Discrimination against CO Teachers

Discrimination against CO Teachers

The Canadian government understood the importance of giving children a quality education. That is why the Military Service Act of 1917 classified teachers as absolutely necessary for Canadian society, even during wartime. During the Second World War, however, some teachers lost their jobs when they became conscientious objectors and some university students were disciplined for their CO stance.

Why would this happen if Canada needed more teachers?

The short answer is that there was no logical reason. It was the result of miscommunication between the federal government and provincial judges. Although the Canadian government supported COs, the judges who dealt directly with COs were not as understanding. They did not support pacifism. The judges did not want COs teaching children about pacifism. For this reason, some COs lost their teaching certificates.

When Gerhard Ens, a schoolteacher, applied for conscientious objectors status, he had to appear before a judge to state his case. Here is how Ens remembers the conversation:

Judge:     Why do you want a postponement?

Ens:         Excuse me, Sir, I did not apply for postponement. I applied for          exemption as a Conscientious Objector.

Judge:     We grant only postponements but CO status is one ground for postponement.

Ens:        That is what I applied for.

Judge:    Why do you want that status?

Ens:        Killing is as wrong in war as in peace. I accept the historic position of my church on this question.

Judge:    What is your occupation.

Ens:        I am a schoolteacher.

Judge:    What do you teach?

Ens:        I teach the required program of studies.

Judge:    Do you teach religion?

Ens:        Yes, sir, I do.

Judge:    Do you teach the Mennonite religion?

Ens:        I teach the Bible.

Judge:    Do you teach the Mennonite interpretation of the Bible?

Ens:        (After some hesitation and prodding) Yes, I do.

Judge:    Do you teach that it is wrong to go to war?

Ens:        (After realizing that I had been backed into a corner and in desperation) Yes, I do.

Judge Adamson was a skilled lawyer and judge. Although he could not change what COs believed, he did sometimes belittle them for their beliefs. Ens continues his story.

“After this the hearing ended. I was given CO status almost immediately. The exact transcript of the hearing was communicated to the Department of Education. Here the Discipline Committee discussed it, heard me once more and then recommended to the Minister the cancellation of my certificate. This was effected early in 1943, forcing me to leave my school in the middle of the spring term.” [MHC, 1015-45]

John Goossen remembers that a judge got the better of two fellow teachers. His wife, Bettie, tells the story.

“[John] and two other teachers came before the judge who asked one of the others whether he bought war bonds. When the young man said, “Yes,” the judge confronted him, saying, “How can you buy war bonds and be a CO? Cancel his teaching certificate.” The other teacher was questioned and when he said that he had not bought war bonds, the judge replied, “As a civil servant, you do not help your country in need. Your teaching certificate is cancelled.”

After watching the judge cancel the certificates of those two teachers, John knew what would happen to him. The judge knew too. When John appeared, he was not even allowed to speak. The judge cancelled his teaching certificate immediately and dismissed the court session. [ASP, 89]

Henry Funk, whose brother had his certificate cancelled, remembers how this policy later changed.

“For a short time the authorities decertified all teachers who applied for CO status. A little later such teachers were frozen to the teaching profession for the duration. One wonders about those authorities, but then they were inexperienced too.” [ASM, 138-153] 

As Funk says, the judges soon realized that Canada desperately needed teachers. F. Enns, for example, did not lose his certificate.

“I was a school teacher and was permitted to continue to teach. But I was required to make a monthly contribution to the Canadian Red Cross.” [MHC, 1015-50]

Another person wrote that “as a High School principal in a Mennonite community, there were no problems.” [MHC, 1015-6]

Still, quite a number of Mennonites lost their teaching privileges. Read on to see how John J. Bergen fought to have his teaching certificate returned to him.  

View Bergen's original documents.

JReimer Fri, 01/22/2016 - 11:43

Discrimination against CO Teachers - Page 2

Discrimination against CO Teachers - Page 2

John J. Bergen was born in 1922. In September 1940, at the age of 18, he started teaching “on permit” in Big Black River on the northeast shore of Lake Winnipeg . Because of the shortage of teachers during the war years, Bergen and several others were asked to shorten their teacher preparation courses to take up positions in schools. With this approval from the government, Bergen accepted a job in the Hopeland School District teaching grades one to nine. Since all but two of his 26 students were Mennonites, Bergen included some German items in the Christmas program. The parents of the two non-German children took offense and left.

A few months later, the father of the departed students accused Bergen of posting pictures of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini, the leaders of Canada's enemies. The father refused to accept Bergen's explanation that the pictures were part of a current events project, and that the Allied leaders were included as well.

In the winter of 1942, the Department of Education encouraged teachers to sell War Savings Stamps. Bergen, knowing that this was voluntary, wrote a letter to the Department explaining why, as a pacifist, he did not feel that it was right to support the war by selling stamps. Bergen received a swift reply:

“The opinions you expressed in this letter, in my opinion, should not be held by anyone teaching children in this province…. “Love thine enemy” may be a very fine belief but when our enemy is trying to deprive us of our homes…. I think love must cease…. I wonder what would happen in Germany today to anyone who wrote such a letter as yours? I do not believe they would ever have an opportunity to write a second one.”

Bergen received another letter a week later.

“These statements [from Bergen 's original letter] have created definite doubt as to whether you should be in charge of a school in his province. You are hereby notified to appear before a meeting of a Discipline Committee of this Department on Friday, February 19th.”

Ironically, Bergen's class had supported a very successful Red Cross campaign to ease suffering from the war. The Department didn't take this into account at the discipline hearing. At the meeting, Bergen received a letter from the Minister of Education.

“This is to advise you your teaching certificate is suspended in this Province pending the decision following the report of the Discipline Committee.”

The committee asked why Bergen refused to serve Canada in the military. Bergen replied that he would gladly serve in the Medical Corps if he did not have to bear arms. This option was not available at that time, so the committee found his answer unacceptable.

Seven months later, when the option to serve in the Medical Corps became available, Bergen enlisted as a non-combatant. He then asked to have his teaching certificate returned, since he was serving his country. In May 1946, one year after the war ended, Bergen had his licence reinstated.

Thirty years later, in 1975, Bergen wrote to the Deputy Minister of Education. Bergen wanted his case reopened. 

“My certificate was cancelled because I declared myself a conscientious objector to participation in active violence. I declared my willingness to participate in a non-combatant capacity. When the latter became legally possible, I joined the forces and was placed in the Dental Corps. Nothing changed with respect to the position I held on the basis of conviction and conscience between the time my certificate was cancelled and the time my certificate was reinstated. Since that was the case, I hold that the first decision was based in the context of the then political climate, understandable in a time of war, and not based rationally or in justice.”  

He received this reply from the Director of Teacher Certification and Records.

“On July 11, 1975, the Deputy Minister of Education, R.W. Dalton, made the following recommendation to the Minister of Education, the Hon. Ben Hanuschak: ‘In view of the fact that Mr. Bergen did serve his country during the war, and society's attitudes towards war have changed in the last thirty years, and that Mr. Bergen's record as a certificated teacher was unimpeachable, I wish to recommend to you that the cancellation of Mr. Bergen's certificate be expunged from the record and that retroactively he be considered certified during the period of cancellation.'” [Mennonite Life, September 1993]

View Bergen's original documents.

JReimer Fri, 01/22/2016 - 11:50