Conscientious Objectors in Prison

Conscientious Objectors in Prison

A young man stands before the judge. The judge reads the sentence – “Six months hard labour!” – and bangs his gavel to dismiss the court. The young man is stunned. How could this happen, he wonders. His only “crime” was applying for conscientious objector status. Why was he, among thousands of other COs, singled out?  

Although Canada, on the whole, treated conscientious objectors fairly and allowed them to do alternative service, a few served prison sentences as punishment for their beliefs. In Ontario, the historic peace churches made lists of sincere men who wanted to become COs. The judges in that province accepted the word of the churches. In the prairie provinces, on the other hand, each CO had to appear individually before a judge to explain his beliefs. Sometimes this hearing was brief. At other times, the judge did not believe the man's testimony. If the judge thought that a man was not sincere, the judge could deny him CO status and tell him to report to the military.  Read a report

Henry H. Funk has one explanation for this.

“Now and then the judges would send one or two COs to jail. Totally unwarranted, these cases were really exercises in public relations in order to appease the public about us COs. While these individuals did not deserve prison, families which had to sacrifice their young men to the war effort were justifiably hurt that we COs were spared. So, there was perhaps some wisdom in this action of the judges.” [ASM , 138-153]

Sending the occasional CO to jail may have been necessary for political reasons or to intimidate potential COs, but in many ways it just proved that the jailed man was sincere in his beliefs. If he would rather spend six months or a year in jail breaking rocks than be in the army, it showed that he was not afraid to suffer for what he believed.

Even so, the experience was a hard one for the CO and his family. Judge Adamson singled out one CO, who doesn't want his name used.

“I was asked if I were a church member, whether I smoked and drank or went to dances. “What would I do if the Germans won the war and took away my possessions?” [the judge asked]. These questions and many others were not asked in a civil tone, but yelled at, as though Mr. Adamson were raging mad.”

The CO repeated that he didn't think war was right. Finally, Judge Adamson had had enough. If the CO wouldn't join the army, the judge said, he would have to go to jail. The CO refused to join the army and sealed his fate.

“The RCMP picked me up at home on a warrant signed by our local JP [Justice of the Peace]. [I] appeared before [the] JP in Dauphin [and] was remanded one week – that is locked up one week – before being sentenced. Sentence – 6 months hard labor.” [MHC, 1015-67]

At one time, the jail in Headingly, Manitoba, held over thirty COs. All believed that war and killing were wrong, no matter what the situation. One CO, who also doesn't want his name used, “felt one should contribute to the safety of the country but not through the shedding of blood.” The judge found this position unacceptable and sentenced him to six months in jail.

“Part time in Headingly and part time at Portage. At Headingly I worked in a shoe shop and at Portage on the farm which was more to my liking.” 

On the farm, the CO “earned respect for good honest hard work and reliability.” 

“Boss used to say in my presence that he admired me for not swearing and drinking. Working hours were long, up to 18 hours a day. Chores on Sunday, up to 6 hours. No chance to attend church.” [MHC, 1015-88]

Frank Peters also spent time in prison.  He felt he had to be careful what he agreed to.  Read his timeline of being in prisonA lawyer was involved in his case.   He wrote out his story in 1950 and it was published in the periodical Mennonites Welt.  Read the English translation.

At one time there were at least 40 conscientious objectors in various prisons. Of course the backgrounds of the COs were very diverse.  Read an article about Dukhobors COs in prison, about the Holdeman Mennonites in prison. 

The COs were supported by family and friends and often ministers would not only support but try to have the COs released or have lighter sentences (Document 1   Document 2).  David Toews wrote many letters on behalf of the COs.  Read a letter.

Reading the stories of COs who went to jail, one notices the lack of bitterness. They realized that going to prison for the sake of peace showed the world the strength of their beliefs.

JReimer Tue, 01/26/2016 - 11:26

Conscientious Objectors in Prison - Page 2

Conscientious Objectors in Prison - Page 2

John Goossen was a teacher when the war started. He did not believe that violence was right and he told this to the judge at his CO hearing. That statement of faith ended his teaching career. The judge removed his teaching permit and sentenced him to prison. 

“It was on December 1 when we had the court case in Morden, and I had to say good-bye that morning to my children and my pupils in Bergfeld. I loved my students very, very much. They were so dear to my heart, I have a whole box of letters that they sent me; and so I thought, what will I say to my students; I did not know when I was coming back, so I said to them that morning, I said “Let not your hearts be troubled; we believe in God, believe also in me.” And that was the last time that I was a public school teacher.”

“I was sentenced to Headingly for 12 months, and I tell you things were hard. Especially when in Morden, when the police… said I should be six feet under the ground. And you know it is something to be handcuffed. And I remember spending my first night in prison with three other people in Morden, and then we were brought to Winnipeg, and then to be handcuffed, taken to prison. I just want to tell you that experience as a radical was very, very hard.”

