Ontario Mennonites in Alternative Service, 1941-1946

This exhibit was installed in the Mennonite Archives of Ontario gallery from January 4, 2016 until April 21, 2017. This page is the online version of the exhibit. Content can be copied and used as follows:

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Conchies Speak: Ontario Mennonites in Alternative Service, 1941-1946 by Mennonite Archives of Ontario is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

About the exhibit

"Conchie" is slang for conscientious objector, an individual who refuses to participate in military service on the grounds of faith or conscience.

Although the term is sometimes used derisively, conscientious objectors in Canada during the Second World War embraced it and used it to describe themselves.

In 1940, when the German invasion of Great Britain seemed a real possibility, the government of Canada ordered the conscription of men for compulsory service within Canada. Since 1793, Canadian Mennonites had immigrated to Canada on various assurances that their long-standing religious conviction of non-participation in military service would be honoured. In 1940, Mennonite leaders from across Canada went to Ottawa to negotiate a non-military (“alternative”) form of service.

From 1941-1946, the Alternative Service program directed the labour of over 10,000 men in agriculture, road building, fire fighting, hospitals and industrial work across the country.

Over 2,600 of these men were from Ontario; most were Mennonites between the ages of 21 and 24. For many, this was the first time they left rural farming communities, directly encountered others of differing viewpoints, and thought about their pacifist convictions.

The conchies' challenges and frustrations as well as their joys and reflections are echoed in the letters, diaries, photographs and recorded interviews they left behind. In the 75th anniversary year of Alternative Service, this exhibit showcased their archival records and lets the conchies speak.

Exhibit themes

Speaking through interviews
In 1974-1975, graduate student David Fransen interviewed  Ontario Mennonite conscientious objectors who had served in Alternative Service. In the fall of 2015, Dr. Marlene Epp’s Mennonite History class  used these recorded interviews to tell the individual stories of 15 men. Each student generated a question they would like to have asked “their C.O.” The men profiled are: Leonard Bechtel, Clayton Burkholder, Isaac Brubacher, Albert Erb, Otto Giesbrecht, Raymond Good, Wilson Hunsberger, David K. Jantzi, Doug Millar, Peter Neufeld, Jacob Peters, Harold Schmidt, Ward Shantz, Andrew Steckly, and David Wiens. A story from John  H. Dick is also included.                      View exhibit panels

Speaking through newsletters
Under primitive conditions in camps in Ontario and British Columbia, the Alternative Service men produced camp newsletters that were informative, entertaining, and thought provoking. They survive today as valuable records of the voices of conscientious objectors. These newsletters have been digitised as part of the Conchies Speak project, and can be viewed in their entirely on the library website.              View exhibit panels

Speaking for conscientious objection
This section tells the story of Mennonite and historic peace church conscientious objection in Canada, and how the creation of the Conference of Historic Peace Churches helped lead to the formation of Alternative Service.                                       View exhibit panels

Mennonite women speak
How were the experiences of Mennonite women during the Second World War shaped by conscientious objection?            View exhibit panels

Speaking through correspondence
The voices of conscientious objectors, their families and congregations through correspondence.                                 View exhibit panels


Listen to Archivist Laureen Harder-Gissing speak to Jess Huxman, host on Faith-FM 94.3, about the exhibit.

Bergen, Rachel. "How Ontario's Mennonite pacifists remember." tvo.org (web article), 11 Nov 2016. Included content from an interview with Laureen Harder-Gissing and photographs from the Mennonite Archives of Ontario.

Learn more from the Archives

The exhibit showcased samples of photographs, letters, diaries, interviews, newsletters and other records from the rich collections of the Mennonite Archives of Ontario. See the Archives' Peace Research Guide for a full listing of our records of conscientious objection and Alternative Service.

The Mennonite Archival Image Database includes nearly 600 images of Alternative Service from the Mennonite Archives of Ontario.

The Archives invites the donation of personal and organizational records of Alternative Service, in order to preserve the story for future generations. If you are in possession of these records and would like to consider donating them, please contact the Archivist.

The Archives has scanned and posted newsletters created by the men in Alternative Service.

Further reading

Harder-Gissing, Laureen. "Into the Woods: 75 year ago, a generation of Canadian Mennonite youth was on the move," Canadian Mennonite (web edition), 15 June 2016.

Klippenstein, Lawrence. That There Be Peace: Mennonites in Canada and World War II. Milton Good Library: UB342.C3T4

Regehr, T.D. Mennonites in Canada, 1939-1970: A People Transformed. Milton Good Library: BX8118.5.E72 1996

Stoesz, Conrad. Alternative Service in the Second World War. www.alternativeservice.ca

Toews, John A. Alternative Service in Canada during World War II. Milton Good Library: UB342.C3T6

Consult the Milton Good Library catalogue for many more histories and memoirs. Residents of Ontario can borrow our books for free.

Public events

The following public events were held in conjunction with the exhibit:

June 11-12, 2016: Yellow Bellies, an historical drama that highlights the experiences and public response to Mennonite COs during WWII, is premiering at the University of Waterloo. The play draws significantly on Conchies Speak and other related records in the Mennonite Archives of Ontario.

June 18, 2016: Mennonite Historical Society of Ontario annual meeting at the Milton Good Library, Conrad Grebel University College.
Theme: Canadian conscientious objectors in the Second World War. Features the Ontario premiere of a Mennonite Heritage Centre/Refuge 31 film The Last Objectors: The Story of Canada’s Conscientious Objectors of the Second World War.

October 29, 2016: Pennsylvania German Folklore Society of Ontario annual meeting, Conrad Grebel University College. 9:30 - President's reception. 10:15 - annual meeting. 11:00 (approximately) -  Talk entitled “The boys in the camps: the days and stories of Mennonite conscientious objectors during the Second World War through their photographs and home movies" by Laureen Harder-Gissing, followed by a tour of the exhibit.

November 12, 2016, 1:30pm: Waterloo Historical Society annual general meeting, Conrad Grebel University College. Talk entitled "The neighbours who said no: local Mennonites and the Second World War" by Laureen Harder-Gissing. Followed by annual meeting and self-guided tours of the exhibit.


Generally 9:00 am - 4:00 pm Monday to Friday. An appointment in advance is recommended.


Mennonite Archives of Ontario
Conrad Grebel University College
140 Westmount Road North
Waterloo, ON N2L 3G6

Phone: 519-885-0220 x24238