

Some times a CO sent to a camp made a request to be transferred to a farm where they were needed.

Arthur Pankratz refused to go back to the camp because he felt it was more important to help out on the farm. The government did not always allow them to stay on the farm. Frank Dyck also requested to remain on the farm and wrote about his circumstances in a letter.

At times officials were reluctant to let the COs work on the farms.  At times church leaders advocated for the COs.

Later during the war the government instructed the officials to allow more COs to remain on the farm. The CO newsletter, The Beacon also reported that more young men would be allowed to stay on the farm.

The theme of payments to the Red Cross is common in agricultural CO stories. In the spring of 1944, the forestry camps closed down and the COs were shifted to essential industries like farming.

During my fifteen months in BC camps, various fellows left, either to join the forces or were sent home to work on farms. In mid-November, 1943, I received a notice and ticket to report at a fruit farm in Vineland Station. I started there December 1, 1943. Part of my wages went to the Red Cross till the end of the war. My parents had moved to Jordan Harbour, Ontario, not far from where I was working now. I was on a CO contract there till at least the middle of 1945 when the war ended.
webservant Wed, 08/23/2017 - 16:14

Results of the CO Experiences

Results of the CO Experiences

Canadian conscientious objectors cleared 44,115 acres (17,852 hectares) of snags during the war. That sounds like a lot of something, but what does it mean? First, you need to define the words. A snag is a dead tree that is still standing. Clearing a snag means to cut it down so other trees can grow. But how much is an acre? A football field is about one and a half acres – so that’s nearly 30,000 football fields!

But even if you know what the words mean, you don’t know if the work was hard or easy. Looking at pictures of snags and reading stories, we know that the work was challenging, especially without modern equipment. When you think about it that way, clearing 44,115 acres of snags takes on a whole new meaning.

Government officials agree: COs contributed substantially during the war. But dollar figures don’t tell the whole story. There is another way to measure the success of the CO experience.

Most of Canada’s COs were Mennonites. The Mennonites did not refuse to fight because they loved clearing snags, but because they chose to live a life of service and peace, rather than one of violence. The war strengthened this belief. After the war, many COs continued in a life of service. Many kept on giving, even after the war.

webservant Wed, 08/23/2017 - 16:22

A New Understanding

A New Understanding

Most Mennonites have traditionally supported pacifism and non-resistance instead of war. In the past, Mennonites have died instead of betraying these principles. At other times, they left everything they owned to move to a different country to keep their faith. In times of peace and prosperity, however, Mennonites did not have to actively practice these values. At the start of the Second World War in 1939, young Mennonite men were tested for the first time. Would they join the army to defend the country that had given them shelter and protection? Or would they remain true to their centuries-old faith?

Although some choose to join the army, most decided to become conscientious objectors. For them, this experience strengthened their faith and turned out to be a time of personal transformation. This was the case for Ben Bergen.

The conscientious objector experience changed my life. Camp experience has broadened my understanding of other denominations, their teachings and beliefs. I learned to show more patience and to cooperate with my fellow man.

Cornelius Dueck also sees the CO experience as pivotal in his life.

s I look back, this experience was a turning point in my life. I got to know Christian fellows from other districts and backgrounds. Many of us had the same goal in life: to live for Jesus Christ and to prepare for eternity. One thing that I appreciate tremendously was, that we had ministers at camp to help us, give guidance, and preach the Word of God… These ministers were willing to give of their time to help us. It has been a highlight for me spiritually. From a self-centered, self-righteous life, it changed to a more broad outlook on life, and accepting my fellow brethren even though they did not speak, think, and do exactly as I did. I realized that God looks at the heart and not at the outward appearance. This led me to have high regard for all believers and our church.

David Jantzi felt his time as a CO was important in his life.  While he injured his leg at the camp the experience gave him more understanding of others.  He also experienced God at the camp.

J.W. Nickel, who served in the CO camps as a worker and as a religious director, gave this evaluation of the experience.