“I served in Headingly, and later on in Brandon, and one thing I want to say is this, that I got to know my Bible, and to study it there in prison, is something. Not only that, but I had to change from the German to the English. There are many, many blessed times that we had in prison, where the Lord was so near to us, and he had helped us. I also want to tell you that it is very hard to stand at three or four o'clock in the morning by the bars, and to examine your life, and all the thoughts that come, Lord, how it is.”

“But I want to put in a plug for our government. I love our government, I love Canada, and you know, when I think of how well our government treated us, it is just tremendous. I want to tell you, in Brandon, those of you who went to camp; some of those people said, “Look, my son is a the front line, and here they are sending these people to a holiday resort!” And there is the alternative; and so I just want to tell you that, as far as my stance is concerned, as with Florence Nightingale that said, “True patriotism is to live for our country,” you know, and that is what I want to do, and also for my Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Thank you for letting me share this with you.” [ASM, 154-155]

With teaching no longer an option, Goossen became a minister in the Mennonite church. Those twelve months had not broken his spirit. Goossen turned a negative experience into a positive one by refusing to compromise his faith.

Goossen spent a year in prison even though he had not committed a crime. Sam Martin served even longer.

JReimer Tue, 01/26/2016 - 11:36

Conscientious Objectors in Prison - Page 3

Conscientious Objectors in Prison - Page 3

Of all the COs who spent time in prison, Sam Martin probably served the longest. From 19 April 1944 to 23 October 1945 – over eighteen months – Martin was either in a military prison or a provincial jail. How could this happen to a peace-loving CO?

Click here to hear Sam Martin tell his story.

Martin's first call to report for military training came in late 1942. As a pacifist Mennonite, he appeared before the Mobilization Board in Edmonton in February 1942 to claim conscientious objector status. Many Mennonites before and after Martin had done the same thing. What was unusual, however, was that the board denied his claim.

At the beginning of the war, the judges in Alberta had been more lenient with COs . When they saw that some Mennonites were joining the military voluntarily, the judges began to doubt the sincerity of all the Mennonites. Maybe, the judges thought, more Mennonites would join the military if being a CO wasn't an option. Martin appeared before Judge Harvey.

“Court was composed of Judge Harvey along with a board composed of military and civilian officials. I was asked about my church affiliation – my status in the church – my attendance record – my own personal beliefs, i.e. was it my own or my father's. I firmly believed that the CO position was the only one I could in all conscience take – I gave them the Scripture passages that I thought were relevant. The court reached the conclusion that I had not enough proof of sincerity.” [MHC, 1015-46]  

Because of Martin's value to the local community as a mechanic, the judge gave him a year long postponement before he would have to join the army. Martin still didn't have CO status, but a postponement was better than joining the army. After his year was up, Martin applied for an extension to this postponement. This time, the judge refused. On 23 March 1944, Martin received a letter telling him to report for military training by April 5. He was willing to do alternative service as a CO, but the judge had denied him that option. Martin wrote back saying that he wouldn't go into the army. Martin knew that he would be arrested if he didn't report, but his faith was more important to him.

On April 19, he appeared before the magistrate in Brooks, Alberta. Martin explained his case once again. The magistrate sentenced him to thirty days in provincial jail. Maybe this, the magistrate thought, would scare him into joining the army as the judge had ordered. During this period, Martin was on a bread and water diet for a total of fifteen days. By law, this diet could only be imposed for three days before the prisoner got three days of normal food. All this time, Martin was in solitary confinement.

Martin still hadn't joined the army. After this first sentence, Martin was forcibly inducted into the army. Guards stripped off his clothes and forced on a uniform. Now Martin was officially in the army. That meant that he was under military law. Martin took off the uniform the first chance he got. The army knew that Martin had done very well on physical and intelligence test. They wanted him to become an officer. Martin refused. 

In the army, it is a serious offense to disobey an order. The military only works if soldiers obey their officers. Martin disobeyed a direct order to wear an army uniform. The result was 28 days in the military prison known as Currie Barracks. Still, Martin remained true to his faith. The sentence: another 28 days at Currie Barracks. By July 1944, the military was losing patience. They had restricted his mail, put him in solitary confinement, and put him on a bread and water diet, but Martin refused to wear the uniform.

Both sides remained firm. How far would the army push Martin before he would give in?

The military once again ordered Martin to wear the uniform. As usual, he refused. Martin had already had three sentences of a month each. Now the sentence was 90 days at Currie Barracks. By October 1944, this fourth sentence was finished and the war was coming to an end. By the time Martin finished his basic army training, the war would be over. Still, Martin refused to do even as much as wear the uniform. Martin refused to cooperate with the military authorities if it meant compromising his peace position. The final sentence was the harshest yet. A year and a half at the Lethbridge Provincial Jail. The war ended and still Martin remained in prison. What kept Martin so determined. 

