Almost 11,000 Canadian conscientious objectors refused, mainly for religious reasons, to perform military duties during World War Two. So the government required them to do “alternate service” in work camps, many of them in Western Canada’s national parks.
Ray Crook, shown here in this recent photograph, was not a conscientious objector. He was rejected from military service because of a heart murmur. (Ironically, Ray passed away on December 1, 2021 at the age of 103 years. Rest in peace, Ray Crook.)
But as a young man, he spent his wartime years at his family homestead inside Kootenay National Park, working as a grader operator and truck driver, while his father supervised a group of conscientious objectors.
There were camps for conscientious objectors across Canada, plus camps for interned Japanese-Canadians, and for captured prisoners of war.
But the two camps that interest me the most were right here in my own back yard (as I like to think of the 1,400-square-kilometre Kootenay National Park, just down the road from my home in the Rocky Mountains).
I spoke to Ray recently at his home in Invermere, and he gave me a copy of the book Park Prisoners: The Untold Story of Western Canada’s National Parks, 1915-1946, written in 1995 by University of Saskatchewan history professor Bill Waiser, where I gleaned some further information.
Ray’s father Charles Crook homesteaded in the mountains about thirty kilometres east of Radium Hot Springs, inside an area that later became the national park.
In 1932 he had the bright idea of erecting a gas station on his property. Ray and his brother Charlie helped their father build seven log cabins, and Crook’s Meadows became a summer tourist campground that supported the family.
But the declaration of war put the brakes on their livelihood. Since gasoline was rationed, people weren’t driving anywhere on holidays, least of all to the remote mountain parks. Many people gave up driving altogether.
“When war broke out, Dad’s business was nil,” Ray told me. “He was trying to pick up work wherever he could.”
So Charles Crook was happy to accept a position with the federal government, supervising conscientious objectors (sometimes called COs for short, or the derogatory term coined during the First World War, “conchies.”)
They were sent to two camps inside the park – one called Sixteen-Mile Camp, and one called Twenty-One Mile Camp. Both were located on the banks of the Kootenay River. The men operated small sawmills and did other jobs in the park: fighting fires and building bridges and fixing roads.
Ray took this photo of his father Charles Crook, right, with five of the conscientious objectors. (It looks like flat tweed caps were common back then, although they must have needed warmer headgear in the dead of winter).
How It Came About
The issue of Conscientious Objectors was a thorny one.
When World War Two began, Canada under Liberal Prime Minister Mackenzie King vetoed conscription for overseas service. All men could be drafted for military training and home guard duties, but only volunteers would be sent overseas.
About 260,000 men were exempt from any kind of draft. They were farmers, miners, loggers, and factory workers, performing essential services to keep the country running.
Another 11,000 men (quite a small number overall) refused to participate in military training, even for the home guard.
In 1940, a compromise was reached with religious leaders: COs would be required to perform civilian labour for four months, the same length of time as standard military training.
Here’s a letter issued to someone who applied for an exemption and was told to perform Alternative Service instead.
It reads: “The National Selective Service Mobilization Board has recognized your claims of Conscientious Objections to Military Training. With regard to your request for postponement. The Board has not granted postponement. You will be called for Alternative Service as and when required.”
COs included Mennonites, Hutterites, Doukhobors, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh Day Adventists. Additionally, there were a handful of others from all mainstream churches including Roman Catholic, Anglican, United and Presbyterian. (As Ray remembers, there was even one German-Canadian who didn’t want to fight his own people.)
Western Canada’s national parks provided both isolation and a healthy environment. Even better, the COs could enhance our parks in preparation for an expected increase in post-war tourism.
They were paid 50 cents a day (well below military pay of $1.30 a day), plus room and board, but they had to provide their own clothing.
By May 1941, the work camps were ready to accept them. The two camps in Kootenay Park housed three main groups: Mennonites, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Hutterites.
“The Mennonites were the first ones to arrive,” Ray recalled.
The Mennonite faith began in Europe around 1500, named after Menno Simons, one of the historic “peace churches” committed to pacifism. To avoid persecution abroad, the Mennonites started arriving in Canada as early as 1786. Over two centuries, the Old Order Mennonites continued to shun technology and live traditionally, while others integrated into mainstream Canadian life.
