Peace Magazine: Mennonites and the Canadian Government: A brief history of interactions about war

Peace Magazine

Mennonites and the Canadian Government: A brief history of interactions about war

By Adam Wynne • published Apr 01, 2020 • last edit Apr 14, 2020

Mennonites, who have long led Canadian peace initiatives, had to struggle for their principles during the world wars. Although conscientious objectors were protected by law, the Canadian government began denouncing and stigmatizing pacifism during both of those wars. This was because the government and pacifists often held conflicting views about the duties of citizens during wartime, as well as whether conscientious objection was a constitutional right.

The first Mennonites in Canada arrived in Upper Canada (present day Ontario) in 1786. In the early 1790s John Graves Simcoe, the Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada, sought to increase the number of settlers in the newly formed province. Mennonites were viewed as hard workers of good standing reputations, with strong Christian convictions. Subsequently, Simcoe extended an invitation to Mennonites living in Pennsylvania and who were interested in moving to Upper Canada. This offer initially included a free parcel of 200 acres of land. Per Section 11 of the Militia Act (1793), all men in the Province of Upper Canada between the ages of 16 and 60 were required to enrol in the militia. In regards to this and acknowledging history of over two centuries of pacifism and peace within the Mennonites’ communities, Simcoe wrote to King George III and Secretary of State for War Henry Dundas on 20 August 1792, indicating that his administration would offer exemptions from militia service for Mennonites and other religious congregations (Quakers and Tunkers) who opposed bearing arms and military service. Secretary of State Dundas approved of Simcoe’s stance, citing previously good relations between the British government and members of peace churches in the United Kingdom, and as a result, Simcoe’s offer was translated into Section 22 of the Militia Act. That section “exempted from actually serving in the militia the persons called Quakers, Menn­onites, and Tunkers who from certain scruples of conscience, declined bearing arms.”

Certificates of Faith

To be eligible for militia exemption, Mennonites were required to provide the government and military with a certificate of faith signed by three or more members of the community — mainly elders — who were authorized to grant certificates. Each Mennonite exempted from militia enrollment was additionally required to pay an annual fee to the government, which during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries was £1 in times of peace, and £5 in times of war. A pound in those days corresponds to approximately $145 Canadian today.

Between the late eighteenth and mid-nineteenth century, Mennonite communities in Ontario voiced concern that young Mennonite men between 16 and 21 were not protected by exemption policies, as Mennonite communities would not issue the requisite certificates to those under 21.

Not until 1810, and after significant lobbying by Mennonite community leaders, did the government amend the exemption policies to include sons of Mennonites who were raised in the faith, but who were not yet old enough to receive the requisite certificates of faith. During the War of 1812, these exemption policies were particularly important, as many Mennonite farms in southern Ontario were frontline battlefields.

This exemption for youth of these communities was later re-confirmed by Queen Victoria’s administration in 1839\. The exemption fees were reduced in half by 1839 and were entirely eliminated as of Confed­eration in 1867\. Mennonite exemptions from militia and military service continued, though Canada would not face another draft until World War I in 1914.

In the post-confederation period, dialogues between the government and Mennonites continued. Kanadier Mennonites were exempt from military service due to the Order-in-Council Privilegium — signed on 13 August 1873 — which stated that “an entire exemption from military service, as is provided by law and order-in-council, will be granted to the denomination of Christians called Mennonites.” This treaty exempted Mennonites from forced military conscription during World War I. However, during this time the Canadian government attempted to persuade young Mennonite men to voluntarily serve in the army. Mennonite elders then declared that any of their brethren who volunteered for military service “automatically excommunicated themselves” from their congregation and would be shunned from the community.

In 1935, Mennonite elders in Canada attempted to establish dialogues with Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King over the “likelihood of conflict with the government over Mennonite pacifism.” Their two main goals of this dialogue were for the government to “establish an alternative service programme” for Mennonites and clarify the Menn­onites’ status during war. These pre-war meetings with Mackenzie King ultimately did not fulfil the Mennonites’ goals and in 1937 the Mennonite General Conference, which consisted of both American and Canadian Mennonite churches, published the Statement of Position on Peace, War, and Military Service. This declared that during war Mennonites would not follow government orders if they “violate the teachings of the Scriptures so that [they] could not maintain a clear conscience before God.”

