Ex­hibit pro­vides the Men­non­ite take on the War to End all Wars

Run­ning through Re­mem­brance Day, Men­non­ite Archives dis­play at Con­rad Grebel Uni­ver­sity College pro­vides lo­cal per­spec­tive on WWI

The Woolwich Observer - - NEWS - FAISAL ALI

IN RE­MEM­BRANCE OF THE sac­ri­fices made and strug­gles wrought dur­ing the First World War, the Men­non­ite Archives at Con­rad Grebel Uni­ver­sity College is dis­play­ing ex­hibits both in­ter­na­tional in their scope and dis­tinctly lo­cal.

From Septem­ber 25 un­til Re­mem­brance Day, Novem­ber 11, the archives are de­vot­ing an ex­hibit specif­i­cally to the ex­pe­ri­ences of the Men­non­ite com­mu­ni­ties dur­ing the Great War a cen­tury ago. Ti­tled “The Sites of Non Re­sis­tance: On­tario Men­non­ites and the First World War,” the ex­hibit aims to tell the sto­ries of men and women of the prov­ince’s paci­fist com­mu­ni­ties, as they grap­pled with the so­cial and po­lit­i­cal cli­mate of the time.

“For the first few years of the war, I think Men­non­ites just gen­er­ally tried to stay out of it. They had this long tra­di­tion of paci­fism, and they wanted to main­tain that,” ex­plains Lau­reen Harder-Giss­ing, ar­chiv­ist-li­brar­ian at the Men­non­ite Archives and cre­ator of the ex­hibit.

How­ever, as the war wore on in Europe and the battle lines re­mained ob­sti­nately in place, the Men­non­ite’s sta­tus of con­sci­en­tious ob­jec­tor, which ex­empted them from ser­vice, be­came far more con­tentious.

By 1917, vol­un­teer en­list­ments for the war had dwin­dled amongst the ex­hausted Canadian pop­u­lace. Ap­peals by Canadian politi­cians to British and im­pe­rial sol­i­dar­ity were yield­ing di­min­ish­ing re­turns, even as the war showed no signs of abat­ing. De­ter­mined to re­in­force the Canadian forces on the bat­tle­front, then-prime min­is­ter Robert Bor­den made the dif­fi­cult choice to en­act con­scrip­tion. Pre­ced­ing that, Bor­den passed the Wartime Elec­tions Act, which stripped con­sci­en­tious ob­jec­tors and newly im­mi­grated Cana­di­ans of the vote, while en­fran­chis­ing the wives, sis­ters and daugh­ters of sol­diers who would, con­ceiv­ably, sup­port con­scrip­tion.

“Men­non­ites needed to kind of swing into ac­tion and ad­vo­cate to gov­ern­ment to make sure they still had their con­sci­en­tious ob­jec­tor sta­tus. So some of them trav­elled to Ottawa in or­der to speak with gov­ern­ment in or­der to do that,” says HarderGiss­ing.

“But also or­di­nary Men­non­ites, start­ing dur­ing this time of con­scrip­tion es­pe­cially, re­ally found it a chal­lenge to think about their peace po­si­tion in light of the fact that their neigh­bours were be­ing sent off to war. There was just so much more ques­tion­ing of, ‘Why are young men on the street? Why are they not in uni­form?’”

Harder-Giss­ing says she was mo­ti­vated to tell the pub­lic about the of­ten over­looked Men­non­ite community, which in 1921 num­bered about 13,000 in On­tario, and 60,000 across Canada. This would have in­cluded both Old-Or­der Men­non­ites and the “as­sim­i­lated” de­nom­i­na­tions, who would have shared in their paci­fist ide­ol­ogy.

“What I’ve tried to do is dig through the archives and find sto­ries of in­di­vid­ual Men­non­ites, both men and women, who had ex­pe­ri­ences dur­ing the war where they had to con­front some of th­ese dif­fi­cult things, and just have them tell their sto­ries in their own words as much as pos­si­ble,” says Harder-Giss­ing.

