Crisis of Conscience: Conscientious Objection in Canada during the First World War

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UBC Press, Jul 1, 2009 - History - 264 pages
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The First World War's appalling death toll and the need for a sense of equality of sacrifice on the home front led to Canada's first experience of overseas conscription. While historians have focused on resistance to enforced military service in Quebec, this has obscured the important role of those who saw military service as incompatible with their religious or ethical beliefs. Crisis of Conscience is the first and only book about the Canadian pacifists who refused to fight in the Great War. The experience of these conscientious objectors offers insight into evolving attitudes about the rights and responsibilities of citizenship during a key period of Canadian nation building.

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Crisis of Conscience,
Conscientious Objection in Canada
during the First World War.
Book Review
Shaun Leochko
Amy J. Shaw, Crisis of Conscience, Conscientious Objection in Canada during the First World War (Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press, 2009).
Amy J. Shaws’ Crisis of Conscience is a study of conscientious objection in Canada during World War One (WWI) (1914-1918). Through the experience of these conscientious objectors (COs) Shaw offers insight into the evolving attitudes about the rights and responsibilities of citizenship during an early stage of Canadian nation building. Produced by the University of British Columbia (UBC) Press in association with Canada’s national museum of military history (CNMMH) (preface) this work has the possibility of reaching a wider audience then simply scholars and students interested in the subject, although it remains a scholarly work. This work is the first and only book about the Canadian pacifists who refused to fight during WWI, allowing it to contribute greatly to the historiography of a number of subjects. Shaw relies on contemporary newspaper accounts, military records, and secondary studies done in other allied countries for evidence. Crisis of Conscience is a useful and groundbreaking study of conscientious objection in WWI able to overcome its handicap in dearth of evidence with the potential to reach a wide audience.
Shaw attempts to refute the national myth that the war united a nation except for a few radicals (3). In so doing Shaw attempts to answer the question, what was the nature of the experience for COs in Canada? And why COs in Canada failed to organize or to mount any effective resistance to conscription? (6) Through answering these questions Shaw hopes to use the COs experience as a lens into the developing relationship between Canadians and their government, contemporary expectations of masculine behaviour, religious freedom, identity, voluntarism, and obligations in a democratic society (3). To do this Shaw examines primarily religious pacifists who made a political expression of their non-resistant beliefs (6). To answer her research questions Shaw first examines the workings of the Military Service Act, its tribunals, and public attitudes regarding questions of obligation and voluntarism (17). Shaw finds that those who put their moral obligations before their duty to the state often encountered the coercive mechanism of the state (42). To find out who the accepted COs were Shaw looks at the historic peace churches (Mennonites, Quakers, etc…) who had specific promises of exemptions (17). This shows how contentious objection, although an individual choice, was given to recognized groups, isolating those outside of said groups (71). Next, Shaw shows the smaller peace churches (Christadelphians, etc…), which were not recognized by the federal government, whose members were treated with the antipathy associated with their groups (73). Finally Shaw examines those not in peace churches who were in the most venerable position because they challenged the Canadian government’s tendency to treat rights and obligations in group, rather then individual terms (98). Because the country had concluded it was a war for Christianity and democracy, those unwilling to perform their duties met with considerable antipathy, although not all COs were treated the same. (99, 119, 120). Those not considered “respectable” COs were stereotyped as being stubborn, oafish, cowardly, feminine, and subversive (148). This differed from the view of British COs as being over intellectualized and self-important (148). Shaw also finds the reason COs in WWI could not come together was because of geography, lack of leadership, diversity, an absence of a desire for martyrdom, and government repression (155-157).
Crisis of Conscience is part of a series of books meant to feed immediately into future exhibitions, programs, and outreach efforts of the CNMMH (preface). The CNMMH claims its series with the UBC is widely regarded as the most


Conscientious Objection and the Government
Conscientious Objection within the Historic Peace Churches
Objection among the Smaller Sects
Conscientious Objection outside Pacifist Denominations
Images of Conscientious Objectors
List of Conscientious Objectors

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About the author (2009)

Amy J. Shaw is an assistant professor in the Department of History at the University of Lethbridge.

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