When war was declared in 1939, there were about 110,000 Mennonites in Canada. Some Mennonites (like most other Canadians) believed that the Nazis were purely evil and had to be defeated at all costs, while others refused any form of military participation.
About sixty percent of Mennonites who were called up became COs, and the other 40 percent joined the armed forces. Some who chose to serve in the military were excommunicated by their churches after the war ended.
It was a difficult choice that even divided families. For example, Henry Funk and his brother Tony Funk of Rosenfeld, Manitoba became COs, while their brother Bill served in the Canadian Army. For more on their story, click: Mennonite Brothers.
The Mennonites who chose to follow pacifism were sent to work camps like the ones in Kootenay Park. They were hard workers, not a shirker amongst them, and they meekly accepted the hardships and isolation of camp life.
“They were nice people, very hard-working,” Ray said. “My Dad was a bush foreman for many years, and he said he had never worked with a bunch of finer young men in his life.”
Ray took this photograph of a road maintenance crew at a log cabin near Hawk Creek in the park. The four men standing were conscientious objectors; the foreman holding the dog was Wally Lautrop; to his right is John Wells, the driver; and standing is Jim Long, the cook.
Ray himself became very friendly with these young men, who were about the same age. He was working as a truck driver, hauling supplies into the camp.
“The accommodations were fairly primitive, just bunkhouses covered with tar paper,” he said. During the coldest months of winter, the men almost froze.
“But the food wasn’t bad,” Ray recalled. “Sometimes when I had to haul supplies into the camp, I sat down and ate with them.”
Although they were prisoners, the men had infrequent leaves. “The workers were given occasional weekends off, and they got leave once or twice a year to go home and see their families.”
For many, it would be their first time away from their close-knit communities. Some of the men were married, with young children. The desperately homesick men amused themselves by singing hymns, writing letters home, reading, hiking in the forest, playing games such as horseshoes, and forming lifelong friendships. They were forbidden to speak German, although an old form of the German language was their native tongue.
They also laboured from sunup to sundown, summer and winter, in most cases with the most primitive hand tools. Here’s a photo that Ray took of the sawmill at Sixteen-Mile Camp.
The men were also called upon to fight forest fires when necessary. Ray took this photo of the men crossing Kootenay River on their way to fight a fire.
By April 1, 1942, when things were looking particularly bleak overseas, the government ordered COs to serve for the duration of the war. (Fortunately for them, the men who had already completed their four months were exempt from further service.) So the inmates who arrived in the camps after that date were kept there for years.
The next camp to open in Kootenay Park saw a different group of religious objectors arrive, mainly Jehovah’s Witnesses.
Jehovah’s Witnesses is an offshoot Christian denomination, directed by a group of elders in New York. The group emerged in the late 1870s and is known for door-to-door preaching, distributing literature such as The Watchtower and refusing military service and blood transfusions.
They don’t observe Christmas, Easter, birthdays or other customs considered to have pagan origins. They believe that mainstream society is morally corrupt and under the influence of Satan.
Their refusal to serve in the military or salute national flags has caused them no end of trouble. Witnesses have been persecuted in many countries.
The Canadian government was far less sympathetic towards Jehovah’s Witnesses than other denominations. From 1940 to 1943, their religion was banned in Canada, meaning they could not claim CO status and were convicted and sent to work camps.
(By contrast, in Nazi Germany, the Witnesses were sent to concentration camps where many died. They also had to wear a purple triangle, just as the Jews had to wear a yellow star, like the one in this photo.)
According to the book Park Prisoners, Jehovah’s Witnesses resisted the government’s demand to perform alternative service and were very unwilling workers. They were threatened with jail time for non-performance of duties.
Their leaves were also restricted due to their habit of preaching, which was met with ill favour by local residents.
“The Jehovah’s Witnesses, when they got a weekend off, would fan out across the valley and hand out copies of The Watchtower,” Ray recalled. “But I don’t think they made too many converts.”
In fact, the Witnesses were so uncooperative that Ray’s father finally quit his job, because he felt unable to work with them.
