Uncertainty before the Judge

Uncertainty before the Judge

With the creation of an alternative service program, it seemed that uncertainty in the Mennonite community and the government had finally been resolved. As conscientious objectors soon learned, however, another obstacle lay in their path.

Even though alternative service was now an option, men who wished to claim CO status had to appear before a judge. This judge would decide whether this person was sincere in his beliefs. If yes, the judge would assign him to CO service. If no, the judge would deny him CO status and order him to report for military training. What was going through a young man's mind as he approached this hearing?

In Manitoba, the chief judge of COs was Judge Adamson; in Saskatchewan it was Judge Embury. Both these judges tried to convince potential COs to abandon their pacifism and join the army.  

Most of the hearings in Manitoba took place in Morden. This town in southern Manitoba was ideal. Not only was Judge Adamson originally from Morden, but the location was also central for many Mennonites.

The purpose of the meeting was to make sure that the CO was sincere in his beliefs. David Schellenberg remembers some of the questions the judge asked him

Why isn't Canada worth fighting for?

What would happen if everybody was a CO?

What would you do if the Japs took your farm?

Isn't Canada a good country?

Why did you leave Russia?

Do you like it here better than in Russia?

How long has your church been non-resistant? [MHC, 1015-13] 

Schellenberg was able to answer these questions satisfactorily, and he was granted CO status.

JReimer Fri, 01/22/2016 - 11:06

Uncertainty before the Judge - Part 2

Uncertainty before the Judge - Part 2

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.

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

Uncertainty before the Judge - Part 3

Uncertainty before the Judge - Part 3

As George Groening explains though, the judges were not harsh with every CO. Everything depended on the mood of the judge and the responses of the CO.

“In November 1940 I received notice to appear before the Honourable Justice Adamson on December 10, 10:00 a.m. in Morden, Manitoba . I had been taught to believe that the judge and judicial system were always fair and impartial to all. As I watched the proceedings, it seemed that this was not always the case. It seemed that when the judge either grew weary or bored with the repeated hearings, he would single out one person and ask him some really difficult questions. [ASP, 95-96]

  Listen to Henry Gerbrandt tell his story before the judge.

For many COs, this was the first time that they would have to defend their beliefs before an strange authority figure. Jake Krueger was typical of the young CO. Although he was sincere in his beliefs, the pressure of the situation was very intimidating. Some COs believed sincerely in pacifism, but didn't know how to express it. In cases like this, some used a booklet called "Katechism on Non-Resistance" to prepare for the judge.

“When I appeared before Judge Adams [sic] in the Morden Courthouse, I was actually visibly shaking with apprehension and fear, as this imposing, white haired, walrus-moustached ogre glared down at me from his raised podium firing questions at me.”


“Never having been very robust, barely weighing 138 lbs. after a hearty meal, my slight frame fluttered as I desperately looked around for moral support to my father and a minister who accompanied me.” 

“I was so intimidated by the judge and his questions, it totally escapes me how I answered them, but I'm sure if he had accused me of starting the war, I would have acknowledged guilt.” [ASM, 234]

Not every CO had such a negative experience. Henry Poettcker, for example, had an easier route. For one thing, he was one of the fortunate ones who avoided the judge.

“The man before whom I appeared was a provincial representative, not a judge…. In appearing before him, I was simply asked whether I was a conscientious objector. When I answered ‘yes', he asked no further questions.” [MHC, 1015-2]

Jacob A. Klassen doesn't recall any problems either.

“We were a group of young men waiting in the corridor. Then one by one were asked into the courtroom. Separately interviewed. Questions – Are you a CO? Why? Are you opposed to our country? Would you be willing to do any alternative service? I was treated with respect, and my word was honoured. I did not have to take an oath, but an affirmation was sufficient.” [MHC, 1015-62]

JReimer Fri, 01/22/2016 - 11:17

Uncertainty before the Judge - Part 4

Uncertainty before the Judge - Part 4

Still, the majority of COs who appeared before a judge remember it being a hard experience. The judges, and others present in the courtroom, used a number of different tactics. One, as we have seen, was intimidation. Other times, the judge would try to get the CO to compromise his values in a small way. In P.A. Unger's case, the judge tempted him with freedom.

