Conscientious objectors claimed CO status because they thought war was wrong. They contributed labour and expertise to many different areas of Canadian society during the war. Jake Penner, of Gretna, Manitoba, demonstrated that when he was assigned to Pickle Crow Goldmines in Ontario.
Here he worked every day deep below the surface of the earth. How deep? It was deeper underground than the tallest building is above the ground. The CN Tower in Toronto, the world's tallest building, is 553 metres tall. Jake worked at 579 metres underground. How did he end up down there?
“On January 21st, 1943 I got my medical call for checkup, the doctor said I was O.K. On June 23rd, 1943 I was called to take the stand before Judge Adamson of Morden in [the] Morden court house. My younger brother Dave was called with me at the same time. After much questioning the judge said I'd make a good miner so he sentenced me to Pickle Crow Goldmines, Ontario.”
Dave was married, so Judge Adamson allowed him to make monthly payments to the Red Cross instead of leaving his family. Two weeks later, Jake left home to go to the mines.
“I was ordered to report to Selective Service in Wpg July 7th, 1943 and left Winnipeg at 7:30 PM by train and arrived at Sioux Lookout, Ontario 2:30 AM July 8th …. At Sioux Lookout a taxi came and picked me up from the station and drove me to Caswell's boarding house; he was also the taxi driver. The hot water system was on the blink and 5 ½ months later when I returned it still was off. He never had it fixed. I was to fly into the mines that day but the plane was full so had to wait till next day. So on the 9th at about 1:00 PM I took the plane to Pickle Crow Goldmines which is about 125 miles [200 km] northeast of Sioux Lookout which took about 1 hr + 25 minutes to make the trip. It was a very hot day and it was very hot on the plane. We landed at Pickle Lake and a taxi was waiting for me so I got in and drove about 9 miles [14 km] inland before we reached the mines.”
Jake did not know anyone at the mine and he did not have any mining experience. The first thing he had to go was get flu shots from the doctor to make sure that he did not get sick. Then he began work. Listen to him tell you what his days at the mine were like.
“Our living quarters were in two storey bunk houses steam heated quite comfortable. We had breakfast at 7 AM go to the mine 7:30 change into our work clothes for underground which are hanging in the dryer and are hung up by ropes strung over a pulley and are hanging high off the floor. We go down by a steel cage with a cage man signaling by pulling a ringer making a buzzing sound while a man in the control room sends the cage to the level where we were to go. I was tram helper at times, it's like a small train with tracks and a battery operated motor. We'd drive to the chute and fill the cars one by one by opening the chute which operated by air. In the morning we start at 8:00 AM and get out at 4 PM . Then there's also the night shift that goes down after day shift is finished. I worked with the drillers and helped them load these holes with dynamite and they were set off before we left our shift and the next shift would clean up the loose rocks which is called mucking which I sometimes also did. The mine is quite cool and wet and we wear woolen underwear heavy steel toes rubber boots and hard hats with electric lamp operated by a battery hanging on your belt. The mine shaft was down to 2200 feet [670 m] but the levels [where we worked did not begin until] about 1900 feet [579 m] down.”
The miners worried about the mine shaft collapsing, or not being able to get fresh air, or having something go wrong with the dynamite. Every person had to be careful. The lives of the other men depended on it. With their work, they earned their food.
“In the morning we'd go through the kitchen and pick up our lunch box which was filled with 4 sandwiches, 1 orange, 1 piece of pie, 1 piece of cake. Sandwiches have cheese, salmon, sardines, ham, beef and we need only say what we want. Then of course we have a thermos bottle of hot coffee, tea, or cocoa etc. The meals are very good with fruit, pie, cookies + desserts, fish every Friday, meat and just about any thing you could think of.”
After his time at the mine was finished, Jake had time to reflect on his experience.
“I felt very unhappy at being ordered against my will to go to the mines, but after I returned I knew God had been with me all the time. In a place like that you find many drinking, cursing men and it tests your strength as a Christian…. I held no grudge against Judge Adamson for sentencing me, for my health was better after that experience and I had been drawn much closer to God and I'm sure I left a good impression to many although they kidded me at times about my Christian beliefs they respected me and as friends they were very good. I am sure my mother's prayers followed me and it was a happy reunion when I returned home.”
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Abram J. Thiessen also worked at Pickle Crow gold mines. He came from the forestry camps in BC to try something new, and he quickly showed his potential.