What did camp life do for the conscientious objectors? For one thing, it taught those, who because of previous isolated church life held the members of another denomination in narrow esteem, to respect and love their brothers…. Through discussion and observation these men had a wonderful opportunity to free themselves of denominational bigotry. By the same means, they arrived at destinations in their spiritual development in which they experienced in a broader way what their religious leaders and teachers at home had often only hinted at and some had in vain attempted to instill. [Toews, 103]
webservant Wed, 08/23/2017 - 16:25

Community Relations

Community 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.”

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.

David Goerzen worked on a farm where the owner's son was killed in the war. Goerzen and the owner remained on good terms. Goerzen felt his CO experience was a good one.

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.

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.

Many times, people weren't even interested in the COs' beliefs, as long as they were good workers.

webservant Wed, 08/23/2017 - 16:32

Life of Service

Life of Service

Henry R. Baerg served as a conscientious objector in various national parks and on a farm. Looking back, he can see the far-reaching effects of CO service.

Alternative service during World War II played a greater role in our lives than we realized at the time. It added significantly to development in Mennonite history by impacting a whole generation of men who became pastors of our churches, teachers in our colleges and leaders in our conferences. They became men of evangelism and missions.

David Schroeder echoes Baerg's comments. Schroeder worked in St. Boniface Hospital in Winnipeg for his alternative service. He is amazed by the effect this service had on him and his fellow COs. “Of 35-40 COs who attended Bethel Church during that time,” he writes, “8 went into full-time Christian service. That's unbelievable. Being together, having to stand up and fend for yourself, forced you to encounter life in a different way.” [ASP, 160]

David Goerzen agrees that serving as a conscientious objector had a lasting positive impact on the Mennonite churches.

The group of COs who attended Bethel Church do not seem to have been unusual. Although no one has counted how many COs went into Christian service after the war, we can guess that there were quite a few. Henry R. Baerg remembers how camp life encouraged many COs to rededicate themselves.

I took along a few books and my Bible for preaching and study purposes. Later, some men took up serious studies, even finishing high school by correspondence and enrolling in university courses or engaging in group studies. We might have been helped by some guidance as to study courses, more profitable studies and academic or educational training. Most of us benefited from the inter-church association and fellowship. We cultivated our own spiritual lives and learned from each other how to develop good devotional habits. By being responsible for much of our nurture, we learned leadership responsibilities, grooming some prospective preachers and pastors. We received spiritual nurture through chaplaincy and had regular Sunday worship. Our camp chaplains did some of the preaching, but since they had to serve a number of camps, we did a lot of preaching, teaching, leading Bible studies and prayer meetings. Many COs went on to Bible College after release from ASW and became pastors and teachers. Since several of the men in ASW were not believers, it gave us opportunity to witness. Some came to full assurance of faith and we all grew and gained greater knowledge of the truth.

Along with this new-found truth came a desire to put it into action. The CO experience reminded Mennonites that it was necessary to put their beliefs into action. Instead of pulling away from the world, the post-war Mennonites engaged the world. They realized that being a CO was more than not fighting. Being a CO meant working for peace. COs didn't always think their alternative service in Canada was doing much good. After they were released, they had more opportunities to work actively for peace. Norman R. Weber volunteered as soon as he was able.

Soon after the war, I answered the call of the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Association and volunteered to work on a relief ship carrying horses and relief goods to Poland and Finland. The adventure that started when I left southern Ontario September 2, 1946 and was supposed to last 4-6 weeks, stretched into four months. We had a stormy crossing and lost horses to the rough waves of the North Atlantic. We walked among the corpses in Polish battlefields and were shipwrecked in the Gulf of Finland …. I saw first hand, the traumatic experiences brought on by World War II.

For many COs , their wartime duties encouraged a lifetime of service.

webservant Wed, 08/23/2017 - 16:37



We welcome positive and negative feedback to our site.  We may or may not respond to your message.  If you have information about conscientious objectors who are not listed on the list of known COs we would encourage you to contact us.  We would be interested in hearing from you.

email: Alternative Service


Mennonite Heritage Centre
600 Shaftesbury Blvd.
Winnipeg, MB
R3P 0M4

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webservant Wed, 08/23/2017 - 16:41