My father-in-law Cornelius Driedger from Leamington, Ontario was a conscientious objector during World War II. Pacifism is a key tenet of the Mennonite faith and during World War II about 60% of Mennonite men who were called to military duty agreed with their church and refused to join the army. They rather participated in an alternative service program that was negotiated by the Mennonite leaders with the Canadian government.
Dad received a letter in the summer of 1942, just after he had announced his engagement to Anne Enns, that he was being conscripted to join the Canadian army. He took the letter to his uncle and the pastor of his church N.N. Driedger, who said he would apply for conscientious objector status for Dad. Since he was a baptized member of a Mennonite church it was likely his application would be approved, although not all Mennonite applications were.
Dad, shown here with his family around the time of his conscription came to Canada from Ukraine with his parents in 1924 when he was just three years old and although an earlier migration of Mennonites in the 1800’s had been promised exemption from military service, the second group had not been granted automatic conscientious objector status. Their cases had to be heard before a judge.
Mom and Dad had only been married for four months when Dad received word he would have to report to a former lumber camp in Montreal River , 625 miles north of Toronto where conscientious objectors would be put to work for the duration of the war by the Department of Highways helping to finish the construction of a link of the Trans Canada route. The main jobs of the men were clearing bushland or working in gravel pits. Mom and Dad had been living on a farm where they were sharecropping and they had both been working at the Imperial Tobacco factory in Leamington. Dad quit his job and Mom moved to town to live with Dad’s sisters while he was gone.
Going through a box of Mom and Dad’s things recently I found this autograph book which Dad had saved. In it are more than a hundred messages written by the men he served with at the Montreal River Camp.
Dad, who is in the centre of this picture was serving with men from all over Ontario because the autographs in the book are from dozens of different places like New Dundee, Preston, Hawkesville, Wellesley, Toronto, Drayton, Shakespeare and Waterloo.
The messages in the book are all unique. Some contain a Bible passage like Wilfred Shoemaker’s from Gowanstown who wrote Seek ye first the kingdom of God- Matthew 6:33 or religious poetry like a friend named Doc Sayyer from Oshawa who wrote Turn your eyes to Jesus, look full in his wonderful face, And the things of earth will grow strangely dim in the light of His Glory and Grace.
Other men inked words of advice and wisdom like Jacob Neufeld from Kitchner who wrote If men speak evil of you, live so people won’t believe them or Ross Clark from Toronto who quoted Shakespeare- To thine own self be true.
Some of the entries are good wishes for the future. Ed Lessman of Kitchener said May the winds that blow ill, e’re they reach you, stop still. Many expressed a hope that the friendship they had developed in the camp would not be forgotten. In the chain of friendship please regard me as a link, said Earl Oesch of Zurich, Ontario and Earl Litwiller of Petersburg Ontario wrote When evening draws the curtain, and joins it with a star, Remember you have a friend, No matter where you are.
The men obviously had good times at the camp too. My father-in-law is furthest to the left in this photo. Some of the entries reflect this sense of fun and are just plain silly. Peter Koop from Ruthven wrote to my father-in-law Cornelius, whose nickname was Cornie…..Cornie, Cornie in a tub, Cornie, Cornie forgot the plug. Oh my gosh! Oh the pain! There goes Cornie down the drain.
Many of the pages express the hope that the men will be able to keep in touch with each other in the coming years. Delton Bast from Milverton writes When rocks and hills divide us, and you no more I see, Just grab a pen or pencil and drop a line to me.
The men must have played baseball for recreation in the camp because one page in Dad’s autograph book records the players on a team called The Dynamites. On a previous page Cornelius is listed as the team manager but on this page he has been designated as the short stop (ss).
Dad’s autograph book is an interesting artifact from his era. I don’t know any people who still have them or use them. Obviously his time spent in the conscientious objectors camp was meaningful to him since he has kept this souvenir of that experience for nearly 70 years.