Manitoba History: Conscientious Objection in Manitoba during the First World War

by Amy Shaw
History Department, University of Lethbridge

Number 82, Fall 2016

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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When Prime Minister Robert Borden announced Canada’s entry into the First World War, he did so in the language of unity and responsibility. On 18 August, he told a cheering House of Commons: “As to our duty, we are all agreed, we stand shoulder to shoulder with Britain and the other British Dominions in this quarrel.” [1] While there were fractures, most notably between French- and English-speaking Canadians, the language of the war continued to emphasize the duty of Canada to Britain and to the abstract ideals the empire was meant to represent. For men, fulfilling this duty generally meant becoming a soldier. Conscription was enacted in 1917 in an effort to bring those who would not volunteer into an appropriate expression of the duties of masculine citizenship. Compulsory military service was, then, both the acme of this desire for unity of behaviour and an articulation of understandings of the gendered responsibilities of citizenship.

It is useful to look at those who rejected conscription based upon a different conception of their individual responsibilities. Men who claimed exemption from combatant military service on conscientious grounds asserted the precedence of other obligations—religious or ethical—that prevented them from killing or, sometimes, joining the army at all. Public reactions to conscientious objectors, whose beliefs and behaviour put them outside the norms of wartime society, offer insight into how Manitobans during the First World War saw minority rights, religious freedom, and the responsibilities of citizenship and masculine behaviour.

Conscription was not a novelty in Canada, although the Great War was the first large-scale use of it, and the first time Canadians were drafted for overseas service. There had been various militia acts since the time of New France, but when the war broke Canadians had almost no experience with military conscription. The volunteer militia had not been called out since the Northwest Rebellion of 1885, and the contingents sent to the South African War had been made up of volunteers. Along with this lack of direct experience, there was also a sense that conscription was just somehow not really our way. Compelling people to fight was “un-British” and many Canadians were very confident about the efficacy of the voluntary system. Volunteerism was an important part of many people’s sense of Canada’s national identity. [2]

As well, the war was popular. Canadians volunteered in a rush when it began, many worried about missing out on their generation’s great opportunity for heroism and adventure. Prime Minister Robert Borden promised that there would be no conscription. But, as casualties mounted, enlistment dried up, and the murmurs of discontent about the perception that some people and groups were sacrificing much more than others grew louder, drafting men began to seem like a real possibility.

Duty was an important element of the discourse of Edwardian Canadian society, especially during the First World War. As well, the demands it asked of the homefront seemed easier to bear if they were fairly distributed. There were different interpretations of how to make the losses of the war more democratic—some Manitobans argued for what they called a conscription of wealth rather than, or at least before, the conscription of men’s bodies, seeing the upper classes as not doing their fair share. [3] The focus was, however, on drafting men to fight. Military necessity was part of the argument, but the focus tended to be on a more equitable homefront. Drafting men also accorded well with contemporary ideas about eugenics. Chief Justice T. G. Mathers of Manitoba described voluntary service as “iniquitous” because it distributed the burden of sacrifice unequally and drained the country of “its best blood.” [4] Conscription seemed to be the answer.

The Borden administration introduced it under the 1917 Military Service Act. This included various grounds for exemption from conscription; provision was made for ill health, holding a job that was essential to the prosecution of the war, or if enlisting would cause serious financial hardship to one’s dependants. The last grounds for exemption was that a conscript conscientiously objects to the undertaking of combatant service and is prohibited from so doing by the tenets and articles of faith, in effect at the date of the passing of this act, of any organized religious denomination existing and well recognized in Canada, at such date, and to which he in good faith belongs. [5]

This basis for exemption was included partly in a spirit of liberal individuality. All of the Allied countries that enacted conscription legislation included a clause providing for exemption on conscientious grounds. But Canada’s clause was very specific. Exemption was provided only to members of specific religious denominations.

