John J. Bergen was born in 1922. In September 1940, at the age of 18, he started teaching “on permit” in Big Black River on the northeast shore of Lake Winnipeg . Because of the shortage of teachers during the war years, Bergen and several others were asked to shorten their teacher preparation courses to take up positions in schools. With this approval from the government, Bergen accepted a job in the Hopeland School District teaching grades one to nine. Since all but two of his 26 students were Mennonites, Bergen included some German items in the Christmas program. The parents of the two non-German children took offense and left.
A few months later, the father of the departed students accused Bergen of posting pictures of Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini, the leaders of Canada's enemies. The father refused to accept Bergen's explanation that the pictures were part of a current events project, and that the Allied leaders were included as well.
In the winter of 1942, the Department of Education encouraged teachers to sell War Savings Stamps. Bergen, knowing that this was voluntary, wrote a letter to the Department explaining why, as a pacifist, he did not feel that it was right to support the war by selling stamps. Bergen received a swift reply:
“The opinions you expressed in this letter, in my opinion, should not be held by anyone teaching children in this province…. “Love thine enemy” may be a very fine belief but when our enemy is trying to deprive us of our homes…. I think love must cease…. I wonder what would happen in Germany today to anyone who wrote such a letter as yours? I do not believe they would ever have an opportunity to write a second one.”
Bergen received another letter a week later.
“These statements [from Bergen 's original letter] have created definite doubt as to whether you should be in charge of a school in his province. You are hereby notified to appear before a meeting of a Discipline Committee of this Department on Friday, February 19th.”
Ironically, Bergen's class had supported a very successful Red Cross campaign to ease suffering from the war. The Department didn't take this into account at the discipline hearing. At the meeting, Bergen received a letter from the Minister of Education.
“This is to advise you your teaching certificate is suspended in this Province pending the decision following the report of the Discipline Committee.”
The committee asked why Bergen refused to serve Canada in the military. Bergen replied that he would gladly serve in the Medical Corps if he did not have to bear arms. This option was not available at that time, so the committee found his answer unacceptable.
Seven months later, when the option to serve in the Medical Corps became available, Bergen enlisted as a non-combatant. He then asked to have his teaching certificate returned, since he was serving his country. In May 1946, one year after the war ended, Bergen had his licence reinstated.
Thirty years later, in 1975, Bergen wrote to the Deputy Minister of Education. Bergen wanted his case reopened.
“My certificate was cancelled because I declared myself a conscientious objector to participation in active violence. I declared my willingness to participate in a non-combatant capacity. When the latter became legally possible, I joined the forces and was placed in the Dental Corps. Nothing changed with respect to the position I held on the basis of conviction and conscience between the time my certificate was cancelled and the time my certificate was reinstated. Since that was the case, I hold that the first decision was based in the context of the then political climate, understandable in a time of war, and not based rationally or in justice.”
He received this reply from the Director of Teacher Certification and Records.
“On July 11, 1975, the Deputy Minister of Education, R.W. Dalton, made the following recommendation to the Minister of Education, the Hon. Ben Hanuschak: ‘In view of the fact that Mr. Bergen did serve his country during the war, and society's attitudes towards war have changed in the last thirty years, and that Mr. Bergen's record as a certificated teacher was unimpeachable, I wish to recommend to you that the cancellation of Mr. Bergen's certificate be expunged from the record and that retroactively he be considered certified during the period of cancellation.'” [Mennonite Life, September 1993]
View Bergen's original documents.