Conscientious Objectors in Prison

A young man stands before the judge. The judge reads the sentence – “Six months hard labour!” – and bangs his gavel to dismiss the court. The young man is stunned. How could this happen, he wonders. His only “crime” was applying for conscientious objector status. Why was he, among thousands of other COs, singled out?  

Although Canada, on the whole, treated conscientious objectors fairly and allowed them to do alternative service, a few served prison sentences as punishment for their beliefs. In Ontario, the historic peace churches made lists of sincere men who wanted to become COs. The judges in that province accepted the word of the churches. In the prairie provinces, on the other hand, each CO had to appear individually before a judge to explain his beliefs. Sometimes this hearing was brief. At other times, the judge did not believe the man's testimony. If the judge thought that a man was not sincere, the judge could deny him CO status and tell him to report to the military.  Read a report

Henry H. Funk has one explanation for this.

“Now and then the judges would send one or two COs to jail. Totally unwarranted, these cases were really exercises in public relations in order to appease the public about us COs. While these individuals did not deserve prison, families which had to sacrifice their young men to the war effort were justifiably hurt that we COs were spared. So, there was perhaps some wisdom in this action of the judges.” [ASM , 138-153]

Sending the occasional CO to jail may have been necessary for political reasons or to intimidate potential COs, but in many ways it just proved that the jailed man was sincere in his beliefs. If he would rather spend six months or a year in jail breaking rocks than be in the army, it showed that he was not afraid to suffer for what he believed.

Even so, the experience was a hard one for the CO and his family. Judge Adamson singled out one CO, who doesn't want his name used.

“I was asked if I were a church member, whether I smoked and drank or went to dances. “What would I do if the Germans won the war and took away my possessions?” [the judge asked]. These questions and many others were not asked in a civil tone, but yelled at, as though Mr. Adamson were raging mad.”

The CO repeated that he didn't think war was right. Finally, Judge Adamson had had enough. If the CO wouldn't join the army, the judge said, he would have to go to jail. The CO refused to join the army and sealed his fate.

“The RCMP picked me up at home on a warrant signed by our local JP [Justice of the Peace]. [I] appeared before [the] JP in Dauphin [and] was remanded one week – that is locked up one week – before being sentenced. Sentence – 6 months hard labor.” [MHC, 1015-67]

At one time, the jail in Headingly, Manitoba, held over thirty COs. All believed that war and killing were wrong, no matter what the situation. One CO, who also doesn't want his name used, “felt one should contribute to the safety of the country but not through the shedding of blood.” The judge found this position unacceptable and sentenced him to six months in jail.

“Part time in Headingly and part time at Portage. At Headingly I worked in a shoe shop and at Portage on the farm which was more to my liking.” 

On the farm, the CO “earned respect for good honest hard work and reliability.” 

“Boss used to say in my presence that he admired me for not swearing and drinking. Working hours were long, up to 18 hours a day. Chores on Sunday, up to 6 hours. No chance to attend church.” [MHC, 1015-88]

Frank Peters also spent time in prison.  He felt he had to be careful what he agreed to.  Read his timeline of being in prisonA lawyer was involved in his case.   He wrote out his story in 1950 and it was published in the periodical Mennonites Welt.  Read the English translation.

At one time there were at least 40 conscientious objectors in various prisons. Of course the backgrounds of the COs were very diverse.  Read an article about Dukhobors COs in prison, about the Holdeman Mennonites in prison. 

The COs were supported by family and friends and often ministers would not only support but try to have the COs released or have lighter sentences (Document 1   Document 2).  David Toews wrote many letters on behalf of the COs.  Read a letter.

Reading the stories of COs who went to jail, one notices the lack of bitterness. They realized that going to prison for the sake of peace showed the world the strength of their beliefs.