Part of the reason for this distinction was to avoid the perceived complications raised by Britain’s more liberal exemption clause. [6] Also, the government had an obligation not only to the successful prosecution of the war, but also to respect the promises made to what are called the “historic peace churches” in Canada. These are the Mennonites, Church of the Brethren (also called Tunkers or Dunkards), Hutterites, Doukhobors, and the Society of Friends or Quakers. Many of these people had emigrated to the country based on promises that they would not be asked for military service. [7] In Manitoba, Mennonites were the most numerous of these groups, and their presence, and government intentions and public attitudes towards them, shaped the experience of conscientious objection in that province.

But members of these groups were not the only ones who felt that their attitudes towards war placed them in the category of conscientious objectors. Members of smaller denominations, like the International Bible Students (today called Jehovah’s Witnesses), Plymouth Brethren, and Christadelphians also objected, as did some members of the mainstream Protestant and Catholic churches. Members of all of these groups had a more difficult time, generally, than did members of the historic peace churches.

Not that all conscientious objectors (COs) did not face impediments. Advocates of conscription promoted, among other things, its democratizing benefits. The broad association of conscription with equality and democracy placed conscientious objectors in a most unfavourable light. The draft promised a parity of sacrifice, and a recognition of group goals that many Canadians hoped would continue after the war. Objectors had chosen to differentiate themselves from that picture of unity, and retain allegiance to different, individual goals. It left them open to charges of selfishness, along with the more predictable allegations of cowardice.

The widespread presentation of the war as being fought to preserve peace and Christian values also increased the difficulty of maintaining an ethical objection to military service. Nellie McClung wrote: “Then I said that we were waging war on the very Prince of Darkness … I knew that no man could die better than in defending civilization from this ghastly thing which threatened her.” [8] Such arguments seemed to take the ground from beneath the conscientious objectors’ feet. In these terms, military service was the ultimate expression of Christian sacrifice. It was incomprehensible to stand aside from a holy war for reasons of conscience. The real motivation must then be something else: cowardice, selfishness, too much civilization or not enough, pro-German beliefs, and a lack of manliness all seemed likely culprits. Several newspapers across the province reprinted the caustic and unattributed “Conscientious Objector’s Creed.”

I believe in peace and in the determined obliteration of all feelings of wrath and indignation for crimes against humanity and civilization. I believe in a supine endurance of all insults, and in a cringing compliance with the forces of bestiality, destruction and lust. I believe in opening our gates to madmen and leaving our homes defenceless. I believe that if a war is to be fought, it should be fought by someone else. I believe in milk and water, in namby-pambyism and flapdoodle, in gush and bunkum, in veiled eyes and soft hands, in mealy mouths and fat stomachs, in the encouragement of cowardice, and in slavery everlasting, for the forgiveness of everything rotten, Kaiser’s sake, Amen. [9]

In this atmosphere, when COs were disenfranchised under the Wartime Elections Act in 1917, it generated little protest. The Wartime Elections Act is well known for extending the vote to Canadian women who were mothers, wives, sisters, or daughters of servicemen. This is the first time women were permitted to vote in federal elections. But the Wartime Elections Act also, less famously, took away the vote from some people. Naturalized Canadians born in enemy countries who had settled in Canada after 1902 lost their right to vote, and conscientious objectors were also disenfranchised.

The reason for this seems to be partly connected to the idea that voting was a prerogative of citizenship, and that citizenship was connected to the ability to defend the state in time of war. Women who were closely related to soldiers were given the right to vote ostensibly based upon their apparent stake in the military defence of the country. They were also, critics charged, extended the franchise because they were deemed more likely to vote for the Conservatives’ Union Government, supporting conscription as a means of supporting their menfolk overseas. There was wide support for the disenfranchisement of COs.

Men who will not fight for their country do not deserve to hold a stake in the country. It is to the credit of Premier Borden that he has pronounced himself in favour of conscription. Our best and bravest cannot be allowed to make the supreme sacrifice in order to preserve this land for the children of slackers and for those whose attachment to England and Canada is only in name. [10]

Voting was the prerogative of adult male citizenship. Removal of the franchise then was not just a punishment for the objectors’ dissenting behaviour, but also a slur on their manhood. That the Wartime Elections Act enfranchised female relatives of soldiers made patent the sense that war service was the basis of citizenship, and conscientious objectors were beyond the pale.

