Norman Levi Weber worked in a forestry camp in Ontario. There, unlike in the BC Forestry Service, the COs interacted with non-COs on the job.
“What was the reaction of our boss and the other lumberjacks to us? They had never heard of a Mennonite, let alone a CO. They were not very interested in our beliefs, but accepted us and in time we earned their respect. Mr. Krause [the camp boss] was more interested in work ethic. When we first came to camp, the timekeeper told us, 'Boys, you should know that this man usually has three gangs of men, one coming, one going and one working.' So we really wondered what lay ahead."
“Since each skidder worked by himself, Mr. Krause felt he should check up on our work habits. Several times I spotted him back in the timber, trying to hide behind a tree watching while you worked. I guess he was impressed by what he observed, because one evening, after several weeks at camp, he told us, 'You guys are the best crew I have ever had. Usually I have trouble with the bush gang not putting out.' Needless to say, this compliment made us feel good.” [ASP, 205]
The Victoria Times also praised the hard work of the COs. Near the end of the war, they noted that the
“Withdrawal of conscientious objectors from the B.C. forestry camps on Selective Service orders returning them to their farms, will cost the provincial forestry branch the most effective fire fighting service it has ever had.” [ASM, 287]
Even when people in the community did not agree with pacifism, the COs often won them over. People could seldom deny that the COs worked hard and did valuable service. A.J. Funk was working in BC when he and some friends met an unfriendly businessman.
“When we were looking at and discussing gifts in a gift shop with some soldiers one time, the proprietor asked us to leave, saying it was a disgrace to see us beside a person in uniform. After we told our superiors about the sad event, they apparently had a serious discussion with the gift shop proprietor, explaining to him that COs were improving the parks, repairing telephone lines, building and gravelling trails, supplying the mines with props, and cutting firewood for stores and fire places where needed. A few weeks later the proprietor apologized through the daily paper. This experience strengthened our faith and gave us new courage to help build our beloved country.” [ASM, 219-220]
There is no doubt that the COs worked hard, but that is not the real measure of their success. If we look at why the COs chose not to fight, it was often for spiritual reasons. No matter how many fires they fought or how many trees they planted, the witness of the COs would not have been successful if they had not been able to maintain harmonious relationships with the wider community.
One CO, assigned to Elmira, Ontario, to chop fuel wood, shares an experience of a remarkable transformation of community and military opinion.
“We were not immediately accepted in the area, but, after proving ourselves at a number of fires etc. we were even accepted by the military. I personally developed many friendships lasting to the present time, among the people living in the area. It seems we were respected, and quite frequently we had members of the armed forces spend their week-end leaves in our camp.” [MHC, 1015-3]
David Goerzen tells an even more powerful story.
“A neighbor, an ex-soldier of [World] War I who just lost a son on active duty happened by the day I had to leave [for the forestry camps]. After being told of my departure he said “It is good that some people stand up for their convictions.” I do not live within a Mennonite community. My neighbors have never held a grudge. Without exception my Christian convictions are respected to this day. No one has ever mocked or made fun of this stand I take toward my God. May God be gracious that I do not let Him down.” [MHC, 1015-47].
While COs were at times ridiculed for their stance, some of these services that grow out of the CO experience softened the attitudes of others. At the veterans memorial dedication in Winkler, Manitoba in 2011 Brian Minnaker shared his father's experience.
Dad was a D-Day Veteran… he had choice words for conscientious objectors. How could the God of justice possibly be with the likes of them? That was his opinion until some of his buddies began to have mental troubles… Who was it that went into institutions like that and found deplorable conditions [but COs]…. Dad would realize that yes God was truly with the group of people that gave up so much to improve the medical and psychiatric care in our country.
[ Speech by Brian Minnaker at the dedication of the City of Winkler Veterans Memorial Cenotaph, September 18, 2011]