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Conscientious Objectors in Prison

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Of all the COs who spent time in prison, Sam Martin probably served the longest. From 19 April 1944 to 23 October 1945 – over eighteen months – Martin was either in a military prison or a provincial jail. How could this happen to a peace-loving CO?

Click here to hear Sam Martin tell his story.

Martin's first call to report for military training came in late 1942. As a pacifist Mennonite, he appeared before the Mobilization Board in Edmonton in February 1942 to claim conscientious objector status. Many Mennonites before and after Martin had done the same thing. What was unusual, however, was that the board denied his claim.


At the beginning of the war, the judges in Alberta had been more lenient with COs . When they saw that some Mennonites were joining the military voluntarily, the judges began to doubt the sincerity of all the Mennonites. Maybe, the judges thought, more Mennonites would join the military is being a CO wasn't an option. Martin appeared before Judge Harvey.


“Court was composed of Judge Harvey along with a board composed of military and civilian officials. I was asked about my church affiliation – my status in the church – my attendance record – my own personal beliefs, i.e. was it my own or my father's. I firmly believed that the CO position was the only one I could in all conscience take – I gave them the Scripture passages that I thought were relevant. The court reached the conclusion that I had not enough proof of sincerity.” [MHC, 1015-46]


Because of Martin's value to the local community as a mechanic, the judge gave him a year long postponement before he would have to join the army. Martin still didn't have CO status, but a postponement was better than joining the army. After his year was up, Martin applied for an extension to this postponement. This time, the judge refused. On 23 March 1944, Martin received a letter telling him to report for military training by April 5. He was willing to do alternative service as a CO, but the judge had denied him that option. Martin wrote back saying that he wouldn't go into the army. Martin knew that he would be arrested if he didn't report, but his faith was more important to him.


On April 19, he appeared before the magistrate in Brooks, Alberta. Martin explained his case once again. The magistrate sentenced him to thirty days in provincial jail. Maybe this, the magistrate thought, would scare him into joining the army as the judge had ordered. During this period, Martin was on a bread and water diet for a total of fifteen days. By law, this diet could only be imposed for three days before the prisoner got three days of normal food. All this time, Martin was in solitary confinement.


Martin still hadn't joined the army. After this first sentence, Martin was forcibly inducted into the army. Guards stripped off his clothes and forced on a uniform. Now Martin was officially in the army. That meant that he was under military law. Martin took off the uniform the first chance he got. The army knew that Martin had done very well on physical and intelligence test. They wanted him to become an officer. Martin refused.


In the army, it is a serious offense to disobey an order. The military only works if soldiers obey their officers. Martin disobeyed a direct order to wear an army uniform. The result was 28 days in the military prison known as Currie Barracks. Still, Martin remained true to his faith. The sentence: another 28 days at Currie Barracks. By July 1944, the military was losing patience. They had restricted his mail, put him in solitary confinement, and put him on a bread and water diet, but Martin refused to wear the uniform.


Both sides remained firm. How far would the army push Martin before he would give in?


The military once again ordered Martin to wear the uniform. As usual, he refused. Martin had already had three sentences of a month each. Now the sentence was 90 days at Currie Barracks. By October 1944, this fourth sentence was finished and the war was coming to an end. By the time Martin finished his basic army training, the war would be over. Still, Martin refused to do even as much as wear the uniform. Martin refused to cooperate with the military authorities if it meant compromising his peace position. The final sentence was the harshest yet. A year and a half at the Lethbridge Provincial Jail. The war ended and still Martin remained in prison. What kept Martin so determined?


At times, Martin questioned his pacifist beliefs, but he remained strong. When he read certain passages in the Bible, he concluded that he had no choice but to be a CO. Also, his church and family supported him the whole way. After a three week period where he wasn't allowed to receive any mail, a guard dumped 45 letters into his cell – an average of two a day. This support from his family and church gave him the strength to continue. But it wasn't just Mennonites who came to his defence.


“During my incarceration,” Martin writes, “the local community circulated a petition to have me released. This was signed by several hundred people (not Mennonites). It was responsible in part for my transfer from a military to a civilian prison.” [MHC, 1015-46]


On 8 November 1945, the army gave Martin an industrial leave to work at his brother's garage. Martin received an honourable discharge from the army, but his certificate noted his “twenty-three months non-effective service.”


Finally, after a year and a half, Sam Martin was a free man. Some significant dates in Sam Martin's story.


“I owe debts of gratitude to a lot of people, especially to my church. They not only worked to help in every way they could, but they kept in touch with me through hundreds of letters. It was their prayers that got me through. I always knew I had my home church behind me. Through this experience I received an understanding of what it means to be the church that has never left me. It is much more than an association of people. It is a body and when one member suffers, the whole body suffers. I am grateful also to the larger church family, particularly the people in Ontario whom I didn't even know but who worked on my behalf. I am indebted also to some government officials such as the prison warden at Lethbridge and others who became sympathetic to my situation.” [Janzen and Greaser, 33]

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