The equation of soldiering with masculinity and refusal with a fearfulness born of effeminacy, while perhaps not surprising, was also not a foregone conclusion. Expressions of manliness in the not-so-distant Victorian past had generally shared an emphasis on intellectual as well as physical independence and strength. As well, mainstream Protestant culture had a tradition of respect for pious resistance. [11] This emphasis altered toward the end of the Victorian era, with the growth of a “cult of manliness.” Jonathan Rutherford, in his study of race, masculinity, and empire in England, attributes it to prevalent ideas about the superiority of the British race. “The rising popularity of imperialism and the influence of social Darwinism cultivated manliness no longer dependent upon soulsearching, but upon subordination to the national ideal and an enthusiasm for being ‘normal.’” [12] The ramifications of this new understanding of masculinity were, quite arguably, among the root causes for the nature of the abuse that public opinion visited upon the conscientious objectors.

This new “cult of masculinity”, with its emphasis on “being normal”, was promoted from boyhood. The healthiness of public school life, with its values of submission, conformity, and loyalty, was, for example, expressed in such popular books as Tom Brown’s School Days. The lifestyle promoted anti-individualistic values that were carried into adult life. Rutherford quotes Henry Newbolt on the virtues of physical education: “Its great merit was that it made men, and not sneaks or bookworms, and its direct objects were character and efficiency.” The intellectualism and self-sufficiency valued in earlier Victorian ideals were markedly curtailed. The emphasis was now on action and being a team player.

Coupled with the conformity that wartime tends to produce, this meant that the pacifist objectors were sometimes seen as closer to the hated “militaristic” Germans than to their own compatriots.

It seems to me that the conscientious objectors are suffering from the same mental malady that afflicts the Germans. In one case the patients think so highly of their spiritual and mental attainments that they want to force their habit of thought and style of living on the whole world. In the other case the patients consider themselves to be so much finer in sensibility and truer to their ideals than their brothers that they can indulge themselves in those same feelings at the expense of these same brothers who are thinking more of the good of others than of themselves. [13]

The writer was appalled by the “stupendous egotism” of both the Germans and the conscientious objectors. Such irritation at the COs’ perceived sense of moral superiority was commonly voiced. Their seemingly wilful separation from the activities of the rest of the country implied a certain smugness that the public was determined to quell.

The terms with which they were disparaged also relate to fears about masculinity in an urbanizing society. Theodore Roosevelt, whose pro-war speeches were widely reprinted in Manitoba newspapers, derided conscientious objectors as effete. “The parlour pacifists, the white-handed or sissy type of pacifist, represents decadence, represents the rotting out of the virile virtue among people who typify the unlovely senile side of civilization.” [14] Part of the reason for the popularity of the First World War at its outbreak was a sense of such conflict as invigorating, a healthy respite from the enervation and feminization of an increasingly urban, industrial society. An appropriate manly response to the war, then, was enthusiastic enlistment, not just on patriotic grounds, but because of an instinctive eagerness for the benefits of what Roosevelt called “the strenuous life.” The apparent absence of such an instinct among pacifists was evidence of their decadence and lack of manliness.

If they were sometimes castigated as over-civilized, they were also, and conversely, derided for being backwards. This stereotype took aim at members of the peace churches and other small denominations that tended to separate themselves from mainstream society. In The Conscientious Objector, Walter Guest Kellogg published his assessments about men imprisoned for conscientious objection in the United States. The typical Mennonite objector was, to him, of singular appearance. “His hair and beard are unkempt… His trousers open only at the side and do not button, but hook together. He wears no jewelry of any kind. He shuffles awkwardly into the room – he seems only half awake. His features are heavy, dull, almost bovine.” [15] The Mennonites were portrayed as almost bestially boorish in appearance, manners, and intelligence.

Reaction to the claims of exemption of other small pacifist groups draws similarly on their physical difference from the rest of society. “As a matter of fact most of them are ignorant and unhealthy minded and no more represent the normal population than do the giants, dwarfs and fat women, who can be seen in a hundred country fairs. The production of ‘conscientious objectors’ seems to be a necessary evil arising from freedom of thought and action, but these people represent the chaff in the winnowing process.” [16] This image of the obtuse religious objector, whose refusal was apparently based on ignorance and isolation from everything healthy in mainstream society, became an important aspect of reactions to COs in Manitoba.

