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Toronto Eldon Comfort: A veteran who became proponent of social justice

As a lieutenant with the Royal Canadian Corps of Signals, Eldon Comfort received his first assignment in British Columbia in 1943, where he trained others to do signals work.

Courtesy of the Comfort Family

Eldon Comfort, a reluctant young soldier who became an outspoken campaigner for peace and social justice in later life, embraced pacifism as a result of what he witnessed following Germany's surrender in the spring of 1945.

"[O]ur unit was stationed up in Wilhelmshaven [Germany], just to try to keep the peace for a while. The Germans had been disarmed, of course, but there were still a lot of them around and a lot of them were still in … prison enclosures," he told the Memory Project, which has recorded Canadian veterans talking about their wartime experiences. "To see those young men, boys really, behind barbed wire, dispirited, bedraggled, hungry, disorganized … I thought to myself, surely, these guys aren't my enemy. … [A]nd I couldn't help but wonder how many of those youngsters had been reluctant soldiers themselves, that were simply obeying orders."

Mr. Comfort's moral objections to war continued and deepened as he grew older. He died on June 2 at North York General Hospital in Toronto, a month after he was hospitalized following two strokes and a heart attack. He was 102.

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At his memorial service on July 4, his daughter Janet Bojti read excerpts of his letters to family, friends and Canadian officials, including one sent to the minister of revenue in April, 2008, to protest against Canada's military operations.

"Today, modern technology has introduced weapons of mass destruction. Their cost is staggering. … So, in a very real sense when I pay my income tax, I am complicit in the deployment of such armaments.

"I am, therefore, claiming conscientious objection to the conscription of my tax for military purposes. The percentage of the federal budget designated for DND is deemed to be 8.1 per cent, so I have reduced my income tax by that amount. This portion is being directed to Conscience Canada's peace tax fund.

"When the Canadian military operations were restricted to peacekeeping (in its restricted sense), to search and rescue, and to succour during national natural disasters, I had no quarrel with paying my taxes in full. When the priority for the resolution of conflict, once again, becomes a peaceful and diplomatic enterprise, I shall resume full payment."

Eldon Byron Comfort was born in Saskatoon on Oct. 4, 1912. His father, Ellwood Comfort, had moved the family to Saskatchewan when he took up a position as assistant principal in Nutana. He was an industrial arts teacher, and built a new home every summer to accommodate his growing brood. In the 1920s, the family moved back to Lincoln County, Ont., near Niagara Falls to save the family farm, which was struggling because of the Depression and the failing health of young Eldon's grandparents.

The Comforts eventually had seven children who, by the interwar years, were engaged in farming and getting an education, says Iain Taylor, Mr. Comfort's son-in-law.

"For the growing Comfort boys, it was work, work, work, seemingly occupying nearly every waking hour of every day. For the girls it was [household chores] and cooking for the nine around the table every morning and night, with packed lunches every day," he says.

Besides a rural childhood that taught him everything from milking cows to managing a horse-drawn wagon, Mr. Comfort was a devoted member of the United Church since its inception. He was active in church committees all his life – doing everything from balancing the finances to managing the Sunday school. At Westminster United Church on Toronto's Bloor Street, Mr. Comfort met Betty Bonsall, who sang in the choir.

After graduating from high school in Beamsville, Ont., Mr. Comfort attended a teachers college, then called Toronto Normal School. From 1931 to 1934, he taught elementary school in one-room school houses across Ontario. He then graduated from the University of Toronto with a bachelor's degree in physical education and started teaching high school students.

He had been teaching at a Port Hope, Ont., high school when he enlisted. He had played it smart, signing up for the army in 1941, Ms. Bojti says.

"If you volunteered, they gave you a choice to apply for officers' training. If you waited until you got conscripted, you didn't get a choice," she says. "He was in the reserves, while he was teaching. So on the weekends, he would go around and march somewhere."

After courting Ms. Bonsall for nearly a decade, he married her on Dec. 5, 1942, the same day he received orders to attend officers' training in Brockville, Ont.

"With his university degree and aptitude for science, he got into signals training. Signals corps didn't put you in the direct line of fire. … [They] kept lines of communication open between different units, and [intercepted] German communication. But he was attached to an artillery unit."

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As a lieutenant with the Royal Canadian Corps of Signals, he received his first assignment in British Columbia in 1943, where he trained others to do signals work, Ms. Bojti adds. The army officer in charge was at his wits' end figuring out a schedule for all the training programs at the massive training camp.

"It was getting late in the day and he was starting to panic, so he yelled: 'Comfort! Here, figure this out.' When my father showed him the schedule he'd mapped out the next day, the [officer] was really pleased. He asked my father how he did it. And he said it was just like a high school timetable," Ms. Bojti says.

Like many of his contemporaries who served in the military, Mr. Comfort didn't like to talk about the war with his children, Ms. Bojti says.

"One time my brother – he was around five then – got out my dad's medals and was parading around with them. My dad saw him and just scoffed, 'You get one of those for being there.' It wasn't until we were teenagers that he really talked about it," she says.

