Current Events

Stouffville counters with peace at 1812 parade

Stouffville counters with peace at 1812 parade Dick Benner, editor/publisher Canadian Mennonite STOUFFVILLE, ONT.

Peace church members gather at the settlement site on Main Street, where an historical marker notes that Abraham and Elizabeth Reesor-Stouffer settled the town. MCC's Care and Share Thrift shop is in the background. --Photo by Peter Kear

Some 60 Mennonites, Quakers and Brethren in Christ members, including seniors and children, gathered for a peace church testimony Saturday, June 16, during Stouffville’s commemoration of the War of 1812, complete with a parade of Governor General’s Horse Guard, reports Arnold Neufelt-Fast, one of the organizers of the group.

The commemoration, planned and implemented by the local Member of Parliament, Paul Calandra and endorsed by the town council, did not acknowledge the town’s pacifist founding, despite several appeals by peace church organizers to do so. Stouffville was named after a Mennonite, Abraham Stouffer, who in 1805 along with 55 other families, was seeking religious freedom and refusing to “take up the bayonet and rifle” on religious grounds.

Dressed in white and wearing the Mennonite Central Committee peace buttons (“To remember is to work for PEACE”), the group, led by Neufelt-Fast, reviewed their concerns about the commemoration overlooking the pacifist founding of the town, read peace texts from Jesus, Menno Simons and William Penn and engaged in prayer.

Their key historical concern, said Neufelt-Fast, was the government’s overlooking the fact that Mennonites, Brethren in Christ, and Quakers were the predominant settler groups in the areas in which hamlets arose in what is today Whitchurch-Stouffville. No other area in Upper Canada had all three historic peace churches living in such concentration and in such close proximity (Quakers in the northern part of Whitchurch; Mennonites to the south; Tunkers [Brethren in Christ] in the south-west).

“Their response to the War of 1812 was one of conscientious objection,” he said. 
”In the years before (from 1808 and onward), during and after the war, Captain Button had no land in what is today Oak Ridges - Markham, let alone Whitchurch-Stouffville. Only much later (1820s /30s) did some of the next generation of Buttons settle here (Ringwood). According to our Legion's list of vets, two--maybe three--vets came from the area of what is Whitchurch-Stouffville (another five or six had their next generation next kin in this area; eight in total).

“For these reasons the proposal was received as hurtful and divisive for our three church groups. Our history was effectively disqualified, erased and rewritten, with the powerful help of pomp and ceremony, tanks and cavalry. There's a reason why the peace dove is at the top of the W-S crest--it reflects our town's history well. Saturday's reception by the Mayor of a sword from the ‘descendents’ of Button's Calvary, the GG Horse Guard, is a powerful symbolic challenge to our town's historic roots.”

--June 19, 2012

Gadfly - "Theatre of the Beat," in-cooperation with the Community Mennonite Church Stouffville, will be presenting the play "Gadfly: Sam Steiner Dodges the Draft," at 7:00 p.m. on June 1 in the Parkview Auditorium. The play is written and directed by Rebecca Steiner, a member of CMC. Based on Sam's struggle with conscientious objection and pacifism during the Vietnam War, it leads us to reflect about what active peacemaking might look like today. Mark the date on your calendar. In lieu of tickets, the troupe asks for a donation at the door (suggested donation is $10-15). You can call CMC at 905-640-9730 for more information.

On Tuesday evening May 1st 2012, the office of MP Paul Calandra will be proposing to Town Council the "Freedom of the Town of Stouffville" event and parade, celebrating Stouffville's military heritage and role in the War of 1812. It is a very unique ceremony where a town or city bestows honours upon a particular military unit. The formal letter of request begins with a connection to the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812. It notes that the "Governor General's Horse Guards" "traces its local roots back 200 years in the Whitchurch-Stouffville area." The event is proposed as a "unique opportunity for Stouffville residents to celebrate their rich local heritage ..."

This connection of Stouffville’s earliest history to Canada’s military history is a significant concern to Community Mennonite Church Stouffville, of which I am a (ordained) member. Mennonites are a historical peace church, together with Quakers and Brethren in Christ. As you know, Stouffville was founded by Mennonites with the arrival of Abraham Stouffer and his wife Elisabeth Reesor-Stouffer in 1805. In the next ten years (i.e., over the time of the Warof 1812), another 55 families arrived, "three of these families were of military stock; some were Lutherans; a few were Dunkers, i.e., German Baptists, most were Mennonites" (Barkey,Stouffville 1877-1977: A Pictorial History of a Prosperous Ontario Community,p. 4).