While the Military Service Act had been put in place in 1917, no efforts were made to enforce it until after the election of the Union government at the end of that year. By the time the new parliament met on 18 March 1918, machinery for the enforcement of the MSA had been set up, under the control of the Department of Justice. To judge the validity of an individual’s grounds for exemption from military service, 1395 local tribunals were set up throughout the country. A man unhappy with the decision of his local tribunal had recourse to one of 195 one-man appeal courts throughout the country. The final step was the Central Appeal Court, where the merits of the case were decided by Justice Lyman P. Duff of the Supreme Court of Canada. If the military authorities were unhappy with a tribunal’s decision, they could appeal it to the higher courts as well.

An impression of the elements of a typical tribunal, and of attitudes towards those who claimed conscientious objection, can be gleaned from an account in the Brandon Daily Sun. The article noted that the tribunal had fifty-two cases to deal with that day, a demanding schedule which would have left little room for thoughtful deliberation, or tolerance for less than concise claims. After brief mention of some medical exemptions, it discussed the case of Oliver Fish. Fish claimed exemption from military service not only based on his religious proscriptions against killing, but also by arguing, as did some other objectors, that his denomination believed it wrong to “seek comradeship in armies where the great bulk of the men are unsaved, ‘Even if one had never to fire a shot, the association is contrary to the word of God.” The tribunal deemed such scriptural authority “insufficient,” and made a statement about the judge’s own beliefs on the matter.

In commenting the Tribunal said these people are not actuated by conscience at all, but are slackers pure and simple. It isn’t that they conscientiously refuse to take the life of another man but object to being shot at. These men should be made to serve in some position where the danger is to their own lives and not to the life of another. If this is conscience, then virtue is a vice. We have another name for it. What they call conscience, we call cowardice. Exemption disallowed. [17]

In such a rushed and antagonistic atmosphere, people often unaccustomed to articulating their private beliefs faced tremendous difficulty. In response to the need to prove something so intangible as conscience, the only sure means seemed to be to test it. The Manitoba Free Press worried that what the objectors thought was their conscience, was really fear. “How can they be sure they believe in non-resistance when there are so many brave men between them and danger?” [18] Theodore Roosevelt often spoke of his solution. After calling conscientious objectors “the paid or unpaid agents of the German government” in a speech, he said that “If a man does not wish to take life, but does wish to serve his country, let him serve on board a mine-sweeper or in some other position where the danger is to his own life and not to the life of anyone else.” [19]

The Canadian authorities acted less dramatically, although according to a similar sense that pacifism was best met with punishment and coercion. Those who did not receive exemption from their tribunal were deemed to have enlisted, and, upon their refusal to obey military orders, were subjected to a somewhat haphazard series of military arrests, court martials, and detentions. After some highly publicized mistreatment of COs in Winnipeg, many, though not all, were transferred to civilian prisons.

If generally typical in its attitudes towards these young men, Manitoba’s experience with conscientious objection during the First World War also included some more extreme episodes that drew national attention. The most widely reported case of the mistreatment of conscientious objectors involved two clerks from Winnipeg, both International Bible Students: thirty-two-year old Robert Litler Clegg, and twenty-three-year old Ralph Naish, and a Pentecostal, Charles Matheson. The men suffered abuse at Minto Street Barracks in Winnipeg. For not obeying an order, they were held several times under an ice cold shower until they either accepted military discipline or collapsed. Matheson broke down and agreed to obey orders. Later, testifying before a court of inquiry, he described the experience.

[The water] was very cold, and as I stood under it, it got colder, till it became icy cold. My whole body began to heave… when I would stand with my back to it, he [Provost Sergeant Simpson] would make me turn around and face it, and make me turn my face up to it. I was shading my face with my hand … he made me take my hand down… I was beginning to get dazed, and I was tumbling around… He asked me, ‘Will you give in now?’ I said no. He put me in again… This went on three or four times… He said ‘we will either break you or break your heart’… I was put into my undershirt and things, and I was dragged away. [20]

According to his affidavit published in the Winnipeg Free Press, Clegg’s shower apparently lasted for about fifteen minutes, until he fell unconscious and had to be hospitalized. He charged that he was stripped of his clothes and “subjected to a violent treatment of ice-cold water.” He was then subjected to another cold shower treatment.

