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.