Uncertainty with the Government - Page 3

When it came to negotiating alternative service with the government, the Mennonites were not united. The Swiss Mennonites living in Ontario, who had been in Canada the longest, were open to service as long as it was completely non-military. The Mennonites who came in 1874 wanted the full exemption from all service that they had been promised in 1873 and that they had received during the First World War. The third group of Mennonites, those who came in the 1920s, were mostly open to a wide range of alternative service.

In the first months of the war, Canada relied on volunteer soldiers. Then, after Germany 's defeat of France and the passing of the National Resources Mobilization Act, Canada became heavily involved in the war. Mennonite leaders could no longer sit back and wait. They felt that they had to take action to ensure that their values would be protected.  

In November, 1940, eight church leaders went to Ottawa to negotiate an alternative service plan. Although the Mennonites who had arrived in 1873 still claimed full exemption, the government ended unconditional exemptions. Instead, the government offered three options for COs .

•  They could be sent to a military camp for non-combatant military training.

•  They could take first-aid training of a non-combatant nature at a civilian facility.

•  They could be assigned to civilian labour under civilian control. 

The first option was impossible, since many military and Mennonite leaders thought that there could be no conditional service in the military. Each man in the army, the military said, had to be trained for all aspects of warfare. Therefore, non-combatant service, even with the medical and dental corps, was impossible during the first stages of the war.

The second option was also impractical, since no such facilities existed, and the government did not build any during the war.

The only option left, therefore, was civilian labour under non-military control. In some ways, this was unfortunate. Conscientious objector work camps were not established until the middle of 1941, so those seeking CO status earlier than that were often given a hard time. Judges were reluctant to give CO status to someone when there was nothing they would be doing. Until the government set up these camps in June 1941, judges had nowhere to send COs to serve. A number of persons called up during this period were actually sent to jail.

Eventually, the government agreed to let the COs do alternative service under civilian control. But another hurdle remained: the judges.