I was in a semi-conscious state during the greater period of the second treatment, and when taken out, I was seated upon a cold stone slab, which caused me to lose control of myself and become absolutely incapable of any control of my limbs or muscles… while still wet and in a condition of complete nervous prostration, and helplessness, I was dressed… dragged on the concrete floor upstairs, through the drill hall, to the place of detention… Subsequently, while unconscious, I was removed to St. Boniface Hospital.

The soldiers of the barracks were quoted as being “highly incensed over such cruel treatment and have questioned if even Germany can beat it… We, as men, regret there are those so debased who would tolerate such treatment on human beings when it would be unlawful to mete out such treatment even to a dog.” The commander of the depot battalion, Lt.-Col. Osler, countered that the matter had been “very much exaggerated.” Another officer compared the incident to “schoolboy pranks” or “ragging.” [21]

F. J. Dixon, one of the few voices of anti-war protest in Canadian politics, brought the incident up in the Manitoba legislature. Fred Dixon was a key voice for labour in provincial politics who had been elected as an “Independent Progressive” MLA in 1914, and would go on to play an important role in the Winnipeg General Strike and the founding of the Independent Labour Party. [22] After the incident at Minto Street Barracks he argued that the Minister of Militia and Defence, Major-General S. C. Mewburn, ought to issue a general order about the treatment of conscientious objectors. Dixon wrote, “The day of torture should be past. If there is no other way of dealing with these men, it would be more humane to shoot them at once than to submit them to torture which endangers their reason.” [23] The Manitoba Free Press published an editorial entitled “Stop It!” cautioning Canada to avoid the “serious mistakes” in Britain’s “physical coercion” of its conscientious objectors. The editor refused to believe the response of the officers about schoolboy pranks: “It is idle to pretend that, in cases like this, the hazing is the result of spontaneous indignation by the companions of the recalcitrant; these things happen because someone in authority is desirous that they shall happen.” [24]

A district court martial was ordered to investigate Sergeant G. J. Simpson for his part in the hazing, and he was acquitted. Despite some efforts, civil charges were never laid. The court of inquiry took no action regarding the treatment of conscientious objectors beyond ordering that in the future objectors who refused military orders were to be sent to civil prisons. Major-General Mewburn supported his subordinates at Minto Barracks, and concluded that the affair had been blown out of proportion. Clegg, Naish, and another Bible Student, Frank Wainwright, who continued to refuse to obey orders, were convicted by district courts martial, sentenced to two years at Stony Mountain penitentiary, but then shipped to England.

Some conscientious objectors were sent overseas because disobeying an order at the front, which was deemed to include England, was grounds for being shot. Being sent overseas then was intended to scare them into giving up their objection. [25] Adherents of small religious denominations like the International Bible Students tended to be subjected to harsher treatment than did members of the historic peace churches or individuals from mainstream churches who disagreed with their churches’ teachings. This seems to be based on a more suspicious attitude about their stance, and a sense of their lesser respectability more generally. [26]

The case of David Wells also drew wide attention. Wells was a twenty-four-year-old Pentecostal who worked as a teamster. He had refused to report when called up for service, and been charged with desertion. His two-year sentence was intended as something of a deterrent for others considering the same course of action. When asked to plead, Wells responded “I plead guilty before man, but not before God.” [27] While his rather cocky absolutism earned him a brief newspaper mention, he drew wide notice when he died in Selkirk Asylum a month later. The Manitoba Free Press summarized: “Wells became a raving lunatic four days after being taken to the penitentiary on January 24. On February 11 he was removed to the Selkirk asylum, and died on February 18.” [28]