At times, Martin questioned his pacifist beliefs, but he remained strong. When he read certain passages in the Bible, he concluded that he had no choice but to be a CO. Also, his church and family supported him the whole way. After a three week period where he wasn't allowed to receive any mail, a guard dumped 45 letters into his cell – an average of two a day. This support from his family and church gave him the strength to continue. But it wasn't just Mennonites who came to his defence.

“During my incarceration,” Martin writes, “the local community circulated a petition to have me released. This was signed by several hundred people (not Mennonites). It was responsible in part for my transfer from a military to a civilian prison.” [MHC, 1015-46]

On 8 November 1945, the army gave Martin an industrial leave to work at his brother's garage. Martin received an honourable discharge from the army, but his certificate noted his “twenty-three months non-effective service.”

Finally, after a year and a half, Sam Martin was a free man. Some significant dates in Sam Martin's story.

“I owe debts of gratitude to a lot of people, especially to my church. They not only worked to help in every way they could, but they kept in touch with me through hundreds of letters. It was their prayers that got me through. I always knew I had my home church behind me. Through this experience I received an understanding of what it means to be the church that has never left me. It is much more than an association of people. It is a body and when one member suffers, the whole body suffers. I am grateful also to the larger church family, particularly the people in Ontario whom I didn't even know but who worked on my behalf. I am indebted also to some government officials such as the prison warden at Lethbridge and others who became sympathetic to my situation.” [Janzen and Greaser, 33]

JReimer Tue, 01/26/2016 - 11:45

Conscientious Objectors in Prison - Page 4

Conscientious Objectors in Prison - Page 4

Peter Friesen was another CO sentenced to jail as an example to others.

“My encounter with the public as a CO started when I put up a poster, opposing conscription, in the window of my business place…. After several weeks or so, one of the local returned soldiers of World War I had a serious exchange of words with me. He said I had no business running a business and should have been put in a concentration camp. He left saying that he had been paid $1.25 a day for shooting people like me…. He also went to town and complained that I had things stored on my premises that endangered the community. Next day the town police came to investigate, but the only thing that he recommended I do away with were the empty gasoline drums. I promptly removed them from my premises.”

“In the meantime quite a few Mennonite boys had been picked up as COs , and taken to different camps. John Pauls of Purves chose CO status, but the local prosecutor strongly argued against it. He was sentenced to one year in Headingly jail. After the hearing he was put in a cell in the Manitou town hall, where I visited him that night. A young Mountie was guarding him all night. Soon after that I received my call. I informed my church and they advised me to get in contact with Mr. A. Buhr. The churches had engaged him to act as a lawyer on behalf of the COs. He asked me when I would be ready for a hearing, and I asked him to delay it so that I could clean up my business affairs.”

 “About six weeks later my hearing came up, and anybody that knew about it, showed up to listen in. Mr. Buhr put up a good argument and convinced the judge that it would not be right to put me in jail as I had volunteered for any other service, except to become a soldier. The judge postponed the sentence until he had more information as to the possibility of my being employed in some other essential service. I was free to go on $1000.00 bail. But I was to be available at any time the government wanted me.”

“My next hearing came in November, and people were very interested in finding out what would happen. The room couldn't hold all the people that showed up for the hearing. During the hearing the crown prosecutor again brought up the seriousness of the war, in which the allies were losing on all fronts, and men were desperately needed. The two lawyers put up good arguments and it came to quite serious and hard discussions.”

“Toward the end the judge asked me some different questions. One of the last was what I would do if someone would forcibly try to take my property. I said I didn't know what I would do, but I remembered when the Bolsheviks in Russia took our last two horses from the barn, my father tried to stop them at the door. He was just pushed aside and threatened with a gun. The judge asked if that was all my father did. I said it would have been very unwise to do more as two men had already been shot in the village. The bandits rode off with the horses and we never saw them again. The judge gave me a serious look and sentenced me to one year in jail. He also informed me that he had tried to look for alternative work, but in my case it was the law to sentence me. He then placed me in charge of the Mounties. Many people came and shook my hand and wished me well.” [TTbP, 71-78]

JReimer Tue, 01/26/2016 - 11:53

Conscientious Objectors in Prison - Page 5

Conscientious Objectors in Prison - Page 5

He was allowed to spend the night at home. In the morning, a Mountie drove him to


“When we came into the office, I without handcuffs or anything, the staff was rather surprised, and wondered what I was in for. I was ordered to hang up my coat and take a seat, during which time my Mountie explained what it was all about. After a while I was told by another Mountie to follow him. I was asked to take off my jacket and a number was pinned on my shirt. Then I was asked to sit on a high chair whereupon I was photographed from front and both sides. Then I was sent to another room and my fingerprints were taken. Then I was sent back to the waiting rooms."

