Alternative Service

   Last weekend my family held our twenty-ninth annual family gathering at Clear Lake, in Manitoba’s Riding Mountain National Park. Our first gathering at this location took place in 1988 to celebrate my parents’ fortieth wedding anniversary. We enjoyed it so much we decided to do it again the next year, and have gathered at the same place every year since then. While my parents are no longer with us the group has doubled in size from 13 to 26 members.

   As we spend time in the park I am reminded of my father’s stories from his time as a Conscientious Objector (CO). Mennonites, and other faith groups, have often been exempt from military service based on their religious convictions. This was the case in Russia and also in Canada.

   During the Second World War COs were given the opportunity to serve their country through various forms of alternative service. The areas in which they worked included construction of national parks, forestry services, and healthcare. They were typically given room and board, some of which was quite Spartan, and an allowance of $25.00 per month. The balance of their wages went to the Red Cross.

   There were several initiatives in Riding Mountain National Park. A decision had been made to build a detention camp in the park for German prisoners of war. Firewood was in demand at the time and this camp was built to produce firewood from trees that remained after forest fires. Conscientious Objectors participated in the construction of the Whitewater Camp on Whitewater Lake, northwest of Clear Lake and Wasagaming.

   Road and dam construction was also a part of the contribution of the COs. A dam was built at Whirlpool Lake just northeast of Clear Lake.

   My father spent a relatively brief time in Riding Mountain National Park. From there he was sent to the Campbell River area on Vancouver Island to plant trees, fight forest fires and cut down snags, the trees that remained standing after a forest fire.

   While many COs chose, because of their belief system, not to enlist in the military, they did make significant contributions to Canada during a time of war. Consider the impact our national parks have had, not only on tourists but also on the Canadian economy. Consider the value of the millions of trees planted in reforestation programs during that time. It is important to appreciate all the contributions made to our country, especially during the time of distress that war brings. To me, Clear Lake represents a tribute to the courageous men who stood firm on their convictions but still found ways to serve their country.

Calendar of Events

- September 5: Fall on the Farm - 9:00 – 5:00

- September 18: Supper From the Field

- September 22: Volunteer Appreciation

- September 29: Auxiliary Fundraising Dinner

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About the Author

Barry is the Executive Director of the Mennonite Heritage Village. While he does not consider himself to be a historian, he places a high value on the preservation and interpretation of the Mennonite and pioneer stories that help people of all ages understand and appreciate their heritage. Learn more about the MHV.

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