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. (See the chart of COs according to religious affiliation).

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.

Summary of the major project work May 4th, 1942 - March 31, 1944. (not complete time of service)

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.

Mennonites respect life and freedom and seek to live in peaceful existence with God's creation. While we acknowledge the sincerity of those who serve in the military, we believe in the power of truth, justice, and love rather than in the power of war. We respect those who answered the call to arms during the Second World War. We also deeply appreciate that Mennonites were able to respond in ways that reflected our convictions. We believe that the story of conscientious objectors is an important part of history.