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Bold question on war inspires thought

   
 


Conrad Stoesz wears his Alternative Service sandwich board in front of the Alternative Service exhibit at the Red River Regional Heritage Fair. “I get a lot more attention if I wear the sandwich board than if I do not.”

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August 3, 2007
– Deborah Froese

WINNIPEG, Man. – Conrad Stoesz promotes peace by sharing history with young people. His mission begins with a question. “If Canada went to war, what would you do?”

Recently, the Mennonite Heritage Centre (MHC) archivist supported an Alternative Service display at the Red River Regional Heritage Fair. He wore a black-and-white sandwich board of a Conscientious Objector (CO) holding his head in his hands. Bold orange text across the top asked “If Canada went to war, what would you do?”

A boy of about 10 glanced at the sandwich board and responded brazenly, “I’d grab the biggest gun I could find.” Stoesz offered no comment; clearly the student was not ready for a discussion. The boy ran off, but he returned later to study the display. Again, there was no verbal exchange. When he returned for a third time, he appeared genuinely interested in the idea of conscientious objection and initiated a conversation with Stoesz.

The bold orange question made him think, and that is just what Stoesz intended. “I get a lot more attention when I wear the sandwich board than when I do not,” Stoesz observes.

Held at the University of Winnipeg, the annual Red River Heritage Fair is a venue for students to display their social studies projects. It is supplemented by institutional exhibits of about 2 dozen invited participants including Winnipeg Harvest, Parks Canada, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation Archives, Hong Kong War Vets – and the MHC’s web site, www.alternativeservice.ca. The MHC is a ministry of Mennonite Church Canada.

The invitation gave Stoesz the opportunity to introduce students to Conscientious Objectors (COs), Canadians who felt it was wrong to kill other people and chose alternatives to military service during World War II. They did logging, construction, and provided medical or other services. “By the end of the day,” Stoesz said, “all of the kids attending the Red River Heritage Fair knew what a Conscientious Objector was.”

The Alternative Service exhibit consists of a three-panel display board and a laptop computer set up to access the double award winning alternative service website. It has been designed for students and teachers and has been present twice at the Heritage Fair and four times at Special Area Groups (SAG) conferences for teachers in Manitoba, among other events. The Manitoba school history curriculum includes a unit on World War II in elementary and high school – creating an opportunity for Stoesz to present a little known aspect of Canada’s war history.

Adults respond to the display too. Stoesz has heard stories of relatives who hid from the military in the woods of Southeastern Manitoba, or cut off trigger fingers so they would be deemed unfit for military duty. Others responded to the display with tears in their eyes, thanking Stoesz for recognizing the contributions of COs.

One teacher who stopped to study the display expressed interest in the topic, but wasn’t sure how to incorporate it into the curriculum for her grade 3 and 4 students. Stoesz referred to school programs that target bullying by teaching children to respect others, follow their conscience and solve problems without fighting. The teacher responded enthusiastically. “That’s exactly what conscientious objectors are about!’”

Not all reaction to the display has been positive. Although Stoesz has received a few hostile email comments, he has found that most people who oppose the idea choose to ignore the display or engage him in conversation. He noted that some of those who disagree with alternative service have either served in the military themselves or have children doing so.

Stoesz is Project Manager for the Alternative Service website. He views the CO experience as a part of Canadian History, not just Mennonite history, and he believes it should be taught along with other war history. He hopes the CO experience will influence the way children and youth consider current situations, encouraging them to imagine possibilities beyond warfare.

Sidebar: Extending the Alternative Service message

Militarization in Canada was the focus of one discernment session at the 2007 Mennonite Church Canada Assembly. Assembly delegates voted to support a statement against militarization, which identified peace as the will of God and the church’s obligation to “witness to all people that violence is not the will of God.”*

Alternative Service helps to address one of the issues raised in discernment discussion: “How do we keep our children from going to war?” Archivist and Project Manager, Conrad Stoesz, is exploring ways to bring the Alternative Service display to provinces and venues across Canada. Invitations may be directed to cstoesz@mennonitechurch.ca.

* Mennonite Church Canada Built to Last Report Book (2007) page 69