Anti-Mennonite Bias

Additionally, during this time, and partly due to fears of German nationalism and the refusal to serve in the military, the public’s view of Mennonites was rapidly declining. Instead of being viewed as hardworking farmers, Mennonites were viewed as cowardly “German-speaking immigrants who had refused to do their duty” for Canada. These anti-Mennonite sentiments further illustrated the need to immediately establish alternative service programmes in which Mennonites could voluntarily serve during times of war.

Initially, the Canadian government was hesitant to develop such alternative service programmes. Though there were pre-existing alternative service options, many Mennonites viewed them as “too closely linked to the military” and demanded that they be run under civilian authority.

Furthermore, there was intra-Mennonite conflict over alternative service and division between the Kanadier, Old Order, and Russländer Mennonite groups. Kanadier Mennonites, who initially emigrated from Russia in the 1870s due to required military service and had been exempt from service in Canada under the 1873 Privilegium, “staunchly opposed any kind of alternative service” and refused to consider participating.

In comparison, Russländer Menn­onites, who fled the Soviet regime in the early 1920s and were not exempt from service in Canada, considered alternative service a “historic tradition from their Russian years” as they had worked in forestry camps in Azov, as well as in the Sanitätsdienst medical corps. In 1940, the Kanadier and Russländer Mennonite groups officially split due to divisions and discrepancies in their beliefs.

The third major group of Mennonites in Canada, the Old Order (Swiss) of Ontario who came from Pennsylvania, USA in 1786 and who are the oldest Mennonite group in Canada, declared themselves conscientious objectors and agreed to participate in alternative service, but only if it was “under civilian supervision” and authority. However, the provincial court systems claimed that the young Mennonite men were not making independent decisions and were being coerced by church elders into declaring themselves conscientious objectors. As a response, the court systems implemented a “personal belief criterion” whereby the young men would have to pass a court trial where their claims of pacifism would be examined by a judge and either approved or denied.

If the claims were denied, the young men could “be sent to a military camp for non-combatant military training, ordered to take first-aid training of a non-combatant nature at a facility other than a military camp, or they could be assigned to civilian labour service” somewhere in Canada. Ultimately, the combination of intra-Mennonite conflict and Mennonite-Government disagreements made initial negotiations for alternative service programmes difficult.

Alernative Service arrives

Both non-combatant governmental and civilian-run alternative service programmes were inevitably established. Mennonites went from having virtually no non-combatant alternative service options to having the choice between work camps, farming, and agriculture, or international medical relief organizations. The idea of alternative service work camps for Mennonites was originally proposed to the Canadian Government by the Conference of Historic Peace Churches in 1940 and was designed to “engage those who were opposed to national service in some kind of nationally important work.”

Once established, these camps were found across Canada and at maximum numbered approximately 30 camps with just over 3000 men participating in them. One of the first camps established was the Montréal River Camp (established 1941) on the shores of Lake Superior in Northern Ontario. It was run by the Surveys and Engineering Branch of the Department of Mines and Resources and primarily focused on highway construction.

Many alternative service camps were located inside national parks where the main focus was fighting and preventing forest fires, as well as silviculture, reforestation, tourism development, and emergency labour reserves. Many of these camps were under the “spiritual leadership” of Mennonite ministers and had strict rules and regulations enforced by the government departments. These regulations were issued by the Minister of Labor and applied to all alternative service work camps. They included a 48-hour work week, expectations of good behaviour and cooperation with other camp members and supervisors, as well as strict supervision of comings and goings from the camp.

If any worker violated these regulations, they risked imprisonment, fines, and/or discipline by the Historic Peace Churches or, if the violation was severe enough, having their conscientious objector status revoked by the government. In addition to alternative service work camps, many Mennon­ites worked on their communities’ farms in order to produce food and other commodities for both Canadian communities and those stationed abroad.

After World War II, Mennonites welcomed many refugees of their faith among the displaced coming from Eastern Europe and Russia. Their legacy of pacifism contributed much to the rising and emerging peace movements in Canada in the 1960s.

Adam Wynne is an editor of Peace and a recent graduate in Health Studies and Diaspora and Transnational Studies, Unversity of Toronto.


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Published in Peace Magazine Vol.36, No.2: Apr-Jun 2020
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