Like the Amish, the Mennonite people have historically been conscientious objectors to war, convicted that it is incompatible with the Christian life. After all, Jesus told his followers to love their enemies and to turn the other cheek when violence was done to them. Mennonites don’t oppose serving in peaceful ways such as the medical corps, road construction, factory work, etc. They object to active military service.
During the first World War, Canadian Mennonites were automatically exempt from any type of service due to the provisions of an Order in Council written in 1873. This didn’t stop the government from imprisoning many of them until the issue was once again settled. With pressure from the general population, Canada stopped admitting Mennonite and Hutterite immigrants for a number of years due to their noncombatant status.
My ancestors were longtime Canadian citizens by that time, though. My dad was born in 1922, which made him a prime age (17) when Canada joined the Allied Forces in 1939 and began conscripting soldiers. Many young men his age marched off to the battlefields of Europe.
The Canadian government interviewed every young man and woman to determine their personal values. The Mennonite pastors in southern Manitoba reminded the young people to clearly state they were Dutch Mennonites (my maiden name, Friesen, is said to come from Friesland, a Dutch province). They didn’t want officials to confuse them with the Germans, just because the Mennonite language is known as Low German. If considered German, might they not have split loyalties?
If the young person persuaded the government official that his own personal convictions prevented him from being directly involved in the war, he was awarded the status of conscientious objector. In 1943, my father was granted this status and permitted to remain at home to work the family farm. Several of his brothers were sent to logging camps, providing lumber for the war. I’m not sure why my dad’s papers are stamped 1943, a month before his 21st birthday, and two months after his marriage to my mother.
My parents didn’t have a radio and were further cocooned from news about the war by living in a Mennonite community. Occasionally my dad would pick up a copy of the Winnipeg Free Press to find out what was happening.
Still, the war affected them to some extent. Canadians were issued ration books for groceries. My folks didn’t have to use all their coupons as the farm and garden supplied many of their needs. My mom noted that it was difficult to get enough sugar to make jam, though!
Time has marched on. In Canada, as in most Commonwealth countries, we observe November 11 as Remembrance Day. It’s a statutory holiday now, but it wasn’t when I was a child. Even though the holiday commemorates an important piece of history, I remember the day best as a school kid in the 60s and 70s. We memorized In Flanders Fields, learned stories of our war heroes, and drew pictures containing rows of white crosses with red poppies amongst them. At 11:00 am, the entire school would stand in silence for 2 minutes to remember the fallen.
Today, most Canadians wear a poppy on their lapel on Remembrance Day to show: We Remember.
Poppy image credit: Wikipedia Commons