Faith over fight: WW II conscientious objectors tell stories in made-in-Manitoba film
Pacifists sent to work camps, separated from families, struggled to find work after war
Stories of the Second World War tend to focus on the people who fought and died on the battlefield, but a new made-in-Manitoba documentary introduces audiences to some of the men who refused to fight out of adherence to their faith.
More than 11,000 Mennonites, Quakers, Hutterites and other pacifists across Canada refused to take up arms during the war.
In The Last Objectors, Winnipeg-based filmmaker Andrew Wall spoke to conscientious objectors in Manitoba, British Columbia, Ontario and Alberta. Wall interviewed them, some for the first time, about why they made the decision and the consequences.
Many conscientious objectors were sent to "alternative service" — often brutal, demanding and at times dangerous work in mines, forestry, on farms and in factories. Some would also work in the medical field, including serving as military medics at the front or staffing Canadian mental hospitals.
"They were paid almost next to nothing. Most of what they were paid went to the Red Cross. And then the rest, for somebody with a family, it was not enough money," said Wall.
'Grateful to have this right'
Although the war ended in 1945, many weren't allowed to go home until 1946. By then, "all the good jobs were [taken] by the military going home. They couldn't go to school, they didn't have money," said Wall.
"They weren't complaining, but they were saying that was actually very hard on them and their families."
Despite the difficulty, Wall said the men he spoke to were "grateful" they were able to make the decision not to fight.
"None of them complained. Most of them made note that this was a privilege, they were very grateful to have this right, to be in Canada and had that right. Many of them said it was uncomfortable — sometimes people tried to shame them or make comments to them. But overall they were very, very grateful."
Excited to tell stories
Finding surviving objectors was challenging, as they are now in their 80s and 90s. Wall looked through Mennonite archives, and reached out to the United Church and Hutterite colonies. Once he started interviewing survivors, some of them directed him to others.
Once the camera was on, Wall said the survivors "lit up and found a second energy."
"Some of them had never done an interview before and it really amazed me after the fact, looking at the interviews, how there was something special. They were excited that somebody was asking them to tell their stories."
Now that the film is complete, Wall said he has heard from teachers and professors across Canada and the United States who want to include it in their curricula.
"Part of what I think works with the film is that you have their face, the [conscientious objector's] face, their emotions telling their story," Wall said.
"I've had numerous profs say that you can read about it, but when you can see somebody and despite their age, they're in their 80s and 90s, they're telling their story, and I think that's what's so engaging."
The film is made by Refuge 31 films. The Last Objectors airs on CBC TV Saturday, Aug. 26 at 7 p.m. as part of the series Absolutely Manitoba.
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