Teaching Japanese Children
Wilson Hunsberger grew up in Waterloo , Ontario attending Erb Street Mennonite Church. His first alternative service experience was in Montreal River , Ontrario in 1941 where he worked on what became the Trans Canada highway. In June 1942 He was transferred to Koksilah camp on Shawnigan Lake, BC . Here he collected a series of photos of his experiences which have been preserved at Mennonite Archives of Ontario, Conrad Grebel University College in Waterloo.
Because Hunsberger had taught school for one year before his alternative service he was chosen in the fall of 1943 to be the teacher for 6 Japanese children from 3 families in Nays, Ontario. The children and their families were taken out of Vancouver and sent to Chalk River, Ontario because they were seen as a threat to national security. The parents complained that their children were not receiving any education in Chalk River and thus were sent to Nays where they met up with Wilson Hunsberger.
Hunsberger taught grades 1-8 using the Ontario curriculum. The children were excellent students and some went on to careers as engineers. This had been a great experience for Hunsberger who maintained contact with the students for decades.
Teachers in Northern Manitoba
Only a handful of conscientious objectors served as teachers in northern Manitoba. Other teachers were either needed in their home communities or, in the early years of the war, stripped of their teaching permits.
The United Church, a large Canadian church, had established schools and churches in many Native areas. Because these areas were isolated – often in northern Canada far away from any city – working there required dedication. Often, United Church ministers in these small northern communities also taught school. When the Second World War started, many of the United Church ministers volunteered to serve in the army. Mennonite COs were among those recruited to take the place of these ministers.
George Groening was one the teachers asked to go up north.
“In summer 1944 I was given a choice to return to forestry work or go to teach on an Indian Reservation at Norway House. Seeing it as an opportunity to broaden my experience, I opted to teach at the Indian School. Nettie and I decided to get married so she could join me. We were married August 13, 1944 and two weeks later we were on our way to Norway House. I was to be the senior teacher and Nettie would assist with children at the residential school. Learning to know the Native people was a very good experience. I was deeply impressed by some of their elders. The schools, however, left much to be desired – no records of previous work and no supervisor or inspector to check up on our work. I often wished there would have been someone to ask how to do things.
“I was disappointed in how the organized church and the Department of Indian Affairs viewed the Native people. They were treated like possessions and seemingly had no say in what was done. I felt that the Native people should have had more say about their education and welfare system, as well as more control of the justice system. Taking young six to eight-year-olds out of their homes for a whole year was very painful, since these children felt extremely lonely.”
Groening's time in Norway House changed him forever.
“In retrospect, I gained a deep respect and love for our Native people. For this reason, I served as chairman of the Mennonite Pioneer Mission Board, later known as Native Ministries Board, for 12 years. We worked to improve teaching and health care, and at Pauingassi, helped build new homes for the entire settlement.” [ASP, 98]
Henry Gerbrandt also served in northern Manitoba. He agrees that the time spent in northern service had many positive effects.
“I believe it was [a good Christian witness]. Because of our work, in all we were twenty-seven young men in this northern service, the Mennonite Church began its northern mission work. Through it also we bridged many gaps to the United and the Catholic churches. As COs we worked with these groups. I visited the Catholic activities and they did mine. I still find that some of those connections have been good.”
Gerbrandt's CO stand was not popular. The overall effect may have been positive, but he had to endure some harassment along the way.
“I had more trouble getting my permit to teach as a conscientious objector than I had getting that status [as a CO]. During my first year I had no restrictions. During the second year I paid Red Cross money, and the United Church, under whose umbrella I taught, was very suspicious. I possibly endured more persecution from co-ministers, teachers and doctors in the north than from official government people.
“They used strange tactics. It was always rumored that I had German connections. The Indians even believed a story that a German U-boat had come up the Nelson River to get instructions from me. I received a letter from the United Church Head Office that unless I discontinued my German activities they would have to release me. This puzzled me. Finally the source was discovered. A doctor, school principal, and a minister had spread the stories to get rid of us. When the United Church Head Office discovered the plot they forced these men to come and apologize and kill the rumours on threat of being dismissed.” [MHC, 1015-4]