Canadian Mennonite conscientious objectors resist military service in Second World War 1939-40

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Timing
Time Period:  
Time period notes: 
The conscientious objectors continued to refuse military service through the war, but the direct action campaign ended when the government created official roles for them in 1940.
June
1939
to
24 December
1940
Location and Goals
Country: 
Canada
Location City/State/Province: 
In Western Provinces and Ontario
Goals: 
To be allowed to perform alternative service in place of being a part of the military.

To find alternative service that was non-military.

 

Mennonites are a division of Christianity that has experienced significant persecution and segregation over the years due to their strongly held values of adult baptism and nonviolence. Menno Simons drastically diverged from the Catholic faith in the 1500s, and quickly rose to become highly influential. He garnered a large following that was eventually named after him who stayed in Poland until they began to immigrate to Russia in 1789. The first emigration from Russia to North America was in 1874, and large waves of Mennonites continued to immigrate up until the 1940s. Their values were really put to the test during the Second World War, when every eligible man was expected to fight for their country in the military.

Mennonites cite many verses from Scripture as reason why they are absolutely unwilling to fight in wars, explaining that New Testament verses portray Christians as non-violent and pacifist, and that Jesus encouraged his followers to love their enemies. As a rule they believe in being compliant with the government, except when compliance would contradict Scriptural values. Due to these strongly held convictions, Mennonites had to organize themselves and negotiate with the government to perform services other than fighting in the front lines during times of war. They came to be known as Conscientious Objectors, as their refusal to fight was based on their convictions and values.

To complicate matters, many Mennonites were divided as far as what their role in the war should look like, with some believing that alternative service was a valid option, and others arguing that nonresistance meant that they should have nothing at all to do with the war, alternate service included. The Canadian Mennonites received a lot of hard press from other Canadians who believed that they refused to fight for Canada because they were still supportive of Germany and unpatriotic towards their new country. They were also accused of wanting to enjoy the benefits of the war without having to sacrifice anything for it. In June 1940, The National Resources Mobilization Act (NRMA) was approved, focusing on the drafting procedures that went on in Canada. That same month, a group of Mennonites were able to meet with Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King, where they explained that they had no interest in using weaponry or killing others. King assured them that he would comply with their demands, and that the newly formed NRMA would lay out the rules regarding their duties. The NRMA required the registration of all Canadian men ages 16 to 60 and guaranteed Mennonites exemption; however the rules of who was considered Mennonite became blurred and largely depended on the area of the country you were from.

They began to meet as churches and as groups of people, strengthening one another's resolve and becoming increasingly adamant about what they stood for. They prayed together as families and friends and held one another accountable to the beliefs and values that they had been raised with. The leaders of the church also began to regularly meet together, seeking one another's council and taking strength from each other. This sense of community and prayer is still central to the Mennonite faith today. The Mennonites even chose to withhold the portions of their taxes that went to military service, and some pacifists still do to this day.

On November 5 1940, Mennonites from across the country met to discuss what their reluctant role in the war would be and decided that their alternative service needed to be “of a non-military nature.” They were extremely adamant from the start, and were very clear on what they would or would be willing to do. Four representatives eventually met with two war service government officials in Ottawa on November 12, 1940 to plead their case and bargain with the government. They laid out what they were prepared to do, stressing that they were even willing to provide medical help related to battle emergencies as long as they were not under “military supervision.” However, the officials were unhappy with this proposition, and argued that non-combat service should indeed be performed under military supervision. The Mennonite representatives came back with a revamped proposal the next day and decided to exclude medical help altogether, which further widened the gap between the two parties.

After this roadblock, one of the representatives, B.B. Janz, took charge of the negotiations and presented a revised nine point proposal that included voluntary service overseas, the demand that men were always unarmed and training by medical authorities. Janz and other leaders met with government officials again on November 22, 1940. The meeting once again ended without success. Janz also took it upon himself to write many letters of protests and appeal to various government officials over the years of the war.

Finally, the government moved forward with a decision on December 24, 1940, with an order citing three different types of possible service in the place of front line combat. Their three options were pacifist military training at military camps, labour service taking place at non-combatant locations, and engaging in first-aid training. While some Mennonites were disappointed that they had to do any kind of service at all, as a whole they accepted the government’s decision and were successful in avoiding fighting in the Second World War. Although their work changed throughout the war and specific camps needed to be set up for them, Mennonites were able to continue being Conscientious Objectors throughout the war, maintain their pacifist values and stand for nonviolence.

The Mennonite Conscientious Objectors are significant because they are an important example of a group of people who would not waver from their religious beliefs and values in the face of oppression and pressure. The Mennonites also paved the way for other groups of people and religions to become Conscientious Objectors. They were innovative and unrelenting in their convictions, standing firm in what they believed to be right no matter what the government or rest of the country wanted of them.

Research Notes
Sources: 
Bechtel, Ken. (2007). A Premillennialist Pacifism: The Canadian Swiss Mennonite Peace Position. Journal of Mennonite Studies, Volume 25. Retrieved from http://jms.uwinnipeg.ca/index.php/jms/article/viewFile/1226/1218.

Dueck, A.J. (2007). Making a Case for Non-combatant Service: B. B. Janz’s Negotiations with the Government During World War II. Journal of Mennonite Studies, Volume 25. Retrieved from http://jms.uwinnipeg .ca/ index.php/jms/article/viewFile/1227/1219.

Regehr, T.D. (1996). Mennonites in Canada, 1939-1970: A People Transformed. Toronto, ON:University of Toronto Press.

Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
Lamin Colly, and 26/11/2013