There was a great deal of publicity, and a great deal of argument over who was to blame. Members of the Pentecostal mission to which Wells belonged claimed that they had been denied admission when trying to visit him at Stony Mountain prison, and that he had entered it a healthy man. The Justice Department reported that Wells was a manic-depressive who had been overcome by shame. Interestingly, members of his church seem to have blamed his death on intolerable social pressure more than any sort of ill-treatment in prison. The Manitoba Free Press spoke to his pastor:

Rev. Mr. Sweet stated that the death certificate, when he saw it, hinted that probably Wells was wrong mentally for some time. This, according to Mr. Sweet, is not borne out by facts. “What is the use of a government doing men to death in this fashion?” he said. “He was sentenced by a judge who knew absolutely nothing about his private life and who was influenced by what he was told by other people.” [29]

The reference to his private life apparently refers to the fact that Wells was evidently financially supporting his mother in England, and that he had two brothers in the British army and a father who had served a long career in the navy. It is instructive to compare this situation to that of the objectors in the Minto Barracks case: Charles Matheson’s mother made a statement to the Manitoba Free Press supporting his position:

I would much rather have my boy put up against that wall and shot than he have to go and fight. He is standing up for his Lord and he will keep on doing so. These boys have suffered for their Lord and will still suffer and then they will not fight. [30]

Matheson had support at home for his absolutist stance; Wells did not. It is impossible to know his mental state when entering prison; the speed of his decline is certainly shocking whatever his mental health. But his stance was a very lonely and unpopular one, and it seems that the confidence with which he faced his tribunal could not be sustained. Where Wells’ physical and psychological isolation from his family was apparently mitigated by the support of his church, guilt and worry over his mother’s support probably added to the strain. One conscientious objector in Britain described the pressure and isolation he and his fellow pacifists faced.

No normal person likes the prospect of being sentenced to death, but the prospect caused infinitely less anxiety and mental anguish to the C.O.s than the fact that they found themselves up against the war-fever – not only of their countrymen at large, but of their neighbours and even some members of their own families.

The lack of an organization along the lines of the British “No Conscription Fellowship” meant that COs in Canada, unless they had some church support, were isolated from each other as well.

If their community support helped to shield Manitoban Mennonites from some of this at the time, the protection was only partial and, if many members of the government and public had their way, temporary. Many people called for an end to their separate communities where they spoke the language of the enemy and had their own schools. The great good of the war, as it was going on, was generally seen to be the unity it brought to Canadian society. This perception sharpened criticism of anyone who refused to be fully drawn in and increased calls to educate non-resistant groups in the values of Canadian citizenship. [31]

The antipathy became very loud towards the end of the war when a group of American Mennonites, buoyed by the clearer status of non-resistant groups in Canada, made plans to migrate north. The possibility met with a storm of negative public opinion. The Manitoba Free Press reported,

Groups of Mennonites or members of a sect closely resembling them, in any event slackers or people who profess a religion that prevents them from taking on their fair share of the responsibilities of Government, are reported to be trooping over the border into Canada and are settling in the Prairie Provinces

The writer of this letter to the editor, albeit unenthusiastically, saw the need to live up to Canada’s “contract” with Mennonites who had arrived before the war, but not with these newcomers:

[P]eople of peculiar religions, living in colonies and clinging to an alien tongue and to racial habits are from every point of view – except that of production, perhaps – undesirable settlers… The country wants citizens in the full meaning of the word, and not a lot of slackers who are fully prepared to pile up wealth at some one else’s expense, but to whom the obligations of government mean nothing. [32]

Not bearing its share of the military burden, this “alien” group was easily assumed to be becoming wealthy in a time of stringency.

Unless something is done to stop these people from coming in… they are going to be a grave menace to the south country, and at the same time steps must be taken to bar them from their customary habit of forming self-centered communities, with little or no connection with the outside world, for while they persist in so living they will not make good Canadian citizens… It is self-evident that “white folks,” be they Scotch, Irish, English, American, or just plain Canadian, do not want to reside in the neighborhood of a colony which speaks the enemy language, adopts the costumes and customs of enemy countries, and professes itself free from military or other duties of State that have to be recognized and obeyed by Canadian citizens. [33]