“It was suggested to me that the 4 months “Basic Training,” which was to be the first assignment, “wouldn't hurt” anyone. I responded: “If I am thus trained, I will be used for military purposes.” I was then informed that my medical category was “E” which would exempt me from military duty: “So why not enlist and receive your discharge. Then you are free. If not you will have to go to the CO camps.” I felt, though this might be the case, because of extremely poor vision in my left eye, it could be a trap on their part. Besides I felt that for me to take advantage of that situation would be a denial or betrayal of my non-resistant stand, and told the judge so. Up till then, Harvey [the judge] was the only one who had spoken to me. But at this, one of the other men roundly denounced me to be an unworthy citizen of Canada.” [MHC, 1015-66]

Sometimes, as in Unger's story, the CO had to contend with more than just the judge. Another CO remembers one court observer who was so aggressive that the judge had to quiet him down.

“The court room was set up [with] the judge, a short hand stenographer, one army official, another official – his authority unknown to me, and an official from the Canadian Legion. The latter seemed to want to have the most to say, and as far as I'm concerned the most meaningless too. His preference was to make a fool of you, rather than to get sound decisions. He was frequently quieted down by the judge.” [MHC, 1015-58]

At times, the scene must have been rather confusing. Neither side could truly understand the other. The judges were strong patriots. They could not believe there was a group of people who refused to fight. George Kroeker's recollection shows how the judge misunderstood his intentions.

“I was fearful that the judge would lash out and we would all suffer for it. But I was amused how calm the judge was when I appeared before him. He had received my letter for postponement, requesting for a brief stay of calling for military training. He assumed that I wanted to be exempted from military services. I told him that it was not the case. I needed a few more weeks to complete my grade 12 high school He agreed to grant me those few months. But he was inquisitive to know into which contingent in the armed forces I would chose. “The non-combatant medical corps,” was my answer. He could not oblige since Canada did not have such arrangement. He questioned me if I would work in ammunition factories or be trained for radar-radio operation or join the air force. To which I told him, “If I make bullets, direct planes to bomb cities, I may just as well have dropped them myself, which I could not.” He was puzzled. “I will give you until September to decide which of the choices you will join,” was his final command.” [ASM, 18-21]

JReimer Fri, 01/22/2016 - 11:24

Uncertainty before the Judge - Part 5

Uncertainty before the Judge - Part 5

No matter how hostile the judge was, though, it was difficult to change the mind of a sincere CO. Often, the judges just threw up their hands in frustration. 

“The courtroom experience was simple. I gave the biblical reasons for non-resistance. There were a few catchy questions such as “you don't object to arms since you have a gun on the farm” and “what would you do if someone attacked your sister?” They concluded that I was one of those obstinate fellows who won't see the light.” [MHC, 1015-12]

D.K. Schellenberg was one of these “obstinate fellows.” He, however, doesn't even remember all the details of his appearance before the judge. One thing, however, has remained with him all these years.

“I don't recall the questions asked of me but I remember answering with Psalm 37:5 ‘Commit thy way unto the Lord, trust also in Him and He shall bring it to pass.'” [MHC, 1015-5]

While the path to conscientious objection was never smooth, COs remain thankful to the Canadian government for providing an alternative service program. Still, the main problem was with the judges who administered the program and who decided whether a CO was sincere or not. Judge Adamson, for one, seemed more concerned with having men join the armed forces than with giving COs a fair hearing. It was not easy for him either. He was caught between the Canadian promise to honour the peaceful values of the conscientious objectors and thier supporters and the anti-German and pro-war positions of other Canadians.

Also, it wasn't easy for a judge to tell who was a sincere pacifist. Mennonites only joined the church when they became adults, so the judge couldn't use church membership as the deciding factor. Some judges also thought that Mennonite leaders, not the young men, were the ones with the pacifist beliefs. 

At the same time, it was hard to understand why judges would send COs to jail instead of letting them do something of national importance. Only late in the war were COs able to choose non-combatant service with the Royal Army Medical Corps or Canadian Dental Corps. Two hundred twenty-seven COs volunteered for this service.

Historian Ken Reddig does not blame the judges.

“Undoubtedly the real culprit, if one must be found, would be the slow response of the National War Services Board in developing sufficient and appropriate alternative service opportunities. With the knowledge that conscientious objectors would be involved in beneficial civilian work, rather than going back to their homes and farms while others served in the military, Adamson as well as other judges might have been more lenient in granting postponements to the young men before them.” [67-68]

Read some more about COs before the judge.

JReimer Fri, 01/22/2016 - 11:33