Not all the conscientious objectors were interested in forestry work. Many felt that they had the ability to be of service elsewhere. Doing forestry, agricultural, and industrial work during the war was necessary, and many COs enjoyed this service. Others, however, felt that their usefulness lay elsewhere. A number of COs volunteered for hospital service.
Hospital service may seem out of place when compared to the other jobs COs performed, but it was also of national importance. Also, since COs working in a hospital had to interact with patients and staff on a daily basis, it was a good opportunity to give a Christian witness.
This is one of the reasons Jake Reimer liked working in a hospital.
“In the mental hospital the work was interesting and challenging. Here we did not have to talk about our Christianity, but rather live it, and people respond far quicker to action than words.” [MHC, 1015-43]
Surrounded by like-minded COs in a forestry camp, there were fewer opportunities to be a Christian example to non-believers. In the hospital, Jake asserted, “we could live our Christianity” in another way.
The hospital experience was a powerful one for COs. Years later, some still remember details about their arrival and their daily routine. Henry H. Funk served at the Hospital for Mentally Defectives in Portage la Prairie, Manitoba. His first experience with the hospital and its patients speaks for many COs.
“Once I came near the building and they could see me they turned their full attention and scrutiny on me – with appropriate and loud commentary. My arrival afforded them a bit of diversion from their otherwise extremely monotonous existence and they made the most of it. Later I would learn to know some of them personally and to like them as individuals and as persons. At the moment, however, I was plain scared. Society had a lot of prejudiced notions about the mentally ill and I shared those notions. They sounded strange and acted strange and looked strange and they were part of my yet very strange future.”
The hospital was large.
“There were about 700 patients at Portage. The female wards were taken care of by ladies and the male wards by men. While I began in the nursery, eventually we got to work on most of the male wards and on various shifts. Also there were outside jobs on the grounds and gardens, working with small groups of male patients. The work the patients did was mostly in the line of occupational care. They were not worked hard.”
Although their supervisors and co-workers were initially suspicious, Henry writes that the COs soon earned respect and trust.
“Relationships at work were positive – both among COs and with others with whom we worked. We worked five days a week and our two days off were usually together. Once we were familiar with the routine on the various wards it was easy to trade shifts and days off. That way we could line up four or even six consecutive days off with which to go home on leave. Mr. Inglis [the medical superintendent] was very lenient with us about this. He said that he knew one of us would be on duty in each place even if he did not always know who. Soon we started trading with the regular staff too and soon they started helping each other out as well. This never used to happen before, they said.” [ASM, 138-153]