My father-in-law Cornelius Driedger from Leamington, Ontario was a conscientious objector during World War II. During World War II many Mennonite men who were called to military duty in Canada agreed with the pacifist stance of their church and refused to join the army. They rather participated in an alternative service program that was negotiated by 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 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 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 1800s 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 both been working at the Imperial Tobacco factory in Leamington. Mom moved in with Dad’s sisters while he was gone.
Dad lived in close quarters with the other men in the Montreal River camp and made many new friends.
Dad was at the camp 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 Shoemakers 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 Kitchener 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 or George Lane who wrote To find a friend just be a friend.
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 the 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.
Some were pretty humorous and original like the entry from Joseph Martin from Wallenstein Ontario who wrote When some night the wind is blowing, and you read this by the lamp. Remember how we ate those beans at the Montreal River Camp.
The men obviously had good times at the camp too. 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 shortstop (ss).
Dad’s autograph book is an interesting artefact 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 kept this souvenir of that experience for more than 70 years.