“I was there all by myself until about 2:30, when my Mountie came and told me to get ready. We then went to his car and the took me to Vaughan Street. Then he went out and the guard shut the barred doors. I then noticed that I was in jail. I sat down on the bench, with my coat and rubbers on. I didn't think that it was worthwhile to take them off. Nothing happened for some time.”

Then the police brought in a homeless man.  

“So now I was there alone again with the snoring prisoner. Except for changing sides he slept and snored without interruption. At about five o'clock the outside door opened again. Two men came into the office and asked the guard, “What have you got for us today?” The guard open the door to our room. A big policeman walked in and shouted, “Line up!” In an instant the other fellow was on his feet. He put on his cap and coat in a hurry, walked up the policeman and held out his left hand."            

“The policeman put on a handcuff, then looked at me, and in a loud voice said, “You there. Come here!” All this time I sat here and watched, never thinking that I was to be included in this line up. He asked for my right arm, pulled it up to the handcuff, and clamped it on my right hand. I was now handcuffed to this vagrant. The policeman then ordered us to follow him to the bus. He opened the door and told us to get in. Inside were several more policemen and one ordered us to take a seat on the right side of the bus. The seat was rather tight as we had our coats on. I did not feel very good sitting in such a tight spot with this vagrant. However, regardless of how hard I tried to create some distance between us, it was impossible.” [TTbP, 71-78]

JReimer Tue, 01/26/2016 - 14:44

Conscientious Objectors in Prison - Page 6

Conscientious Objectors in Prison - Page 6

Peter Friesen continues his story.

“Soon we arrived at Headingly. We were let out first, and my partner was anxious to get inside. After going through the two barred doors, we went into a fairly large room…. After we were uncoupled, we were told to take all our clothes off. A prisoner registered every article…. I was handed a two piece underwear suit, and a shirt that was not big enough. The pants I could not close in front and the belt was barely long enough. The shoes were also too small. I was then told to follow the guard. I was not very comfortable in the whole outfit.”


“I was led into a dormitory where there were twenty bunk beds. The lower bunks are occupied first and the prisoners that come in last take the uppers. There was only one prisoner in the dormitory at that time. I was supplied with a mattress, blanket, and pillow. They gave me instructions on how to handle my bedding, which had to be rolled up with the blanket and pillow on the inside, and left that way all day. You were also supplied with a stool to sit on and a little desk with one shelf on which to put your personal belongings."

“While this was taking place the other prisoners came in. The guard left, and left the door open. There were two wash basins and two toilets in each dormitory. These other prisoners then went and washed themselves as facilities became available. They were barely finished when the call for supper came. In the meantime I had found that some of the prisoners were talking low German. I introduced myself to one of them who then introduced me to the other Mennonite fellows who were there. In this dormitory there were: A. Friesen, P. Dyck, A. Derksen, P. Friesen, also a Klassen, a Harder, and a Schroeder. I also found out that John Pauls from Purves was in the kitchen. Except for Pauls, the rest all worked in the different barns.”

“We then went for supper. The dining room was large, with three long tables which could hold up to 250 men. There was room to set up more tables. The two outside tables were full, but the middle one was only about one quarter full. This same room was used for church services or entertainment. The meal consisted of a cup of coffee, a small amount of potatoes, and bologna. The coffee was made in the kitchen with the prescribed amount of sugar and milk allowed for this purpose already added to it. You didn't have to drink it. There was a can of water on the table and you could drink water if you preferred to do so. There were no second helpings. If you needed more you ate bread. There were always two guards there at meal time, one at each end of the room. The one at the front end of the room sat on a high stool and kept an eye on the tables. They allowed you 20 minutes for eating. You could stay longer only with permission. This was because no ordinary prisoner was allowed to be in the dining room unless a guard was with him.”

“After the meal every prisoner proceeded to his dormitory or cell. There were guards on all floors. The doors were left open. One could go to the library and ask for a book, or visit with prisoners from other dormitories. Soon after that the doors were locked and except for the guard making his round every so often, there was no communication of any kind other than with your fellow prisoners in your dormitory. You were now allowed to unroll your mattress, and prepare yourself for bed. At nine o'clock the loudspeakers and lights went out.” [TTbP, 71-78]

Because Friesen was a businessman, the guards assigned him to the library to keep track of the books. Later, he was transferred to the bakery. When labour became scarce, he spent some time working on the prison farm. In all, Friesen spent 8 months in jail.

JReimer Tue, 01/26/2016 - 14:48