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Conscientious Objectors

"Indiscretion could lead to potential sabotage. The walls have ears."Pressure to support the nation’s war effort was constant and unrelenting. Government advertising campaigns constantly poked, prodded, and cajoled citizens to support the cause by being vigilant, reporting suspicious activity, recycling, and through any number of other messages. The government hoped to convey that the war effort was a collective undertaking, requiring the support of the entire population.

Not everyone accepted this point of view; not everyone supported Canada’s decision to enter the conflict. Those who opposed the war effort on religious grounds became known as conscientious objectors, or “conchies”. Mennonites, Hutterites, Doukhobors, and Jehovah's Witnesses argued that their involvement in combatant activities was prohibited by their faith. In spite of their doctrinal differences, all argued that violence, in any form, could not be justified. These groups reminded the public that they and their ancestors had come to Canada during the late 19th and early 20th centuries to escape religious persecution and mandatory military service. Upon their arrival, most had been guaranteed by the government that they would not have to serve in the military. Such were the circumstances for the 21,000 Doukhobors who immigrated to Canada from Russia during the 1920s; they had sought and received an exemption from military service through the Militia Act. It is important to note that not all Mennonites, Hutterites, and Doukhobors were conscientious objectors. Some donated considerable sums of money to the war effort, and some joined the services, albeit usually in non-combat roles.

Not surprisingly, many conscientious objectors faced severe criticism and constant scrutiny from their fellow citizens and the authorities. German-speaking Hutterites and Mennonites made easy targets, critics calling into question their loyalty to Canada. Conscientious objectors were repeatedly accused of reaping the benefits of living in Canada—peace, relative prosperity, democracy, freedom of the press, and the right to practice one’s religion—while not sharing in the cost required to protect these same rights and privileges. Reaction against these groups and individuals was varied and sometimes led to violence. For example, in June 1940, Hutterite and Mennonite churches were destroyed by fires set by vigilantes in Vauxhall, Alberta. That same year, the province’s Mennonite settlements closed their German-language Bible schools and libraries out of fear of further retribution. In 1942, the Alberta government introduced legislation that prevented the sale of land to Hutterites and others suspected of subversive activities.

Those who joined the services but who refused to carry or use weapons were assigned to non-combat positions in the medical corps or in transport or administrative units. Others accepted jobs as civilian labourers assigned to building roads, trails, and other infrastructure and to planting trees in Canada’s national parks, including Banff and Jasper.


Collins, Robert. “As the war became real, Albertans hurled themselves into the cause,” in Alberta in the 20th Century: The War That United the Province: 1939–1945, ed. Ted Byfield. Edmonton: United Western Communications Limited, 2000.

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