Conscientious Objection in Canada
The right to conscientious objection has been recognized in Canada for over two hundred years. It started in order to encourage immigration. In 1793 exemption from militia duty was granted to Mennonites, Quakers and Brethren in Christ. From 1873 to 1899 military exemption was extended to Doukhobors and Hutterites.
During WWI members of these ‘historic peace churches’ had an exemption from military service. Other conscientious objectors (COs) did not. Some were required to do non-combatant duty in the military. Some refused and were imprisoned. COs also objected to buying war bonds and eventually special bonds were issued to pay for relief work only.
During WWII CO status was initially restricted to religious groups. By 1942 any conscientious objection, religious or secular, was acceptable. Alternative service under civilian control began. Again special bonds were issued for civilian relief only. By the end of the war there were more than 10,000 COs.
In Canada there has not been conscription into the military since the end of the Korean War. Instead today war and militarism depend on conscripting taxes rather than bodies.
Since 1978 Conscience Canada and its forerunner, The Peace Tax Fund Committee, have worked for securing the right of COs to direct their taxes to non-military peaceful programs only. Over the years, parliamentarians from each of the larger political parties1 have championed this effort2.
The Canadian Constitution in 1982 enshrined freedom of conscience based on secular morality as well as religion. Conscience Canada (CC) was incorporated in 1983 as a secular organization. CC supported a legal test case against the compulsory payment of taxes for military purposes3.
In 1983 the first Private Member’s Motion4 calling for a National Peace Tax Fund was introduced into the House of Commons. Twelve other Motions and Bills followed from 1984 to 20135
For over 40 years CC maintained a Peace Tax Trust Fund (PTTF). Conscientious objectors to military taxation (COMT) could deposit the military portion of their taxes to the Fund. Their money would be held in trust until the government set up an official means for COMT to redirect the military portion of their taxes towards non-violent programs. In 2022, Conscience Canada decided to close the PTTF6.
Yet the need to not pay for war continues. There is ample evidence that militarism and war threaten the wellbeing of humans as well as non-human life. We also know how war and militarism ultimately undermine security, justice and democracy. Investing in ways to protect what we love and value, using the power of nonviolence, is the best form of “defence”, not only for ethical reasons, but also in terms of efficacy.
We must continue to work to uphold our right to freedom of conscience. We know another healthier way of living on earth is possible, and welcome involvement of others towards creating that healthier way of life.
1 Contact firstname.lastname@example.org for a list of parliamentarians who have supported Conscience Canada and ending war.
2 In 1981, a letter from constitutional expert Senator Eugene Forsey, and MPs Althouse, Jewett, Knowles, Manly, Ogle, and Robinson was widely published. The letter said, in part: “In times of military conscription, exemption from service in the military can be claimed on grounds of conscience, and alternate service is approved. It should be equally possible to claim exemption from paying for war preparation, and an alternative provided.”
3 The case was rejected with the rationale being that under the Income Tax Act there was no nexus between a taxpayer and the use of taxes. In 1990 the Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal. Former Justice Thomas Berger, lawyer for the war tax refuser, held that the Income Tax Act was in violation of the constitution, and to this date this issue has never been tested in court.
4 Motion by Jim Manly 1983-03-23
5 The most recent bill was C-363 (2013): “an act respecting conscientious objection to the use of taxes for military purposes” Alex Atamenenko MP
6 The PTTF was no longer useful for a good number of COMT. Some had found ways to reduce their taxable income to the point that the government could not use their taxes for militarism. Also for many Canadians (around 85%) taxes are deducted off their paycheques at source, so they do not have taxes to pay at the end of the year and cannot redirect taxes owed to the PTTF.
For Conscience Sake. Edith Adamson and Jane McEwan. Third Edition, 1991
One Man’s Justice: A Life in the Law. Thomas Berger. 2002. Douglas & Mcintyre
The First Freedom: Freedom of Conscience and Religion in Canada. Gisela Ruebsaat. Third Edition, 1991