Seeing the COs enjoying relative freedom while your sons and brothers were fighting overseas must have been painful for some local residents. But Ray doesn’t remember any overt hostility towards any of the COs, although they were criticized in other communities.
In the nearby town of Banff, the local newspaper complained about “conchies” and suggested that pacifism was “simply a cute method of saving their yellow hides.”
And residents were furious when they learned that the COs had been taken to the local hot pool for a swim. Here’s a photo from the book Park Prisoners. (It’s misleading, since for the most part the COs led a very hard life.)
The third group to live and work in Kootenay Park were Hutterites.
At first the government had been lenient towards Hutterites, but then the public demanded they be treated like any other citizen. Advised by their elders, they accepted their fate meekly as a lesser of two evils and performed their duties without complaint.
Hutterites are one of three major Christian Anabaptist groups (the others are Mennonites and Amish) surviving today, and the only group to insist on communal living.
Hutterite history dates back to 1528 when a small group of German-speaking Anabaptists established a communal society in Europe to escape religious persecution. Under the leadership of Jacob Hutter, they established Hutterian beliefs, which they follow to this day: separation of church and state, communal ownership of property, and opposition to war. Hutterites have retained the dress and the language of their ancestors.
Ray took this photo of a Hutterite man posing with a little boy, the son of the camp cook.
After the war ended in May 1945, the government refused to allow the inmates to go home until the last man in uniform was returned from overseas. (Or perhaps the government was just trying to squeeze a few more months of work out of them).
The last Canadian camp in existence was in Banff National Park, where the final inmate was released in July 1946.
Searching For the Past
In 2009, Ray answered a knock on his door and found two Hutterite men. Just as many of us yearn to know how our fathers spent their wartime years, so did these two brothers named Paul and Sam Kleinsasser from Rose Valley Colony in Assiniboia, Saskatchewan.
Ray took this photo himself: Paul is on the left, and his older brother Sam on the right. (I telephoned them and received permission to use this photo).
“There was barely a trace left of the two camps in Kootenay Park,” Ray explained. “For a few years, the cabins were neglected and fell to pieces, and later the government bulldozed everything.”
But the brothers came to the right man, as Ray is perhaps the only living person who knows exactly where the camps were located. He drove with the brothers out to the park, and pointed them in the right direction.
There was once a telephone line running through the park, but it was removed decades ago. (Ironically, telephone service seventy years ago was better than it is today. Currently there is no cell service available in much of the park, leading to serious inconvenience.)
But Ray remembered where the telephone line came into the main office, threaded through a piece of pipe. After several hours of searching, Sam Kleinsasser found the pipe still sticking out of the forest floor. He also found the cast-iron leg of a stove showing where the cook shack was situated, a pile of tin cans and some other remnants. And he even found a huge pile of sawdust where the sawmill stood.
Thus the Hutterite brothers learned exactly where their father had spent his long and lonely years.
Sam Kleinsasser is fascinated by this period of Hutterite history, and hopes to write a book about it someday. That would be a remarkably interesting read.
Crook Family Remembered
In another chapter of park history, Ray’s father Charles Crook was killed by a falling rock on November 20, 1945, just a few months after the war ended, and was buried on his homestead. His grave was dug by COs from the nearby work camp.
In 1970, the mountain behind was renamed Mount Crook. In 1987 Kootenay National Park officially declared the site as Crook’s Meadow Group Campground. You can eat your picnic lunch there, and visit Mr. Crook’s nearby grave.
The cabins are gone, but two of them survive: one at the home of Fred and Marg Christensen in Invermere, and one at the Windermere District Museum.
Thank you, Ray Crook, for sharing your memories of this little-known aspect of wartime life on the home front.
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STAR WEEKLY AT WAR
This illustration comes from the February 13, 1943 Star Weekly, a newsmagazine published by the Toronto Star. The caption reads:
“Symbolic of military development in World War II is this painting of a horse-drawn sleigh making way for mechanical transports in the Quebec Laurentians. Speedy planes overhead emphasize the revolutionary role machines are playing in war. Training manoeuvers in French Canada have brought the “motor age” vividly to the attention of communities living at a pastoral pace.”
To see my complete collection of covers, click Star Weekly at War.