While most think of trenches and rifles on Remembrance Day, Arnold Meyers thinks of shovels and asphalt.
He got the call to serve his country in 1941, at 19 years old.
For many men his age, that meant taking up arms and fighting in the Second World War. But for Meyers and more than 2,600 other men in Ontario, this wasn’t consistent with their values. Meyers is a Mennonite — a Christian denomination and cultural group which teaches pacifism.
Meyers refused to take up weapons to fight during the Second World War. He and other conscientious objectors wanted to serve Canada, but not if that meant causing the deaths of others.
“At a young age, I decided I was not going to be a person who was going to kill people,” Meyers, now nearly 94 years old, told TVO.org from the seniors complex where he lives in Waterloo. “I decided I was going to be the kind of person to help people.”
Instead of being sent to the battlefields in Europe, Meyers went to an alternative service camp and helped construct a joining link of the Trans-Canada Highway, about 80 kilometres northwest of Sault Ste. Marie.
For many of the province’s pacifist Mennonites, Remembrance Day is a way to honour those who served the country in different ways.
Mennonites began settling in Canada in the late 18th century, attracted by a promise from the Canadian government that members of that denomination, together with Quakers and Brethren in Christ, would be excused from compulsory service in the militia if they paid a tax.
Until the First World War, that exemption was respected. But as Canada lost many soldiers overseas, the government became desperate for manpower. Troops were aggressively recruited — including from groups like the Mennonites.
In 1940, parliament passed the National Resources Act, which enabled the government to acquire the property and services of Canadians for national defense. In short, it enabled conscription.
In that same year, many different Mennonite churches came together to form the Conference of Historic Peace Churches (CHPC) in Ontario, which would give them more clout to negotiate with the government.
Because of the work of the Conference, claiming conscientious objector status became relatively simple for members of these churches. The Conference assured the government that men from the churches were eager to serve their country non-violently, as Ukrainian Mennonites did in that country before coming to Canada. By 1940, the government created a variety of different alternative service positions, including road and factory work. (There were approximately 10,000 conscientious objectors in the Second World War, about 7,500 of whom were Mennonite.)
“It was a big moment in Canadian history, when that ability to be a [conscientious objector] was recognized,” says Laureen Harder-Gissing, an archivist and librarian at the Mennonite Archives of Ontario. “Alternative service was the first time in Canada where [conscientious objectors could] serve their country officially through a [non-military] program.”
It wasn’t so easy outside of Ontario or for pacifists who were not part of the peace churches. In the western provinces, where there were fewer enclaves of people from pacifist traditions, it was difficult for people to gain conscientious objector status, Harder-Gissing says.
“These men would have to stand up in front of tribunals and be quizzed on their beliefs. Some were given a hard time, some were even jailed for a while,” she says. “People who were uninformed and further away from where the [conscientious objectors] were working had more problems with them and there was a lot of misunderstanding. People whose children had enlisted or had been drafted — you can see how those feelings of resentment would come up.”
In southern Ontario, with its large Mennonite population, many objectors didn’t experience community backlash for their decision to do alternative service. It was understood peace was an important part of their way of life and history. That meant some young men at the time actually faced pressure to do alternative service instead of fighting.
That was true for John Dick, now 95 years old, from Leamington. As a young man he remembers hearing stories about his father’s alternative service work in forests near Dnepropetrovsk, Ukraine during the First World War. In the chaos of the Russian Revolution, the alternative service programs set up for Mennonites there fell apart, and people were forced to seek refuge elsewhere, including in Canada.
Dick said he learned early on from his church and family that doing peaceful community service was preferred to fighting in wars. “I was just doing what my parents and my church expected of me,” he explains. “I was proud that my father did forestry service. And it was easy for me to think when the war came on that I would do some sort of service.”
Dick worked at the Montreal River camp building roads over the winter of 1941, and then on a sugar beet farm and later a dairy farm.
“I felt it was very needed and very important work," Dick says. There was rationing of milk and dairy products and so this was a very important service to keep dairy people working at that time.”
In addition to road building in Montreal River, conscientious objectors also planted trees and fought fires in northern B.C., chopped wood during oil shortages, and built trails in national parks, Harder-Gissing says.
“Some of them had been taken away from farm work, which seemed really counterintuitive. That kind of shifted in 1943 when the government finally realized we can’t have thousands of men out there in the camps, they’re needed in the farms and out in industry. Men were often sent back to their home area, but they had to work in agriculture and certain industries.”
Although women weren’t obligated to go to war or perform alternative service, many also wanted to serve their country. In her research, Harder-Gissing found numerous examples of women who made clothing, blankets and bandages to ship to Europe.
“It was their convictions coming to the fore, but in their own way, in a different way.”
This Remembrance Day, like many other Mennonites Arnold Meyers will wear an alternative to the poppy: a red button that reads, “To remember is to work for peace.”
“I think Remembrance Day is about remembering all the people who helped to make the country good and helping people who are in need,” he says. “In a sense, I think every day is Remembrance Day.”
Jacob and George Peters, brothers from Kitchener, Ontario did alternative service in northern British Columbia. The brothers cut wood between 1942 and 1943 when there were oil shortages during the Second World War.
Alternative service workers on duty with shovels at Montreal River, Ont. about 80 kilometres northwest of Sault Ste. Marie in 1941.
Men worked with crude tools to construct the road at the Montreal River alternative service camp in 1941.
An interior view of one of the Montreal River bunkhouses circa 1941 or 1942.
A group of men work to clear rocks with shovels after a blast in order to construct a link to the Trans-Canada Highway. The photo was taken in 1942.
Rachel Bergen is a freelance writer based in Winnipeg, Manitoba who works part-time as a writer for Mennonite Central Committee Canada.
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