This coming Saturday (June 17), the Theatre of the Beat will be putting on the play, “Yellow Bellies,” at Floradale Mennonite Church at 2:00 pm and 7:00 pm. It’s a fundraiser, sponsored by the Mennonite Historical Society of Ontario, for placing a heritage plaque at the location of the Montreal River Alternative Service Work Camp north of Sault Ste. Marie. The play is an historical drama with live music, highlighting the experiences and public response to Mennonite conscientious objectors during World War II. Get more information on the play at http://mhso.org/content/yellow-bellies.
It’s cause to review the context for this ASW camp. Canada entered World War II in 1939, but initially operated only with volunteers. But by mid-1940, preparations for a possible draft of young men was underway.
The National Resources Mobilization Act in June 1940 forced Mennonite young men to make a decision. Previously they simply kept their heads down to avoid the war hysteria that began in the spring of 1940. Very few Mennonites volunteered for active military service prior to July 1940. But once the Canadian government called for registration, hard decisions were required. The Committee on Military Problems (CMP), a subcommittee of the Conference of Historic Peace Churches, served as a mediator between Amish and Mennonite young men and government officials.
In the first months of registration the CMP had to resist the temptation of many Mennonites in farming communities to simply seek agricultural exemptions. If a young man applied for and received this exemption without first registering as a conscientious objector, he was no longer eligible to apply for conscientious objector status if the agricultural exemption was lost.
The Conference of Historic Peace Churches coordinated conscientious objector registration in Ontario. This reduced the problem of confrontational and potentially confusing interrogations of young men by military officials, something that happened regularly in Western Canada. Many of these young Mennonite men had only a grade eight education.
Only rarely did a registered young man have to face the mobilization board. Each congregation submitted a list of names to the CHPC certifying a young man’s status as a conscientious objector. The secretary of the Committee on Military Problems added his signature and sent the list on to the district registrar. The CMP secretary also determined which young men would be sent to the alternative service work camp and which would be granted a postponements as farmers. Noah M. Bearinger, the CMP secretary, held this powerful role; he would ultimately have conflicts with some families since it allowed him to decide which young men were forced to leave home to serve and which could remain at home.
On July 3, 1941, Jesse B. Martin, chair of the Committee on Military Problems, explained to the CHPC the work camp arrangements that had been negotiated:
The present arrangement is to open a Civilian Work Camp. On June 24 we (Swalm, Sherk, Martin) met with Justice T. C. Davies, Deputy War Minister at Ottawa. He told us the camp would be at Michipicoten and that it would be under the direction of Mr. J. N. Wardle…. Since, the location has been changed to Camp Montreal eighty miles [130 kilometers] north of Sault Ste. Marie on the Trans-Canada Highway. Mr. Wardle told us that the work will be in charge of the following personnel—a camp Superintendent who will have general oversight; a highway engineer; a number of foremen; a first aid director. It is the plan that the Historic Peace Churches will appoint a Religious Director…. The work will consist of highway building and first aid training. They will work eight hours a day. The period will be for four months and in the future it will depend on the war situation. The boys will be provided with housing, board and fifty cents per day. Medical and sickness will be taken care of by the government. The boys will be under the compensation law while working. Clothing has to be provided by the young men…. It is a beautiful location. Any one that loves God’s world with lakes, woods, rocks, etc. will say this is a fine location. The camp consists of a kitchen, dining hall, bunk rooms, wash room, recreation hall, staff hall, stable, etc.
Martin and J. Harold Sherk had visited the work camp site in late June. J. Harold Sherk was appointed as religious director for the camp by the CHPC on July 3, and he accompanied the first group of young men as they left on July 15, traveling by train to Toronto and then overnight by train to Sudbury. After finally arriving by train in Sault Ste. Marie in the afternoon of July 16th, they were taken 130 kilometers (eighty-one miles) in open trucks on a gravel road to the camp. When they arrived, the men were surprised by the large buildings, not knowing the site’s earlier use during the Depression as a lumber camp.
Next week we’ll discuss life in the Montreal River Camp.
To learn more about Ontario Mennonites in World War II, read In Search of Promised Lands.