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Alternative service finds its place in Canadian history: awards, open line radio show

   
 


(l-r) Conrad Stoesz, Dr. David Schroeder, Dave Balzer, and Gerry Bowler invited listeners to call in and talk about alternatives to military service, peace, and conscientious objection on the Winnipeg open line radio show, GodTalk. Their topic was in response to the award winning web site www.alternativeservice.ca.

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May 17, 2005
-by Dan Dyck

Winnipeg, Man. — Not many people know that a group of peace-loving, Mennonite conscientious objectors (COs) unknowingly worked on a top secret military project during the Second World War.

Also known as the Ice Boat project, it was given the code name “Habakkuk,” after a verse in the Old Testament book: “Look at the nations and watch and be utterly amazed. For I am going to do something in your days that you would not believe, even if you were told.” Its inventor was inspired by icebergs that were known to be virtually indestructible.

The 11 metre long, 1,000 ton model was a scaled down prototype of what was eventually supposed to be an aircraft carrier made of ice. Designs for the full size version, had it ever been built, called for a vessel two and a half times the length of the Titanic. Floating halfway between America and Europe, it would be a giant airfield for limited range fighter planes. CO Abe Dick worked on the project at Patricia Lake in Jasper National Park, Alta. He only later learned from a researching historian that his pacifist principles had been violated in the name of science.

These and dozens of other fascinating stories about CO life in the Second World War have now been documented for the first time in a two-time award-winning web site at www.alternativeservice.ca.

The recent awards – conferred by the Manitoba Library Association (Web Site of the Year, 2005) and the Manitoba Association of Archives (Outstanding Achievement Award, 2004) – have helped attract attention to the CO story. The Manitoba Library Association said “This nomination earned high praise for its ability to integrate history and culture into a thoughtful, educational and vibrant web site of interest for all ages". Most recently Dave Balzer, co-host of GodTalk, a call-in radio program on Winnipeg’s top-rated CJOB AM radio station, invited Conrad Stoesz, archivist and lead researcher for the site, and CO Dr. David Schroeder (Professor Emeritus, Canadian Mennonite University) to talk about the theology of pacifism.

Stoesz says the CO story is an overlooked but important part of Canadian, Second World War history. “The story of the CO experience in this time period is not well known and not well documented for public consumption,” he says about the site that was conceived as a unit of teaching curriculum for Manitoba students. “There’s tons of information available about the strategies, battles, and key military figures, but comparably little about the 10,000 men who said ‘No’ to military service and sought another way to serve their country. This story deserves a place in the annals of Canadian history.” Stoesz works at the Mennonite Church Canada’s Heritage Centre. Men representing 34 ethnic groups and 22 denominations took part in alternative service during World War II.

The live call-in show aired on Sunday, May 8, coinciding with Mother’s Day and anniversary of VE day (Victory in Europe), celebrated across the country. Balzer deliberately chose the date because he had been reading VE stories at the same time as a news release about the web site of the year award. And, he says, there is a pop culture notion that Mother’s Day was initiated as a call to peace. “War and violence are so present in our society. My own personal sense is that society has been conditioned to believe that a response to violence is more violence. That’s the same thing we heard after 911. I used the word ‘mercy’ on a show immediately after 911 and was bombarded by calls,” said Balzer.

Callers to the alternative service episode were asked, “If Canada went to war, what would you do?” and callers in turn responded with more questions: What happens to the soul of an enemy killed in violent conflict? Has anything changed since World War II? Are pacifists Christians? How would Hitler have been defeated if there had been only a pacifist response?

Schroeder, who served as a CO in a hospital during the Second World War, responded to many of the callers from a purely Anabaptist perspective. “I approach life in that it is my job to do what is right and just in the world and to do what is loving, and it is God who controls the history. What God does with it will be the result in history, not what I do… we should learn [from history] that war doesn’t solve these things. The way to stop it is to not participate anymore… In the end what is right and just will win and that is our confidence in what God is all about.”

By Balzer’s measure the alternative service installment was one of the more engaging topics on GodTalk. According to statistics, about 5% of the population will call in to an open line radio program. “There was a depth and thoughtfulness to all the callers, but sometimes this is not so. People were truly engaged, which meant that something was working in the conversation,” said Balzer.

“I continue to be amazed at the privilege of the space Gerry Bowler [co-host] and I are in. Conrad and Doc Schroeder have thought carefully about their convictions. To sit around a table with people like that is tremendously inspiring. The media I am in allows me to call these people up and invite them in. I’ve pushed forward more my own convictions in the show, and I am amazed at how people engage those convictions, and Sunday was an experience of that for me,” he added.

GodTalk can be heard on Sunday evenings from 8 to 10 pm CST on Winnipeg’s top rated station, CJOB. The alternative service episode can he heard at www.mennonitechurch.ca/files/multimedia/GodTalk.mp3. An archive of past episodes can be found at www.godtalkradio.ca. To listen to the show live, visit www.godtalkradio.ca and click on the “Listen Live link” during show times. GodTalk is a ministry of the Family Life Network.


Sidebar: GodTalk

GodTalk is an open line radio program in Winnipeg where “talking about God is always thought-provoking, controversial and entertaining!” according to the show’s tag line. The show was inspired by a 1997 talk show that had two radio personalities and faith skeptics square off against two Christians. The raucous confrontation spurred an on-the-spot challenge to listeners: Create a show as lively as this and we’ll air it. Seven years later the show continues to engage listeners and callers on issues of faith and culture. The show is in the top 5 of marketshare, reports Dave Balzer. Balzer co-hosts the show with Gerry Bowler.

Balzer says he didn’t want to create a show that “ghettoized” Christians. He measures the success of the show by the number of skeptics that call in, and by caller responses. “You’re a show that listens and that talks about real issues,” is one of the responses he frequently hears. “Listeners are quite emphatic about the dialogue and the desire to be heard. That’s something that they maybe have not experienced around issues of faith,” he adds.

GodTalk can be heard on Sunday evenings from 8 to 10 pm CST on Winnipeg’s top rated station, CJOB. The alternative service episode can he heard at www.mennonitechurch.ca/files/multimedia/GodTalk.mp3. An archive of past episodes can be found at www.godtalkradio.ca. To listen to the show live, visit www.godtalkradio.ca and click on the “Listen Live link” during show times. GodTalk is a ministry of the Family Life Network.

Other ways to tune in live:
Star Choice (Canada) – Channel 861 East/West
MTS TV (Manitoba) Channel 701
Shaw Cable (Manitoba) FM Channels 99.5
Compton Communications (Ontario) Channel 754