One of the most fascinating accounts of an encounter between Mennonites and the Canadian government happened during World War II.
Canadian Mennonites were having a hard time agreeing on what form of alternative service they wished to offer the government so that their young men would not have to fight in the military. Many Mennonites in western Canada had experienced alternative service in Russia during World War I, and were quite willing to put on uniforms and serve in the medical corps or in another non-combatant way. Other Mennonites, particularly most of those in Ontario, did not want to accept any service that would be under the direct administration of the military. The government knew of this division within the Mennonite community, and tried to exploit it in order to pressure all Mennonites to accept non-combatant service in the military.
The Mennonites sent numerous inter-Mennonite delegations to Ottawa to try to negotiate a satisfactory resolution. There were several meetings in October and November, 1940 with Deputy Minister Thomas C. Davis and Major-General Leo R. LaFlèche of the Department of National War Services.
Following a November 5 meeting, Jacob H. Janzen, a United Mennonite leader from Waterloo, Ontario, learned that B. B. Janz, a Mennonite Brethren leader from Alberta, had arranged that Mennonite Brethren young men would serve in the medical corps, and would be willing to receive their training in military camps.
This greatly upset the Ontario Mennonite leaders, and another round of meetings were held with Davis and LaFlèche in late November. This meeting was even more fractious than the earlier meetings. Janz repeated his openness to noncombatant military service, the other delegates continued their solidarity against alternative service under military control, and the deputy ministers continued their efforts to exploit the divisions within the Mennonite community.
Almost 37 years later, Ernest J. Swalm, an Ontario Brethren in Christ leader, clearly recalled the meeting, which was dominated by Major-General LaFlèche. Finally LaFlèche asked, “What would you do if we shoot you?” Swalm replied that he didn’t know, he couldn’t speak for all the groups, but he thought he could safely say “many of us would die, and I’m one of them.” LaFlèche replied, “Oh my God, I hope it won’t happen; it’s awful, I hope it doesn’t come to that. I’ve seen this when we’ve had to shoot men who have been court-martialed.” Jacob H. Janzen then interjected, “We hope it won’t happen too. But listen Major-General, I want to tell you something. You can’t scare us like that. I’ve looked down too many rifle barrels in my time to be scared that way. This thing’s in our blood for 400 years. You can’t take it away from us like you’d crack a piece of kindling over your knee. I was before a firing squad twice. We believe in this; this is deep in our blood!” Swalm later reflected, “J. H. Janzen had done more good in a few minutes than I had done all forenoon.”
Eventually accommodation was made to allow both alternative service outside the military, as well as non-combatant service within the military.
To learn more about the War of 1812 and the Mennonites read In Search of Promised Lands.
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