Last week was the first of two parts on the Montreal River Alternative Work Camp in Northern Ontario during World War II.
Once launched in July 1941, there were often 150-200 men in the Montreal River camp. They worked six days a week with an eight-hour day, with an hour for lunch. The meals were basic starch-filled farm food—potatoes, beef, and beans, with homemade bread. Breakfast included porridge, sometimes a bit of beef. Sunday evenings featured pie for dessert. It was said that at least one CO gained 40 pounds during his time at Montreal River.
The men cleared rocks, trees, and brush for extending the Trans-Canada Highway farther north. They also worked in gravel pits and did carpentry work and some surveying. Evenings were spent in letter writing, reading, singing, and sports or games.
Sunday school, along with Sunday morning and evening church services, usually took place in the recreation hall. Since the Old Order Mennonites were not accustomed to Sunday school, they sought the advice of their ministers. The ministers advised them to attend Sunday school, but not to participate in the discussion. When a religious director was not present, one of the men would lead. Old Order Mennonite Noah W. Bearinger recalled a one-week visit by Bloomingdale pastor Howard Stevanus, who held a service every evening, with pre-announced topics. Talks on “peace and war” and “prophecy” got good attendance, but when he talked “in simple plain language” about “pure courtship [practices]” the hall was packed with the conscientious objectors (COs), along with some of the non-CO staff.
It soon became apparent to the COs that the government was not serious about building a highway, since most of the work was done by hand. Many men came to feel the work location mostly kept the conscientious objectors from the scrutiny of patriotic Canadians farther south. Wilson Hunsberger was part of the first group to go to Montreal River. He recalled Montreal River as a “make work” project that was just accepted as something one did for four months instead of taking military training. Years later it became clear to those who had served that much of the road work they did at Montreal River did not become part of the eventual Trans-Canada Highway, as the route was slightly altered.
Despite the questionable value of the work, the alternative service work camps had a profound impact on most men who served. Although Mennonites formed the vast majority of the COs, other denominations were also present. The diversity had a broadening impact as Mennonite campers rubbed shoulders with Christadelphians, Plymouth Brethren, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Adventists, Pentecostals, members of the Salvation Army, and pacifists from mainline denominations like the United Church of Canada. The range of denominations did sometimes hinder shared spiritual fellowship within the camp; while the Mennonite groups were able to fellowship together, the Seventh Day Adventists and Plymouth Brethren generally declined participation in public worship and in the small fellowship groups organized by the campers. The camps shaped friendships and mutual respect between Amish, Pennsylvania German Mennonites, and Mennonite immigrants from the Soviet Union. The adjustment to camp life was probably most difficult for young men from the Old Order groups. Old Order Mennonite Noah W. Bearinger noted that in early 1943, out of 215 men in the Montreal River camp, 30 were Old Order Mennonite. Years later he lamented that only 11 of those 30 men remained Old Order.
To learn more about Mennonites and World War II, read In Search of Promised Lands.