Jacob H. Janzen rebukes Canada’s War Department

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.

Leo R. LaFlèche.

Major General Leo R. LaFlèche. Image courtesy Library of Parliament.

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.

Jacob H. Janzen

Jacob H. Janzen at the time of his immigration to Canada in 1925. Mennonite Archives of Ontario photo.

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.

1951 delegation to Ottawa to see the Prime Minister

A later 1951 delegation to Ottawa to see the Prime Minister. E. J. Swalm is front row, left and B. B. Janz is center of the front row. Courtesy Mennonite Archives of Ontario.

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.

For more information on Jacob H. Janzen, E. J. Swalm, or Benjamin B. Janz see the Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online (GAMEO)

To learn more about the War of 1812 and the Mennonites read In Search of Promised Lands.

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The Clash of Cultures

When Mennonite refugees from the Soviet Union immigrated to Ontario beginning in 1924, they forever changed the character of the Mennonite community. Although Ontario Mennonites had briefly hosted and otherwise assisted Mennonite immigrants on their way to Manitoba from Russia in the 1870s, most Ontario Mennonites had lost touch with these religious “cousins.”

Prior to 1924, almost all Mennonites in Ontario still had their cultural roots either in Pennsylvania or the Amish communities arriving from Europe or parts of the United States. Their customs and religious lives were quite settled. The Old Order Mennonites and Amish and the more assimilated Mennonites understood each other, even if they disagreed on theological and lifestyle issues.

Refugees walking up Erb Street.

Mennonite immigrants from the Soviet Union approaching Erb Street Mennonite Church, July, 1924. Mennonite Archives of Ontario photo.

Over a thousand Mennonite immigrants arrived in Ontario in July 1924, many more than their Mennonite hosts expected. These hosts knew little of the trauma their guests had suffered in the previous decade of the Russian Revolution and the following famine. They found their guests’ customs and worship styles strange, and were likely surprised that their guests had more formal education than they did. They found their guests were unaccustomed to the mixed farming culture of southern Ontario. The cultural differences showed up immediately.

Eight hundred fifty immigrants arrived by train in downtown Waterloo on July 19, 1924. They walked up the street to the Erb Street Mennonite Church where they met their hosts and were served sandwiches, coffee, doughnuts, and dessert squares in the driving sheds located behind the church. They were not accustomed to sandwiches, or to pie, or other staples of North American culture. This was only the beginning of education for both groups.

The hosts and guests even had some difficulty communicating. Most host families spoke no High German, and their Pennsylvania German was difficult for the guests to understand. This sometimes led to conflict. Nicholas Fehderau, who was initially hosted on a Mennonite minister’s farm, on one occasion misunderstood his host’s direction. The host became angry and shouted, “Kannscht du nett Deutsch versteh”? [Can’t you understand German?]. Fehderau, who had trouble understanding his host’s Pennsylvania German, replied “O, ich wuerde schon verstehen wenn du Deutsch sprechen wuerdest.” [Oh, if you would speak to me in German I am sure I would understand].

Jacob H. Janzen

Jacob H. Janzen at the time of his immigration to Canada. Mennonite Archives of Ontario photo.

The problems with language extended to worship. It soon became clear the immigrants were not comfortable worshipping with their English-speaking hosts. They soon began their own services. Their differing languages were not the only issues in worship. One time, Jacob H. Janzen, an immigrant minister, hitched a ride one winter day into town with an Old Order Mennonite man.  Their conversation included the subject of music in the church. When Jacob noted that their congregations in Russia used pianos or organs to assist in worship, the driver ordered him out of the sleigh, and he had to walk the rest of the way. Most Mennonites in Ontario in the 1920s did not allow musical instruments in their churches.

Some of the relationships between hosts and guests were very positive, and led to long time friendships. But the nostalgic memories of half a century later often omitted the real difficulties experienced when the two cultures first met.

Learn more about this transforming relationship in In Search of Promised Lands: a Religious History of Mennonites in Ontario.

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