Other hamlets in Whitchurch Township were settled by Quakers (Barkey, WhitchurchTownship,p. 14). The settlers on "the eastern half of the old Township of Markham" were also predominantly Mennonite during the War of 1812 (Champion, Markham 1793-1900,p. 27;Markham was originally Reesorville, named after the Mennonite settler Joseph Reesor. Stouffville's history for the first decades of the 1800s is overwhelmingly a Mennonite and pacifist story, with the first "conscientious objectors” in Canada’s (pre-)history.Our concern is that the event proposal as formulated significantly distorts Stouffville's earliest history, and discounts the real contributions of Stouffville’s settlers to the fabric of Canadian identity (Our congregation will be extending an invitation to historian Dr. Jonathan Sieling to share his research and presentation publically in Stouffville: "1812 and the Early Rise of Conscientious Objection in Canada"-- for brief summary, see here, p. 4;see also the Mennonite, BIC and Quaker historical markers re: the War of 1812, peace,with reference to York and Markham).

A contingent of members from the area Mennonite and Brethren in Christ churches willaccompany me to the Town Council meeting on Tuesday. I will be asking the Clerk how I might be able to speak to this matter. I note that the request by Mr. Calandra’s office must be given by a community upon a military unit; his delegation makesa “request for Town participation and support;” for the “preparation of town staff” and “coordination through the Clerk’s Department;” they are also requesting “that the town waive any associated permit and facility rental fee."

As such, Mr. Candra’s delegation is requesting an action (bestowal of honour) and an event with financial implications for the Town (staff time; waiving of fees). This request should (according to parliamentary procedure) become a matter of Council discussion. The Town’s by-laws require that items “requiring Council direction shall be placed on the Discussion Agenda” (By-law 2012-001-RE, 4.11).Best procedure would also include a staff report with regard to the Outside Presentation requiring council action and a financial commitment: “Where there is no accompanying staff report, the matter shall be referred to a future Meeting of the Council and a report requested for that Meeting” (4.6 d). We would prefer that Council's decision is informed by a staff study of all costs, including historical consultation with the town’s Heritage Committee, Library and Museum. Discussion with Stouffville's Mennonite and related churches (including Brethren in Christ) would also appropriate.

If Council deems that Mr. Calandra’s proposal is urgent and requires an immediate decision, then the community should be able to address this item given for council direction. I will ask the Clerk if our group may (procedurally) address council as a delegation, appealing to By-law 4.4 (d): “A Delegation not on the agenda shall not be heard without the consent of at least a Fifty Percent plus One vote of the Members present.” We would raciously request Council’s support for this to happen. I will seek clarity from the Clerk about proper procedure. Since the military unit being honoured is connected with The Governor General, our congregation will contact His Excellency RH David Johnson. He is the former President of theUniversity of Waterloo and a friend of the Mennonite college on the U of W campus (ConradGrebel University College). He is very aware of the important Mennonite peace churchcontribution to the fabric of Canadian life (Mennonites were the founders of Waterloo atprecisely the same time that their cousins came to the Stouffville-Markham area), and we think he will be sensitive to an extravagant display of military in connection with the history of a townfounded by Mennonites. The current Moderator of Mennonite Church Canada, Andrew Reesor-McDowell, is a resident of Stouffville and descendant of the town's first settlers.

We respect that Stouffville’s history has many chapters and a diversity of actors; the Mennonite peace-church tradition is however the earliest prevailing story in town. It has made a uniquecontribution that is erased and appears to be rewritten by this proposal and event. We believe, however, that Stouffville’s pacifist origins are worthy to be remembered, explored and celebrated. The early Mennonite settlers of Stouffville left the United States to createsomething different— precisely upon the invitation of Lt. Gov. John Graves Simcoe and underthe Militia Act of 1793 which exempted them from military service. Simcoe was far moreinterested in acquiring desirable settlers with agricultural skills than forcing them to becomereluctant soldiers. That is the context for understanding Stouffville in the first decades of thenineteenth century, and specifically, during the War of 1812.

As you know, this whole story is captured in the Whitchurch – Stouffville Coat of Arms,adopted in 1973; the dove of peace, the original seal of Whitchurch Township, is at the crest, recalling the pacifist Quaker and Mennonite settlers who founded many of the Whitchurch-Stouffvillehamlets, including the Community of Stouffville. The white church symbolizes Whitchurch, and the star and chalice come from the Stouffer family (Swiss) coat of arms (see Barkey, WhitchurchTownship,p.99).

Thank you in advance for your help as guardians of the story of our shared community and of its earliest civic leaders. Please contact me if you have any questions.


Arnold Neufeldt-Fast Stouffville , Ontario

May 15th: A task force was asked by the town council here to look into a proposal by the area’s peace churches to select a site and erect a plaque in honour of the founders’ conscientious objection to the War of 1812.

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