Written by Jessica McKague
From early in their history, Mennonites have held beliefs against participation in war and military service. Menno Simons, their founding leader, said; "The regenerated do not go to war, nor engage in strife. They are the children of peace who have beaten their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks, and know of no war...." This Mennonite practice of conscientious objection has endured over a great length of time and at considerable sacrifice. Throughout history, many Mennonites have suffered punishment, exile, emigration, and in some cases death for their commitment to nonresistance. This belief was often both the “push” and “pull” factor when a search for a new homeland became necessary. Canada offered exemption from military service, thereby “pulling” the Mennonites to Manitoba.
During World Wars I and II, the Canadian government provided a program of alternative service for conscientious objectors (CO’s). When a CO was called up for service, he was required to file an application with the Mobilization Board for "postponement" of his military service. After he was passed by the Board as a CO, the man was assigned to work in a government camp or for private individuals on farms or in factories. The men in the camps worked on highways and other infrastructure projects or in forestry service, for which they received board, lodging, medical service, and wages of 50 cents per day. By 1946, when conscription came to an end, more than 5,000 Canadian Mennonites had been classified as CO's and had served in camps or in private agriculture or industry under the conscription system. Manitoba had a larger number of CO's than any other Canadian province.
Almon Menno Reimer was one such conscientious objector during WWII. On January 2, 1943, Almon left for Roblin, Manitoba, for CO duty. He brought with him his horse-hide jacket and a bundle packed with a wool blanket, clothing, personal items, and an axe (with its handle sticking up out of the bag). Almon’s father had bought this axe for him just before Almon’s departure for duty.
Boarding the CN train in Winnipeg, Almon noticed that he was the only person who was not with the air-force personnel on their way to Mcdonald, Neepawa, and Dauphin. This was Almon’s first time away from home. Being rather overwhelmed, he sat quietly in his seat, trying to be invisible.
Almon’s CO duties required him to drive a truck. He always carried his jacket in the truck with him in case of emergency. His axe came in handy for chopping firewood to warm the little shack he shared with his cousin C. Wilbert Loewen. Photos of the camp portray a snowy village of shacks in rows near a large sawmill.
Almon has kept that horse-hide jacket all these years and recently donated it to MHV. It is now on display in the Village Centre foyer, alongside his axe. Photographs and papers relating to his service round out the display.
From the gift of a new axe from father to son on the eve of departure to the chilly shack insulated only by sawdust and cardboard, Almon Reimer’s story gives us the lens of personal experience when looking into the history of Mennonite conscientious objectors.