“[After Christmas holidays,] Pete Berg and I decided to work in the Pickle Crow gold mine. At that time there was no road and we flew to the mine 200 km or so north from Sioux Lookout in northern Ontario . After a month Pete decided to go back to camp but I stayed till almost the end of March. I rather enjoyed my work and the management did try very hard to get me to stay. They gave me a course in mining by giving me a teacher who was a fully qualified mining engineer and a very nice pureblood Native. After six weeks I passed all the necessary tests.” [ASM, 42]
Even so, he decided to return to the forestry camps in BC when his time in the mine was up.
Coal was even more important than gold to the Canadian economy. Coal from Saskatchewan was vital to Canadian society. It was used to heat homes during Canada's long, cold winters and to generate electricity. Even today, seventy percent of Saskatchewan's electrical energy comes from coal-powered plants. Since many miners had joined the army, the coal mines were in desperate need of workers. Justice Embury, a judge who worked with COs, even encouraged them to work in the mines.
The mining companies in Saskatchewan had both underground mines and surface mines. Henry H. Funk worked in an underground coal mine even before he got his call for military service..
“In June, 1942, I had graduated from the Altona high School. That summer was spent helping on the farm. That fall we were recruited for the coal mines. There was a big labour shortage in the nation. Many young farm boys were idle at home during the winter. Now employment people came to southern Manitoba to seek our help for the winter months for the coal mines in southern Saskatchewan. This was an essential industry. We were assured that our draft would be postponed until we got back – and it was. There were perhaps a couple of dozen fellows from Gretna, Altona, Rosenfeld, Plum Coulee, and Winkler who responded. We were taken by train on the Deloraine line, west to Melita and then on a different line to the Estevan/Bienfait area in Saskatchewan. Here we were picked up by truck and taken to Taylerton, the production site of the Western Dominion coal mine.”
“In due time we were outfitted with work clothing including rubber boots, coveralls, hard hats fitted with carbide lamps, etc. Soon the hoist dropped us 160 feet [49 m] down the shaft into the bowels of the earth and we were coal miners…. Our roles varied. Since this was a mechanized mine there was little traditional pick and shovel work. At home I was teased that my work was to pick up the little pieces…. I had only a slight build and at that time I was quite slim. They could not picture me as a tough, robust coal miner.”
“My actual job was to be a “trip-rider” – switch man for the underground railway. The whole mine was equipped with a rail system and all the heavy equipment moved on rails, driven by electricity from a heavy trolley line attached to the ceiling of the tunnels. I was assigned as a switch man to one of the heavy electric engines which were used to pull/push the coal cars around. These were open box cars that could hold 4 tons of coal each.”
“There was some danger there. During our four months two men died in industrial accidents. Some of us had close calls but we were young. Living with the situation on a daily basis we did not see the danger.”
The other miners looked out for these newcomers.
“The regular miners were good to us youngsters. Many of them… were fine people! Some of them were more crusty and tough. One old miner claimed he could swear for five minutes without repeating himself once. We never timed him but he sure knew how. A few of our boys felt the need to salt their language with profanity too. But we soon found out that even the tough miners did not respect that. They accepted us better if we [acted] straight.” [ASM, 140-141]
The surface mining was different, but equally difficult. George Schmidt worked as a coal loader.
“After the fall work was completed on the ranch he applied to work in one of the strip mines south of Tofield during the winter. The deep layer of earth 20'-25' [50-64 cm], was removed by caterpillar, ripper and scraper. The 8-foot [2.4 m] seam of soft coal was then mined by teams of four men each, filling rail cars by wheelbarrow, using a ramp. Each crew was expected to fill a forty ton rail car daily. Under normal circumstances, if the seam came apart easily and there was no snow on the ramp they could finish by early afternoon. Most of the coal was used in the domestic market. Since mining was deemed an essential service, men were freed from war service to do mining in the winter time.” [ASP, 159]
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John Siemens worked at a coal mine in southern Alberta before he was called to the military. He planned on joining the Medical Corps, an option that would satisfy both his need for adventure and his pacifist conscience, but he was not allowed. Canada needed miners so badly that John's mining company could not afford to let him leave for alternative service.
“There were many mines in the valley and the surrounding districts. As eastern Canada's industrial base grew, the demand for coal from the valley increased until some 138 mines were operating in the Drumheller coal jurisdiction. The mine made visible progress in technology, using electricity and hydraulics, mechanized loaders, a trolley and battery operated shuttle motors. Nevertheless, a mix of the old and the new characterized the transition.”
