Walk a Mile in His Shoes

Conscientious objector's boots add context to display in war museum

Suderman, Brenda. "Walk a Mile in His Shoes." Winnipeg Free Press, 4 October 2009, A9.

Conrad Stoesz, archivist at the Mennonite Heritage Centre, poses with a pair of boots from Elmon Lichti, a Mennonite conscientious objector in the Second World War, that will be on display in a peace exhibit at the Canadian War Museum next year, the first time artifacts from pacifists are in the war museum.

An ordinary pair of brown lace-up leather boots is about to promote the path of peace in a place usually dedicated to war stories.

The pair of dusty, well-worn workboots that once belonged to Elmon Lichti, a Mennonite conscientious objector during the Second World War, is heading to Ottawa for an upcoming exhibit on peace at the Canadian War Museum.

"It represents a commitment of his faith," explains Conrad Stoesz, archivist at the Mennonite Heritage Centre, which acquired the boots from Lichti's family nearly three years ago. "He (Lichti) was willing to follow his conscience and his church's lead and take up alternative service, which meant serving his country for 50 cents a day."

The boots will be displayed in a temporary exhibit on the history of peace advocacy in Canada, scheduled for June 2010 to January 2011. This loan marks the first time any artifact from the Winnipeg-based Mennonite archives will be displayed at a national museum, and it is also thought to be the only artifact from Mennonites at the Canadian War Museum.

During the Second World War, about 10,000 men, many of them Mennonites, were conscientious objectors and built roads and planted trees as an alternative to serving in the military. Mennonites have a long tradition of pacifism and the Canadian government promised them exemption from military service when waves of Mennonites emigrated to Canada from the United States and Russia, says Stoesz, who has developed a website telling the story of conscientious objectors at www.alternativeservice.ca.

"Conscientious objectors from the Second World War came from across the country from all backgrounds," says Stoesz, whose grandfather was a Mennonite CO. "Because of that, I think it should be taught in public schools along with military history."

Stoesz says Canada made provisions for conscientious objectors as far back as 1793.

Because of his beliefs that war was wrong, Lichti, a resident of Tavistock, Ont., chose to enter alternative service in late 1942 and spent more than a year building the Trans-Canada Highway, based from a camp at Montreal River, Ont., on the shores of Lake Superior. During the final year of the war, Lichti planted trees on Vancouver Island, where he was issued a numbered metal bracelet, similar to military dog tags, to identify him if he were caught in a forest fire.

After Lichti's death in 2005, his family found the bracelet and boots among his belongings and decided to donate the footwear to the Mennonite archives, located on the campus of Canadian Mennonite University in Winnipeg's Tuxedo neighbourhood.

"I think those boots say he had a strong faith, because he wanted to do what was right in the eyes of the (Mennonite) church, and going to war was not an option," explains Lichti's daughter, Ruth Jantzi, in a telephone interview from her Kitchener, Ont., home.

Along with the dusty boots, Jantzi also donated a sock-drying rack and a small plastic bag filled with dozens of metal tacks, which Lichti drove into the soles of his boots for extra traction.

However humble and worn, these boots provide a valuable and rare glimpse into the lives of Canadian conscientious objectors in the Second World War, says the museum historian collecting artifacts and information for the war museum exhibit.

"There is so little material that exists in terms of artifacts that I can find," says Amber Lloydlangston of the Canadian War Museum. "Anything that is three-dimensional that I can find (will) make a real connection with a real person. It just goes to show these people put their lives at risk."

Stoesz speculates that few artifacts remain from that time because they were mostly just ordinary things that were used until they were worn out.

"We have memories, documents and photographs, but we can hold this and touch them," he says of the boots, heading to Ottawa soon. "There's an emotional attachment you get with an artifact that you don't get with pictures. You can feel their dustiness, you can feel their weight."

Jantzi says her father was a thrifty man who probably saved the boots and other materials from that time because of the meaning they held for him. She is pleased the boots will be on display in a national setting and hopes the temporary exhibit will provoke discussions of alternatives to war.

"I think it tells the story of men who were passionate about their pacifism. It was important to them," she says, adding her father was quiet about his experiences as a conscientious objector, but would show his grandchildren photographs of his time in the alternative-service camps.

Lloydlangston says the 630-square-metre peace exhibit will cover the topic of peace and Canada's response to war, including civil peace movements, United Nations peacekeeping and conscientious objection during the Second World War.

Reprinted courtesy of Brenda Suderman and the Winnipeg Free Press.

Permission to use any images from the GRHC website may be requested by contacting Michael M. Miller