When it was customary to see the war as something that was bringing disparate elements of the country together, the persistence of a group living separately and clinging to a “peculiar” religion was an annoyance. Worse still was their German background and refusal to fight. Antagonism in contemporary newspapers to their conscientious-objector status is very often paired with irritation at the separatism of the historic peace churches. Non-resistance, in this view, is merely further evidence of not being sufficiently Canadianized. [34]

In formulating its policy towards conscientious objection, the Borden administration had to balance its promises to certain religious groups, the tradition of liberal individualism inherited from Britain, and its need to continue to provide troops for the war in Europe. Canadians as individuals also had to balance the competing claims of their various responsibilities. Even when the national obligation to participation in the war in Europe was apparently agreed upon, that the overwhelming majority of conscripted Canadians requested exemption for some reason or another, shows that COs were not alone in their sense of the precedence of other duties. [35]

A group of men unwilling to take human life, and largely shaped by ideas of deference to authority, constituted a singular faction for the government and wider Canadian society to deal with when they refused to participate in what was widely agreed upon as a national crusade. That they received abuse beyond the degree of threat their numbers or level of organization could be argued to warrant seems to be at least partly attributable to the distance their response put them from the norms of masculine behaviour of the time. By failing to go along with their fellows, the conscientious objectors were not just being cowardly or lazy, but were privileging an individual, contemplative response over one of group loyalty and action. This, and the encouragement of conformity that wartime promotes, amplified the Canadian public’s suspicion of those determined to assert an individual voice, the stubborn conscientious objector among them.


1. Robert Borden, 19 April 1914, House of Commons Debates, p. 19.

2. See James Wood, Militia Myths: Ideas of the Canadian Citizen Soldier, 1896-1921. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2010.

3. See, for example E. Beveridge, letter to the editor, “Calls Objectors Undemocratic,” Manitoba Free Press, 5 January 1917, p. 9.

4. T. G. Mathers, “The Voluntary System,” letter to the editor, Christian Guardian, 15 November 1916.

5. Military Service Act, 1917, SC 1917, c. 19, s11(1) (f).

6. Britain enacted military conscription in 1916 and included a clause providing for exemption on conscientious grounds that did not specify membership in a religious denomination. See Arthur Meighen’s discussion about the problems faced in Britain by the larger-than-expected number of men taking advantage of that country’s conscientious objection clause. Canada, House of Commons Debates (12 July 1917), pp. 3303-3305.

7. See “Lord Dufferin’s Speech of Welcome to the First Mennonite Settlers in Manitoba. August 21, 1877” which promises “nor will you be called upon in the struggle to stain your hands with human blood – a task which is abhorrent to your religious feelings. The war to which we invite you as recruits and comrades is a war waged against the brute forces of nature.” Canadian Mennonite University Archives, William Janzen Papers, file 15.

8. Nellie McClung, The Next of Kin: Those Who Wait and Wonder, Toronto: T. Allen, 1917, p. 45.

9. “Conscientious Objector’s Creed,” Saturday Night, 29 December 1917, p. 2. See also Boissevain Recorder, 31 January 1918, p. 4; Ninette News, 25 October 1918 p. 3. Sometimes titled “Slackers Creed.”

10. Belmont News, 28 June 1917, p. 1.

11. The Victorian ideal of masculinity had been promoted by, among others, Dr. Thomas Arnold, at his influential school at Rugby. He equated manliness with intellectual energy, moral purpose, and sexual purity. In a slightly different vein, Thomas Carlyle promoted a more aggressive version of manliness, which stressed the superiority of will and independence over the Christian virtues. Thomas Carlyle, On Heroes and Hero Worship and the Heroic in Society, London: James Frazier, 1841.

12. Jonathan Rutherford, Forever England: Reflections on Race, Masculinity and Empire. London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1997. See also J. A. Mangan and James Walvin (eds.), Manliness and Morality: Middle-Class Masculinity in Britain and America, 1800-1940. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1987, Mark Moss, Manliness and Militarism: Educating Boys in Ontario for War, Toronto: Oxford University Press, 2001.

13. Harriett Rashnell, “The Conscientious Objector,” letter to the editor, Manitoba Free Press, 30 October 1917, p. 9.

14. “Abhors the Hun Within Our Gate” Brandon Daily Sun, 1 October 1917, p. 2.

