Montreal River Alternative Service Work Camp – Part 2

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.


Christmas dinner at the Montreal River Alternative Service Camp, December, 1941. J. Harold Sherk, front right; C.E. Tench, the engineer and camp boss sits across from Sherk. Mennonite Archives of Ontario photo

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.

Montreal River ASW Camp

J. Harold Sherk (light suit) leading Sunday school at Montreal River ASW Camp. Mennonite Archives of Ontario

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.

Montreal River Alternative Service Work Camp

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

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.

Jesse B. and Naomi Martin

Jesse B. and Naomi Martin, ca. 1950. Mennonite Archives of Ontario

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.


The Montreal River Camp in 1941. Photo by J. Harold Sherk

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.

Ontario Mennonites in the Military

During World War II most Ontario Mennonites and Amish either had farm deferments or went in to alternative service work camps like the one at Montreal River that was building roads, or camps in British Columbia to fight forest fires, construct trails, or the like. In April 1942, men in alternative service camps were told they would be “in for the duration” of the war.

The turmoil created by the disappointment in the make-work nature of alternative service camp life and the impact of having their service extended for the duration of the war led many Mennonite young men to enlist in the military. The peak in the number of Canadian Mennonites enlisting in the military came in the second half of 1942.


Personnel of the Royal Canadian Army Medical Corps in England treating “casualties” during rehearsal in England for raid on Dieppe. Source: Canada at War website

Throughout Canada at least 30 percent of military-age Mennonite young men joined the armed forces during the war. The percentage may have been slightly lower in Ontario, but not significantly so. Within the Mennonite Conference of Ontario, its Peace Problems Committee calculated after the war that almost 20 percent of young men from their congregations had voluntarily enlisted. In the large First Mennonite Church in Kitchener, fully one-third joined the military, and in the St. Jacobs Mennonite Church 25 percent did so.

Among the United Mennonites and Mennonite Brethren the situation was similar. It appears that about 20 percent of Ontario Mennonite Brethren young men joined the military; among the United Mennonites the percentage was closer to 25 percent. At the Waterloo-Kitchener United Mennonite Church, nine of its young men originally registered as conscientious objectors but subsequently joined the military. Out of 107 men of service age in the Leamington United Mennonite congregation, 24 served in the military, including five in the medical corps. Isaak Lehn, one of the latter, died in Europe in January 1945. John Unger, from the Virgil area, was shot down over Europe in 1944.

Within the Ontario Amish Mennonite community probably a smaller percentage joined the military, though half a dozen men enlisted from the East Zorra congregation. Two young men from the independent Stirling Avenue Mennonite Church were killed in action. One of these, Frederick Shantz, was the son of Elven Shantz, secretary of the Committee on Military Problems from the middle of 1943 through the end of the war. Of all the Mennonite groups, the Mennonite Brethren in Christ were the most divided on the question of military service; approximately one-half of the Canadian young men of that denomination joined the military. The rest entered alternative service or had essential work deferments.

Some men joined the military reluctantly. Sheldon Martin, for example, was called to alternative service in British Columbia in mid-1942, just six weeks after his wedding. His wife, Mary Ann, followed and found work in a Vancouver shoe factory. She developed health problems after nine months and required expensive treatment by specialists. To earn more to help pay the costs, Sheldon left the alternative service work  camp and joined the army.


Mennonites at War by Peter Lorenz Neufeld was the first book focused on Mennonites in the military

Other men joined because they believed in the cause. Gerhard “Gerry” Thiessen was a young man from the Waterloo-Kitchener United Mennonite Church who served both at Montreal River and in British Columbia, before finally joining the Air Force in 1943. He had already felt in Montreal River that shoveling gravel was useless work. Although he thought some of the firefighting in British Columbia served a good purpose, he abhorred shoveling snow out of the ditches next to mountain roads in the winter time. While waiting for his enlistment papers to go through, he had a conversation with a Mennonite minister who cautioned him that serving in the military was dangerous. This only reinforced Thiessen’s decision, because he believed Mennonites shouldn’t hide to avoid getting killed; he believed he should be doing something about the war. He served in Canada as a mechanic in the Air Force for the remainder of the war.

Even a few women joined the military. One such was Mary Faust, from the Leamington United Mennonite Church, who joined the Canadian Women’s Army Corps in 1942 and served until 1946, achieving the rank of sergeant. This was unusual since women (except for nurses) were not subject to registration and service.

The consequences for those who joined the military during the war varied depending on the denomination with which the young men (or women) affiliated. In all cases, church discipline was administered only to young men who were baptized members. Many who joined the military had not joined the church. Among the more conservative, culturally less assimilated groups, the act of enlistment by a baptized member automatically removed one from church membership rolls.

To regain good standing in the church, a confession for violating the church’s teaching was required. This was also the formal position in the Mennonite Conference of Ontario and Ontario Amish Mennonite congregations, but some congregations did not require a public confession for full reinstatement. The United Mennonite and Mennonite Brethren congregations had their own variations. Of the Ontario Mennonite Brethren who joined the army during the war (estimated at 34 in 1945), only seven were baptized members. These were excluded from membership. The United Mennonites, who had 67 of their members join the military, with another dozen joining the medical corps, took a more inclusive approach, but only after considerable debate within the conference. The ministers strongly encouraged the peace position, but stopped short of calling for exclusion of members who joined the armed forces.

The Mennonite Brethren in Christ no longer made pacifism a matter of church membership, and men in alternative service and in military service were treated the same.

One consequence of the Mennonite stance was that young Ontario Mennonite men and women who joined the military received little spiritual counsel or support from their churches while they were in the military. No Mennonite chaplains served in the army, nor did Mennonite ministers visit their parishioners in the military as they did those in alternative service camps. There were a few exceptions, however. A small group of United Mennonites living in Toronto tried to maintain contact with enlisted Mennonite men at Camp Borden. In spring 1942 the independent Stirling Avenue Mennonite congregation established a committee to keep in touch both with the men in alternative service and those in the military. Families also kept personal contact, but the church provided no organized effort to work with men and women who may have been quite conflicted about the decisions they had made.

Some more recent writers have claimed the percentage of Mennonites who joined the military is closer to 50%. These include Peter Lorenz Neufeld, whose book is shown above, but he tends to see Mennonites as an ethnic, not religious, community. A 2010 MA thesis by Nathan Dirks, “War without, Struggle within: Canadian Mennonite Enlistments during the Second World War” also argues for a higher percentage. In any event, I believe “Mennonite” would include those who grew up attending a Mennonite church, whether or not they eventually became a member. I do not count as “Mennonite” those who are a generation or more removed from participation in a Mennonite church.

For more information on Mennonites and World War II, read In Search of Promised Lands: a Religious History of Mennonites in Ontario.