On an exceptionally beautiful November morning, with the sun shining and the temperature well above freezing, approximately 120 interested people gathered near the sawmill on the Mennonite Heritage Village (MHV) grounds. They had come for last Saturday’s official unveiling of a new cairn designed to commemorate the roles and contributions of Conscientious Objectors during World War II.
During World War I, Mennonites had been exempt from military service as the result of an immigration agreement dating back to the 1870s. During World War II, however, Mennonites who were drafted for military service had to apply for exemptions based on religious convictions if they wished to qualify as conscientious objectors. Approximately 3,000 men from Manitoba were eventually granted Conscientious Objector (CO) status.
Eight of these COs were present with family and friends at Saturday’s unveiling ceremony. While the audience appeared to largely be made up of people with grey hair, there was also a significant contingent of younger people – the children and grandchildren of the COs. It was very good to see the interest displayed by these various age groups.
Noting this interest, in light of the advanced age of these COs, causes one to wonder who will tell their stories to future generations when these men are no longer able to do so. Who will record and preserve them? How might MHV play a role in ensuring that these inspiring stories are retained? We hope this monument will serve that purpose.
Since Canada has not had conscription to military service for many years, most of the audience at Saturday’s gathering have never had to examine their belief system and make the difficult decision whether to enlist or to apply for CO status. What happens to a belief system that isn’t tested rigorously from time to time? How strong will the Mennonite commitment to pacifism remain when it isn’t called upon to help make life-altering decisions?
This is certainly not a call for a reintroduction of conscription to military service in our country. It is simply a reminder of the role museums and archives play in retaining very significant information from our past. At MHV we collect and preserve stories through our collection of artifacts. When we are offered new contributions to the collection, we make a point of interviewing the donor to learn as much about the artifact as we can. This information becomes a part of that artifact’s record.
Every now and then family members ask for information about an object that originated in their family and is now in our collection. We are happy to provide them with that information and to make arrangements for them to view the artifact, if they wish to. Our collection and our archives are also used to create exhibits in our public galleries. In this way the visiting public benefits from the stories as well as the artifacts in our collection.
The mission of MHV is “to preserve and exhibit for present and future generations the experience and the story of the Russian Mennonites and their contributions to Manitoba.” If the new cairn and this reflection on the unveiling ceremony will prompt a few families to ensure that the stories of their CO family members will be recorded and preserved, then all the efforts to create the monument have been worthwhile, and MHV’s mission is unfolding as it should.