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Pacifism refers to the complete rejection of war and violence as the means of settling disputes. It is a belief rooted in various religious traditions, such as those of Mennonites and Quakers, which were well established in Canada by the early twentieth century. In fact, just before the turn of the century the Canadian government specifically promised Mennonites, Hutterites and Doukhobors entering Canada that they would never have to take up arms, consequently, when conscription was adopted during the First World War they were exempted as conscientious objectors.

By the time of the Second World War, however, the situation in Canada had changed. A large number of Mennonites fleeing the Soviet Union, the Russlaenders, entered Canada without guarantees of military exemption. As well, during the 1920s and 1930s pacifism was endorsed by spokesmen in mainline Protestant denominations, especially the new United Church of Canada, resulting in a growing number of young Canadians who considered themselves pacifists but also without any exemption guarantees. Thus, when the Second World War began in 1939 and the vast majority of Canadians supported the call to arms, a vocal but vulnerable pacifist minority also existed, a fact underlined when 75 ministers in the United Church of Canada signed a Witness Against War Manifesto. The following year when the National Resources Mobilization Act introduced conscription for home defence, pacifists began to lobby Ottawa in order to protect the rights of all conscientious objectors.

In Manitoba and the other Prairie provinces where the majority of Mennonites had settled, the Kanadier Mennonites, those who arrived in the late-nineteenth century with official guarantees, naturally demanded complete exemption from military service, as in the first war, while the more recently arrived Russlaender Mennonites were ready and willing to perform some type of non-combatant or alternative service as they had done in Tsarist Russia. In Ontario, a broad coalition of Mennonites, Quakers and United Church representatives viewed alternative service as the best, and perhaps only, way to ensure conscientious objector status for all young men with pacifist convictions regardless of religious affiliation.

The government response to this combined pacifist pressure was to require all conscientious objectors to perform alternative service, even descendants of those who had historic exemption guarantees, partly because government officials felt they could no longer distinguish between the different Mennonite groups. While the Kanadier Mennonites were disappointed that they lost their complete exemption, the majority of pacifists were satisfied with the creation of Alternative Service Work Camps, mainly established in national parks across western Canada. Once Japan entered the war most of the conscientious objectors were transferred to camps in British Columbia to perform forestry work and to fight the forest fires it was feared would result if the Japanese bombed the West Coast. Then the following year, to more effectively utilize the labour of conscientious objectors, most of them were released from the camps for work on farms and in hospitals, schools, etc. and as non-combatants in the Army medical and dental corps as well as in other humanitarian ventures.

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Thomas Socknat, a leading historian of pacifism in Canada, reflects on the experience of Canadian pacifists during the Second World War.
Thomas P. Socknat is a Senior Lecturer in Canadian Studies at Woodsworth College, University of Toronto, where he also teaches a course on peace movements. He is the author of Witness Against War: Pacifism in Canada 1900-1945 and co-editor of Challenge to Mars: Essays on Pacifism From 1918 to 1945.