"He told us about the time they wintered over in Holland. He'd never been been so cold in his life. He was billeted with a young couple, the Wolfs. The young woman was pregnant in the extreme, and they didn't have two cents to rub together. So my father wrote home. My older sister, Nancy, would have been a year old. My mother packed up a little box with nighties, sweaters, layettes. Years later we visited them and they remembered every item in that box."

Besides witnessing the horrors of war, Mr. Comfort was homesick. He was desperately in love with the woman he married, and eager to meet the daughter he'd never seen. When he returned home to Toronto from war, Mr. Comfort was offered a veteran's allowance to go back to school. He pursued a master's degree in botany from the University of Toronto, and got a job as a science and physical education teacher at Danforth Technical School (now Danforth Collegiate and Technical Institute). He went on to become a principal there, and then at Downsview Secondary School (previously Downsview Collegiate Institute).

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In 1949, he bought a two-acre plot in Markham, Ont., and built a house with some help from his brothers and friends. The family moved into their new home in 1953. Mr. Comfort served as a municipal councillor in Markham for two years, attending meetings late into the night. He also made sure the kids had fun in the backyard, setting up bales of hay for archery practice and building ice rinks.

In 1960, Mr. Comfort moved his family to Tanganyika to establish a new science wing of Mpwapwa Teachers College. The sojourn changed the Comfort family.

"I used to joke that it was his missionary complex," Ms. Bojti says. "He just wanted help people who were struggling in a society that was much poorer than our own. He wanted to be of service. And it was an excellent opportunity for us three kids – we were 17, 14 and 11 – to travel and have an adventure. … Everybody had to learn Swahili. Electricity only came on in the evenings. But we did not want for anything."

The family returned to Canada in 1962, when Mr. Comfort was offered a position as principal of Yorkdale Secondary School. He stayed there until he retired in 1972.

The stay in East Africa deepened Mr. Comfort's sense of despair about the world and social justice. He kept an eye on the U.S. civil rights movement through the 1960s, but he was still a "pretty straight" high school teacher, Ms. Bojti says. In fact, Mr. Comfort wasn't impressed at first with Mr. Taylor, who was then courting his daughter Nancy, when he saw him participating in an anti-Vietnam War demonstration.

It was only after retirement that a geriatric rebel came out of the closet, she says. Mr. Comfort had been following the news out of Central America and got interested in the struggle in Nicaragua. He travelled there in 1984 as part of a Witness for Peace delegation. The group, which included many fellow veterans, went to Nicaragua to try to prevent the U.S.-backed contras from committing human rights violations against civilians. Mr. Comfort returned there annually for six years on various humanitarian projects. In 1990, he was selected to monitor the national elections as a UN observer.

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"I first met Eldon at a panel discussion on Nicaragua; this was in the 1980s. And he made a joke that if Canadians were to go to heaven and there was a fork in the road – one leading to eternal paradise and other to panel discussions – Canadians were likely to go to panel discussions. We immediately hit it off. He had a terrific sense of humour, but also a strong moral grounding. There was no pretext with Eldon," says Matthew Behrens, a writer and organizer with Homes Not Bombs.

In 1998, when Canada supported a U.S.- and British-led bombing campaign against Iraq, he joined a group from Homes Not Bombs to deliver a letter to Art Eggleton, who was then defence minister.

"When we were told that Mr. Eggleton won't respond, we decided to stay there. There was some media there, and they asked Eldon what he's going to do now. He told them, 'I'm going to take off my pants.' He said it with a twinkle in his eye, and immediately every camera was on him. He then took off his snow pants that he was wearing on top of regular pants. It was a lovely moment."

At the same time, Mr. Comfort was also active in civic groups such as the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee. From 1995 to 2002, he protested against the lack of affordable housing and the rising problem of homelessness in Toronto by standing vigil outside Queen's Park.

"Every Tuesday, after playing tennis, from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m., he'd be there," says Mr. Behrens. "He'd pick up a banner at the Geology School at U of T and bring it across. Sometimes a security guard would come and say, 'You have to move.' And he'd respond, 'No, we don't.'" Security wouldn't know what to do with him," Mr. Behrens says.

In the spring of 2001, Eldon Comfort received an honorary degree of Doctor of Sacred Letters from Victoria University (University of Toronto). A biographical sketch circulated to university officials before he received the honour noted "his tireless commitment to the cause of justice."

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Mr. Comfort was predeceased by his wife of 63 years, Betty; and his siblings Rodger Comfort, Elva Moyer, Ralph Comfort, Helen Arthur and Maurice Comfort. He leaves his youngest brother, Clarence Comfort; his children, Nancy Taylor, Janet Bojti and Jim Comfort; five grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

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Editor's Note: A Monday obituary of Eldon Comfort incorrectly said he moved his family to Tanzania in 1960. It was Tanganyika at that time. In 1964, Tanganyika and Zanzibar merged to form Tanzania.

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