15. Kellogg was one of the three-members of the War Department Board of Inquiry in the US which travelled to military institutions where conscientious objectors had been encamped and interrogated them briefly to determine their sincerity. Walter Guest Kellogg, The Conscientious Objector, New York: Boni and Liveright, 1919, p. 38.

16. “Religious Sects Who Object to War,” Brandon Daily Sun, 21 March 1916, p. 7.

17. “Exemption Tribunals Pass on Claims Made: Conscientious Objector” Brandon Daily Sun, 12 November 1917, p. 1. There is no record of an Oliver Fish in the CEF files.

18. Harriet Rashnell, “The Conscientious Objector,” Manitoba Free Press, 30 October 1917, p. 9.

19. “Abhors the Hun Within Our Gate” Brandon Daily Sun, 1 October 1917, p. 2.

20. “Proceedings of a Regimental Court of Enquiry Assembled at Winnipeg, Manitoba, 24 January, 1918,” LAC RG24, vol. 2028, HQ1064-30-67,35. See also service record for #2380155 Robert Clegg, LAC, CEFS Records RG150 accession 92/93, box 1784-25; and service rocord for #2380174 Henry Naish, box 7230-52.

21. “Conscientious Objectors Said to Have Been Roughly Handled,” Manitoba Free Press, 25 January 1918, p, 5. See also service record for #238022 Charles Matheson (Mathison), LAC, CEF Records, RG150 accession 92/93, box 6038-86.

22. J. M. Bumsted, Dictionary of Manitoba Biography, Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 1999, p. 69.

23. Letter from Dixon to T. A. Crerar, 28 January 1918 LAC, RG 24, vol. 2028.

24. “Stop It!,” Manitoba Free Press, 25 January 1918, p. 9.

25. While they were threatened and abused, no Canadian conscientious objectors were shot overseas for refusing to obey orders. See Teresa Iacobelli, Death or Deliverance: Canadian Courts Martial in the Great War, Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2013.

26. For a discussion of reactions to different conscientious objectors, see Amy Shaw, Crisis of Conscience: Conscientious Objection in Canada During the First World War, Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2009.

27. Quoted in “Two Years for Draft Evaders,” Manitoba Free Press, 24 January 1918, p. 5.

28. “‘Objector’ Dies Raving Maniac,” Manitoba Free Press, 27 February 1918, p. 5.

29. “Minto Barracks Cruelty Charges,” Manitoba Free Press, 26 January 1918, p, 5.

30. Ibid., p. 5.

31. In its outline and in the passion it evoked, the conflict over the “Mennonite schools question” was similar to that concerning French schooling in Manitoba and Ontario. As was the case for French Canadians, the threat that Mennonites might be deprived of the right to educate their children in their own language exacerbated their conflict with both conscription and the Anglo-Canadian society that demanded it. Pushed by the threat of losing control of their schools and their exemption from conscription, some six thousand Canadian Mennonites emigrated to Paraguay after the war. William Janzen, Limits on Liberty: The Experience of Mennonite, Hutterite, and Doukhobor Communities in Canada, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1990, p. 3.

32. “More Slackers Coming Our Way,” Manitoba Free Press, 21 September 1918, p. 1.

33. “More of This Mennonite Invasion,” Manitoba Free Press, 5 October 1918, p. 1.

34. The “invasion” of Mennonites was discussed at length in Canadian Parliament. Canada, House of Commons Debates (29 May 1919), [pp. ???] 2001- 2067.

35. While it was very rarely on grounds of conscience, most Canadians responded to conscription with claims to exemption. Nationally, 93.7 percent of those called asked to be excused from serving. J. L. Granatstein and J. M. Hitsman, Broken Promises: A History of Conscription in Canada. Toronto: Copp, Clark, Pitman, 1985, p. 85. Although the majority of Canadians had supported conscription in the election of 1917 as a means of equalization of sacrifice, they had apparently supported it as appropriate for someone else.

We thank Clara Bachmann for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.

We thank S. Goldsborough for assistance in preparing the online version of this article.

Page revised: 12 November 2020