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.

A Mennonite and Canada’s Department of National Defence

Jacob J. Koop

Jacob J. Koop (1923-2009). GAMEO photo

One of the most interesting biographical entries recently added to the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online (GAMEO) is that of Jacob J. Koop, written by William Janzen, a longtime Mennonite Central Committee staff person in its Ottawa office.

Koop was a devoted, life-long Mennonite. Although born in Ukraine, he came with his family to Canada in 1924 when he was one year old. He grew up in southern Manitoba, and attended the Mennonite high school in Gretna.

He entered the military in 1943, but prayed that he would not have to kill anyone. He was persuaded of the legitimacy of self-defence because of the Mennonite experience in Ukraine after the Russian Revolution, and felt he could not shirk military service. Because he took training to become an officer, Koop was not deployed to Europe until 1945, and never faced actual combat.

On his return to Canada he continued academic studies, and ended up with the Ph.D. in Chemistry from McGill University. He then accepted a position at the Defence Research Board (DRB) in Ottawa, an agency of the Department of National Defence.

Koop worked for the DRB for 35 years. As described by Janzen in the GAMEO article, “he worked in the area of science and defence, contributing substantially to various arms limitation efforts.”  In the 1950s in an era of nuclear testing, Jake coordinated a program that monitored the atmosphere for nuclear debris. On this basis he contributed background papers to support the negotiations that led, in 1963, to the treaty banning all atmospheric nuclear testing.

Nuclear reactor at Dimona, 1968

Nuclear reactor near Dimona (israel) in 1968, by American reconnaissance satellite KH-4 CORONA (Uncropped version at [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

In 1964 as a DRN intelligence analyst he wrote  a then secret paper arguing that Israel likely had a military nuclear capacity. He suggested that Israel had two distinct nuclear programs: a small civilian research unit, and a larger, secretive one that likely was a first step in developing weapons.  Koop predicted that Israel could conduct an initial nuclear test by 1966 and could develop a “limited nuclear weapons capability” of six to 10 low-yield bombs by the end of 1968. His forecast wasn’t far off. Israel built its first nuclear devices shortly before the 1967 Six-Day War.

Despite his decades of work for the Defence Department, Koop was a charter member of the Ottawa Mennonite Church when it formally organized in 1963. He served as a deacon, congregational chair, and even occasionally preached. Jake saw himself as strongly pro-peace but on the basis of “just war” principles. He regretted that the Mennonite stance on peace seemed not to acknowledge the work that he and his colleagues did from inside the defence department.

At his funeral in 2009 Jake Koop was described as a “gentle soldier.”

Who are other Mennonite “gentle soldiers” you have known?

Two other published articles on Jake Koop are:

Tu Thanh Ha, “How Canada exposed Israel’s secret nukes with help from a Mennonite.” Globe & Mail (12 July 2013). Web. 2 January 2016

Bill Janzen. “A Mennonite in Canada’s defence department.” Canadian Mennonite (5 October 2009): 26. Web. 17 December 2015.