“When John had entered mine work, he was of draft age and had been exploring the opportunities that might come. It would not be an easy choice, since his faith conflicted with the unholiness of war. Yet he harboured a youthful hankering for broader experience favouring some form of participation, not directly military since that was a matter of conscience, but possibly in the Medical Corps.”
“‘The Call' to report for service came when John had settled in his mind that the Medical Corps presented no conscience difficulty. John was still part of the MB [Mennonite Brethren] church community but he was already in the work force of the greater world and both of these influenced him now. The fathers of faith had been thinking about the welfare of their sons in the eventuality of war and so had the mine management, about its employees. Mr. Klassen (the preacher) and Mr. Warkentin intervened to obtain CO status, which would direct John to camp service. When Century Coals became aware of John's call they fired off a double or triple registered letter to the Mobilization Board intervening and requesting him to stay in mine work. Without any real personal decision or help from church elders, he received notice to stay on in mine work.”
“Now he was forced to stay in mining. Since it was wartime, the government froze you to a job. Work in the mine was never easy, physically demanding, and one always had to be alert. John was thankful for his upbringing: to be careful about all things, punctual and respectful of others. The tasks could be anything from pleasurable to ugly, from fairly clean to very dirty – but no matter what, one must always exude an air of pride in the work. John felt good about what he was doing and was ready to work in the morning.”
“The crunch, the pressure of poverty, and nature of mining, its dangers and work frustrations brought out the worst in some people. In his early days as a miner, John was challenged about his clean life style: “Wait until you're here for a while and you will be like us: cursing, gambling and drinking.” He tested the validity of Christian principles and high morals and ethics in the work place. Honesty and a disciplined way of life built a trusting relationship not only with management, but also with his working partners.” [Based on an interview by Henry Goerzen, ASP, 180-181]
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Isaac Derksen and Abe Kehler worked for M&S (Manitoba and Saskatchewan) Coal Mines in Bienfait, Saskatchewan during the winter of 1942-1943. The next summer they returned home to do farm work. That fall they returned to the coal mines. The government realized that not all men could go to war. Those in jobs that were important were frozen to their positions. Because both Derksen and Kehler had CO status and because mining was essential work, the government froze them in their jobs. That meant they couldn't leave until after the war. The mining company had to verify periodically that they were still working. Isaac and Abe didn't leave until 1947.
“I worked with a team of horses moving loaded cars to be taken up to the surface and bringing empty cars to be loaded. The coal was taken to the surface where it was crushed and screened for size. The horses remained underground during the operating season but were brought up and put on pasture during the summer months. A horse was injured and they were debating whether it should be destroyed. I did not think the injury was that serious and suggested trying to save it. A veterinarian soon had the horse back in shape for working.”
“While loading coal one day, my cousin Jake Kehler and I felt strangely tired. We had just decided to finish loading this car and then take a rest when the foreman suddenly appeared and at the top of his voice ordered us to “Get out of here!” When we suggested that we would finish loading this car first, he continued, “Never mind that car. Pick up your lunch kit and get out, you have no oxygen.” Once safely in his room, he explained that a cave-in had blocked the passageway that fed oxygen to the area where we worked. He then severely reprimanded those experienced miners who were working in that area, for leaving without warning these inexperienced men about the danger. Otherwise we might have suspected that when our carbide lamps would not burn properly and we felt tired, that something must be wrong. The carbide lamps were later replaced with electric lights operating with a rechargeable 8 volt battery.”
“One day the foreman gave us a well deserved lecture about some mistake that we had made. The cutting machine operator, feeling that his pride had been hurt, found some poor excuse to stay away from work. When the foreman found out that he was not there, he asked if I would like to take over the job. I did not want to create hard feelings so I declined the offer. The foremen seemed to favor the Mennonite men, probably because the union men went strictly by the book and refused to go an inch beyond what the union required of them while the Mennonites would pitch in and do whatever needed to be done.”
“After the coal in the wall had been cut, a small charge of blasting powder was used to bring the coal down. This left an area of the ceiling exposed and it was usually shored up to prevent it from falling down. One day a patch of ceiling looked a bit risky and it was suggested that it might be better to prop it up. But the head of our group insisted that we keep on loading. The next morning we found that the ceiling had come down piling up rubble right up to the machine.”
“A workman shunting a loading car accidentally fell off and was crushed to death. A foreman immediately called a halt to any further work that day.
“As mentioned before, we were frozen to our jobs there. We got our release in the fall of 1946, but we had no jobs waiting for us if we went home, so we stayed on through the winter of 1946 and left for home in the spring of 1947.” [ASM, 53-54]