by Mervin Dueck
It all started with a letter dated Nov. 27, 1940, calling my Dad, Cornelius B. Dueck, to report to a judge in Winnipeg, at 10 a.m., on Dec. 18, 1940, to establish his claim of being a Mennonite Conscientious Objector. In order to qualify he needed to explain his personal religious belief, a preacher to verify his church attendance, and evidence from family that they had come to Canada under the arrangement of 1873 and being an uninterrupted member of the Mennonite community.
After the court date and having been given Conscientious Objector status, he was assigned to do civilian work for the Canadian Government. Initially he was told it would be only for four to six months, but lasted for the duration of World War II, which was four years. Dad was sent off to Seebe, Alta., on Jan. 19, 1942, to work in the lumber camps, making mine props which were used to develop mines in the area. In March they were asked to build new internment camps for recent immigrants who were considered a risk to North American security.
On May 30, 1942, they were given a six-day leave to come home. After this leave they were sent to Campbell River on Vancouver Island, BC. Here they were given the job of cutting down trees with man-powered cross-cut saws; the trees were six feet thick and 200 feet high. They also planted 1.8 million seedling fir trees. They were also responsible to fight naturally caused forest fires and were also to be prepared for firebombing from enemies.
In the last year or so of serving the government, Dad was transferred back to Manitoba to work as an agricultural worker. His first job was working at the Trappist Monastery milking 40 dairy cows.
In 1944 Dad asked to get released from the alternative service, but his request was denied. He walked out for two weeks to get married to my Mom on July 30, 1944, with whom he had been writing letters in his time away. Dad had been waiting for four years and continually postponing the wedding plans, expecting to be released at any time.
After two weeks of his being gone and gotten married, he was called back to service and was going to be sent to work at building the National Park at Clear Lake. Instead Dad and his new bride were picked up by a farmer from Carberry, Man. Dad did farm work and Mom worked doing household chores. This contract started on Aug. 10, 1944, and was paid $25/ month. On Dec. 3, 1944, my parents were bought out of the service by my grandfather for $45/ month. Dad then went to work in the bush by La Broquerie for his father-in-law and with his brothers-in-law for the balance of the wartime.
There were issues these men had to deal with from an emotional level: The arbitrary way they were sent from home; the need to grow up in a hurry; other men were marrying and starting their families and work; animosity they felt, or assumed, from their non-Mennonite neighbours who sent their sons and daughters to war and some did not return or returned injured.
There were also some positive parts of this experience: Seeing the West on the government’s dime, contributing to the country through their service, forming life-long friendships, and spiritual growth.
Could this service be required from the Mennonites in the future? What would our stance be on serving in the military? Would we even have the option of serving under the arrangement of 1873?
Mervin Dueck is from Rosenort EMC. The original documents used in this article were donated to the EMC Archives and are available for research purposes.