Submitted by Elinor Florence
This is excerpted from an interview with Ray Crook of Invermere. The complete article, along with other wartime stories, are found in the book My Favourite Veterans: True Stories of World War Two’s Hometown Heroes, by Elinor Florence of Invermere, available at Lambert-Kipp Pharmacy in Invermere, or from the author’s website at www.elinorflorence.com.
About 11,000 Canadian men refused, mainly for religious reasons, to perform military duties during the Second World War. Instead, these conscientious objectors were sent to work camps, several hundred of them right here in Kootenay National Park.
Ray Crook of Invermere remembers them well. He was rejected from military service because of a heart murmur. (Ironically, Ray turned 103 years old on September 1, 2021).
Ray’s father Charles Crook homesteaded 30 kilometres east of Radium Hot Springs, before Kootenay National Park was established in 1920.
In 1932 Ray and his brother Charlie helped their father build seven log cabins, and Crook’s Meadows became a summer tourist campground.
But war put the brakes on their livelihood. Since gasoline was rationed, people weren’t driving anywhere on holidays. “When war broke out, Dad’s business was nil,” Ray said.
Charles Crook then accepted a position with the federal government, supervising conscientious objectors (sometimes called COs for short). These men were sent to two camps inside the park – one called Sixteen-Mile Camp, and the other called Twenty-One Mile Camp — both located on the banks of the Kootenay River.
The men operated small sawmills, fought fires, built bridges and fixed roads. They laboured from sunup to sundown, summer and winter, in most cases with the most primitive hand tools.
How it came about
The issue of Conscientious Objectors was a thorny one.
When war 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.
However, about 11,000 men (a small number overall) refused to participate in any type of military activity. 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.
COs included Mennonites, Hutterites, Doukhobors, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Seventh Day Adventists. There were a handful of others from all mainstream churches including Roman Catholic, Anglican, United and Presbyterian. (As Ray recalls, there was even one German Canadian who didn’t want to fight his own people.)
They were sent to work in Western Canada’s national parks and paid 50 cents a day (well below military pay of $1.30 a day), plus room and board. The two camps in Kootenay Park housed three main groups: Mennonites, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Hutterites.
(By April 1942, when things were looking particularly bleak overseas, the government ordered COs to serve for the duration of the war. The inmates who arrived in the camps after that date were kept there until after the war ended.)
By May 1941, the work camps were ready to accept them. “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. When war was declared, about 110,000 Mennonites were living in Canada. Some of them believed that the Nazis were purely evil and had to be defeated at all costs. Others refused any form of military participation.
About sixty percent of Mennonites became COs, and the other 40 percent joined the armed forces. It was a difficult choice that divided families (much like vaccinations today).
The Mennonites who chose to follow pacifism were sent to work camps, where 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, who worked as a truck driver, hauling supplies into the camp, became very friendly with them. “The accommodations were fairly primitive, just bunkhouses covered with tar paper,” he said. During the coldest months of winter, the men almost froze.
“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 rare breaks. “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. The desperately homesick men amused themselves by singing hymns, writing letters, 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.
The next camp to open in Kootenay Park saw a different group of religious objectors arrive, mainly Jehovah’s Witnesses. This 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.
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. From 1940 to 1943, their religion was banned in Canada, meaning they could not claim CO status and were sent to work camps. (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.)
The third group to live and work in Kootenay Park were Hutterites.
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 their beliefs, including separation of church and state, and opposition to war. Hutterites have retained the dress and the language of their ancestors.
After the war ended in August 1945, the government refused to allow any of the work camp 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.
Memories of camps still exist
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.
“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 took the brothers out to the park, and showed them where to look.
There was once a telephone line running through the park, 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,)
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.
Crook family remembered
Sadly, 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 Campground. You can eat your picnic lunch there, and pay your respects at Mr. Crook’s nearby grave.
Five of the cabins are gone, but two of them survive: one at the home of Marg Christensen in Invermere, and one at the Windermere District Museum.