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Courtesy of NFB

The Pacifist Who Went to War

Canada's conscientious objectors are brought into focus in new documentary

By Lisa Van de Ven

The Pacifist Who Went to War
Directed by David Neufeld

Church or nation? That’s the question at the heart of the documentary The Pacifist Who Went to War, portraying Mennonite communities in Manitoba who, seven decades ago, were forced to choose. Either fight in the Second World War, as their government asked them to, or stand up for their religious beliefs, calling for peace and non-violence.

Director David Neufeld focuses on two brothers, John and Ted Friesen, both eligible for combat. John enlisted, feeling a responsibility to defend his country, while Ted became a conscientious objector on religious grounds. “Our traditional view was always that war was completely incompatible with our belief,” Ted tells the camera.

But while the brothers are at the centre of the story, the film pans out, tracing the history of Mennonites who first came to Canada with the promise of military exemption. That exemption was lifted at the start of the Second World War, and many of them — like Ted — became conscientious objectors, forced to work on home soil for the duration of the war to build roads and work in hospitals and mines. Of the 10,000 conscientious objectors in Canada, 7,000 were Mennonites. The film lingers on the fight they encountered by upholding their religious beliefs. They weren’t alone in their struggle: the men who went to war faced stigma within the Mennonite community upon their return home. For older Mennonites, it’s a wound that has never quite healed. At the same time, the film shows that younger-generation Mennonites are no longer learning the same lessons of pacifism that so clearly made an impact years ago.

Neufeld’s documentary offers a fresh take on a war that feels like it shouldn’t have any fresh takes left. The film is straightforward but the story is not, and the decisions those men made are still reverberating through their communities today.


Lisa Van de Ven is a writer in Toronto.



Lisa Van de Ven is a freelance writer in Toronto.
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