“So we have 12 dif­fer­ent sto­ries and each of them as­so­ci­ates with a spe­cific lo­ca­tion, and that’s why we call it ‘Sites of Non­re­sis­tance.’”

The ex­pe­ri­ences of Men­non­ites dur­ing the war var­ied con­sid­er­ably, says Harder-Giss­ing, from in­ner-strug­gles with church doc­trine and be­lief to dif-

fi­cul­ties with the wider Canadian so­ci­ety.

“There was a cou­ple farm boys in East Zorra (-Tav­is­tok) Town­ship work­ing out in the fields, for ex­am­ple. And they were taken by mil­i­tary po­lice and put in the mil­i­tary camp in Lon­don, On­tario, and ba­si­cally held for six weeks where they tried to per­suade them to en­list. (The farm boys) held out for that time and they were fi­nally re­leased,” she notes.

Other in­stances saw Men­non­ite men con­scripted through “overzeal­ous re­cruit­ing” as well, by of­fi­cials not al­ways aware of their exemption from ser­vice, and the churches had to ar­gue for th­ese men’s re­lease and re­turn to civil­ian life. In the end, Harder-Giss­ing says she is not aware of any Men­non­ites who were con­scripted and forcibly sent to the front, though there were some Men­non­ites who did vol­un­teer for the war ef­fort, and of­ten left the church be­cause of it.

“So there’s th­ese sto­ries of th­ese young men. There’s also women who were see­ing women around them, non-Men­non­ites, be­ing in­volved in pro­vid­ing knit­ting for sol­diers and that kind of thing, or be­com­ing nurses in the mil­i­tary,” says Harder-Giss­ing.

“And they wanted to re­spond and aid in suf­fer­ing, but they wanted to do it from a paci­fist per­spec­tive. So there were a lot of women’s sewing groups formed to sew, but for the re­lief of civil­ian suf­fer­ing, not mil­i­tary suf­fer­ing.”

Harder-Giss­ing says she hopes her ex­hibit will help demon­strate the enor­mous so­cial im­pact the war had on Canadian com­mu­ni­ties through the ex­pe­ri­ences of th­ese 12 Men­non­ites.

“I think by telling the sto­ries of in­di­vid­u­als who wres­tled with their con­sciences, it re­minds us that there was not just one story of the First World War where all the young men went off to war, and all the women stayed home and they con­trib­uted to the war ef­fort.”

Rather, there were tremen­dous changes go­ing on across all sec­tors of the Canadian pop­u­la­tion.

“The French Cana­di­ans were very opposed to con­scrip­tion. Many new Cana­di­ans, so many Cana­di­ans of non-British ori­gin, had some am­biva­lent feel­ings about the war, and we know here in Kitch­ener – which was for­merly Ber­lin – that ac­tu­ally re­sulted in that name change hap­pen­ing. So when you dig deeper into th­ese sto­ries, there’s a lot more go­ing on than we re­al­ize, and the more un­der­stand about what that con­flict did to Canadian so­ci­ety. I think it re­ally helps to ex­plain and helps us to un­der­stand who we are as a coun­try.”

While the Sites of Non­re­sis­tance ex­hibit is run­ning, the archives will also be tak­ing part in The World Re­mem­bers Project, an ex­hibit be­ing run in 60 lo­ca­tions around the world that at­tempts to name all of the 661,818 sol­diers and nurses killed on both sides of the con­flict. The ex­hibit projects all 661,818 names over the course of 48 days, in an ef­fort to re­mem­ber ev­ery in­di­vid­ual lost in the con­flict. A data­base of ev­ery name and the ex­act time their name will be dis­played in the ex­hibit can be found at www.the­worl­dremem­bers.org.

The Men­non­ite Archives is lo­cated at the Con­rad Grebel Uni­ver­sity College, at 140 West­mount Rd. N., Water­loo. The ex­hibits will be avail­able for view­ing Monday to Satur­day dur­ing reg­u­lar library hours.


Ar­chiv­ist-li­brar­ian Lau­reen Harder-Giss­ing cre­ated the ex­hibit on lo­cal Men­non­ites’ ex­pe­ri­ences dur­ing the First World War.

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