Today was Remembrance Day. Normally we do the cenotaph thing with our kids; this must be the first year we’ve missed. I’ll guarantee, though, that my Grandfather was there.
Grandpa, 93, is usually the first one wearing a poppy in the fall. He’s down at the cenotaph early and participates quietly and reverentially. He isn’t a Legion sort of fellow, but demonstrates quiet honour to those that fought in the wars. Especially World War Two.
He would have been 23 and 24 in 1940, of a prime age to enlist or suffer conscription. The prime target age was 21, but he was still required to register with the government as a candidate for combat.
But he didn’t fight in World War Two.
Alfred Friesen was born in a community of Mennonites, historically considered a “peace” church and universally Conscientious Objectors. In Canada they were legally exempted from military service in World War I.
According to Wikipedia, there were two batches of conscription in Canada: one domestically in 1940 and one for overseas combat service.
In June 1940 the government adopted conscription for home service in the National Resources Mobilization Act (NRMA), which allowed the government to register men and women and move them into jobs considered necessary for wartime production, but did not allow them to be conscripted for overseas service.…
[In 1945,] 12,908 men were sent overseas, most of whom were from the home service conscripts drafted under the NRMA, rather than from the general population.
Grandpa remembers it differently.
“I don’t remember when I registered for service. Before December 1940. After I registered, I registered again, as a noncombatant.”
Some groups were exempted by an agreement made with Mennonites by the Government of Canada in 1973.
The undersigned has the honour to report that he has made an arrangement with the following named delegates from the Mennonites settled in South Russia, in view of their announcement to him in their joint letter of the 23 rd July instant of their intention to settle, together with the Mennonite Colonists whom they represent, in the Province of Manitoba:
- David Klassen, delegate of Henboden Colony:
- Jacob Peters, delegate of Bergthar Colony:
- Heinrich Wiebe, delegate of Bergthar Colony:
- Cornelius Tows, delegate of Grienfeld Colony:
The arrangement made is to the following effect: –
1 st. That an entire exemption from any Military service, as is provided by law and Order in Council, will be granted to the denomination of Christians called Menonites.
10 th. That the Menonites will have the fullest privilege of exercising their religious principles, and educating their children in schools, as provided by law, without any kind of molestation or restriction whatever.
(signed) J.H. Pope
Minister of Agriculture
Department of Agriculture
Ottawa, 28 th July, 1873
Grandpa continues his story.
“We were called to go to Saskatoon to court to confirm ‘why didn’t we want to take up arms’. So we had a day in court. We had to come before Judge Embry and make the claim before him. Then we could apply to take alternative service rather than taking up arms. We would not be forced to take up arms, but forced to do alternative service when the time came. Which came.
“In court I was asked ‘why do you object to taking up arms?’ and ‘what have you chosen to do as an alternative — what are you willing to do as an alternative?” It was a very short interview — I just said ‘Camp work’, and that was that.”
Grandpa was successful in his application. Others were not, and were forced to enlist.
“I considered enlisting. But I didn’t have the liberty to do that. There were a few who had applied to go to alternative service, but then realising the opportunity to be a Christian witness in the armed forces, they enlisted.
“Those that enlisted could sign up for a non-combat mission such as First Aid or in the Medical Corps, but you had to enlist in the military service and take Basic Training. I couldn’t do that.”
“In Ottawa, we had some that were translating intercepted German radio transmissions for Intelligence.”
“People of many different backgrounds were conscientious objectors: Lutheran, church of god, Seventh-Day adventist, Jehovah’s Witness, Hutterite, Brethren — all would have had to plead their individual cases.”
Many were unsuccessful. Some were placed in noncombatant roles—especially Intelligence, where their native German tongue would be most useful. Some were sent to active combat duty.
Then came the waiting. During this time, Grandpa met and courted Eldean Loewen. Late in 1940, he proposed marriage to her, and she accepted. But in December 1940, the call came to begin his alternative service. Marriage would have to wait.
“My younger brother was called up first. He went to Prince Albert National Park to do park work, build roads, and actually to take the place of people who had enlisted. So they didn’t have people to do park work. So those of us who applied for alternative service were called to do that kind of work.
“The other alternative was to be a farm hand. That was over the prairies… but there were also some in Ontario, British Columbia… besides that, also fighting forest fires.”
“Instead of being sent to Prince Albert, we went to Jasper, AB to prepare for the building of a fish hatchery along the Moline Rive, and road maintenance.”
With Grandpa’s brother having gone before him, Grandpa got a bit of a preview of what his service would be like. Unfortunately, the rules were to change.
“When the first ones were called, they were called for a term of four months. When they had finished a term of four months, they could come home. When I did my service, it was also four months… until the day the four months were over. Then we were informed that we were in for the duration of the war, however long that happened to be.”
The wedding would have to wait. Nobody knew how long it might be.
The Work Camps
Grandpa was one of 80-90 men i
n Jasper for a total of ten months, doing road maintenance and building the fish hatchery. Parks Canada reports:
A contingent of Alternate Service Workers (i.e., pacifists, conscientious objectors) was stationed at this mill camp. For four months they aided in preparations and assisted contractors hired to do road repairs and camp construction. Most of the pacifists at this camp were single young Mennonite men from surrounding villages and farm districts.
The conditions were very primitive. They were paid for their time—sort of.
“We were given a nominal wage of 50 cents a day. If you were a truck driver or something special you’d get 75 cents a day. That was the maximum that I know of. And no pension. The veterans got pensions and other benefits, and in fact they still do, but not those of us that did alternative service. That’s a big difference. And transportation for leave was at our own expense.”
in 1930, labourers’ wages were a “mean” of $20.23 per week. Grandpa would have earned three dollars per week—about a third of what the lowest 1% would make. Canada’s Wage Structure in the First Half of the Twentieth Century (with comparisons to the United States and Great Britain) by Green and Green. They were paid a pittance, without the pension and veteran’s benefits their peers received.
“Then we were transferred to Banff on the back of trucks.to Banff for I think three weeks. After Banff, we were divided, probably equally. Some went to British Columbia and the others to Seebe — a train station where there was an internment camp for merchant marines. And for a while for the military, but I don’t know for how long.
“But then the internment camp at Lethbridge was ready and they went there. There was something like 20,000 or 30,000 transferred to Lethbridge. The merchant marines stayed at Seebe under guard at all times.”
“At Seebe, we worked for a mine prop provider. In the mines, they used props to hold up the upper side of the mine shaft or tunnel. We were cutting wood and building those props. You couldn’t use it all for the props—they didn’t need that many—so a lot of that wood went to the people of Calgary as firewood.”
Grandpa stayed in Seebe until the end of the war. He was reunited with Eldean Loewen, and they were married.
There’s a whole lot more to the story to delve into. This is as far as I can go for now.