Doug Hewitt-White is a retired civil servant and the current chair of the board of Conscience Canada. Murray Lumley is a retired teacher and Scott Albrecht is a bookkeeper, and both are members of the organization’s board. Scott Neigh interviews them about Conscience Canada and about their work to extend the longstanding right to conscientious objection to military service to establish a right to conscientious objection to military taxation.
Conscientious objection to compulsory military service has been recognized in one form or another in territories now known as “Canada” since the late 1700s. Originally, access to this status was tightly associated with membership in one of a handful of Christian denominations, but during the Second World War the rules evolved to accommodate individual conscience regardless of religious affiliation.
Over the course of this history, there were multiple requirements about what objectors had to do instead of serving in the military. In more recent iterations, they often had to engage in some sort of alternative service, while earlier versions often included a requirement to pay a fee or tax that would go towards the military. From as early as the War of 1812, some conscientious objectors to military service also challenged the requirement that they should be forced to participate in war by funding it.
Canada has not had compulsory military service since the Second World War. However, in 1978 a group of peace activists that would later become Conscience Canada began to have serious conversations about the fact that we are all, through the tax system, compelled to pay for the violence of war and militarism. This, they argued, is a violation of conscience, so they began to advocate for a legally recognized right to conscientiously object to military taxation.
This work has proceeded in a few different ways. The enactment of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982 gave them some hope of a legal solution, because the Charter includes a right to freedom of conscience. After a long process of guiding a test case case through the courts, the Supreme Court of Canada refused to hear it in 1990. As a result, there has thus far been no final legal opinion on whether the Charter right to freedom of conscience encompasses this.
Another path that they have taken is political. The legislation they wish to pass would create a specific government account to which conscientious objectors could direct the percentage of their taxes that would otherwise go to the military, and money in that account could only be used by the government for peaceful purposes. While sympathetic MPs have introduced motions and private member’s bills to this effect many times over the decades – most recently in 2013 – they have, as is true of most private member’s bills, never made it past first reading.
The third path that the organization takes could be called the path of disobedience. The most accessible version of this involves using their online Peace Tax Return to make a declaration of conscience that requests that one’s taxes not be used for war and endorses the creation of a peace fund of the sort they have sought via legislation. Because most Canadians have sufficient money deducted by their employers, most of us don’t actually owe taxes at the end of the year, so this is the only option available. However, for people who do end up owing money, Conscience Canada also offers a way for people to withhold the portion of their taxes that would go to the military. People can then deposit the withheld amount in a fund managed by Conscience Canada, which will hold onto it until such time as the government creates its own peace fund. While these actions are only symbolic – the CRA ignores the declarations, and treats the withholding much like it would any other underpayment of taxes – they do represent ways to act on conscience in the face of an unsympathetic state.
Today’s guests recognize that it is at best a longshot that these three paths will lead, on their own, to the outcome that they want. However, they see Conscience Canada in the context of broader efforts to promote peace and to oppose Canada’s complicity in war and militarism, and in that broader context they see not only a possibility of progress towards preace and justice, but a necessity.
Theme music: “It Is the Hour (Get Up)” by Snowflake, via CCMixter
Talking Radical Radio brings you grassroots voices from across Canada, giving you the chance to hear many different people that are facing many different struggles talk about what they do, why they do it, and how they do it, in the belief that such listening is a crucial step in strengthening all of our efforts to change the world. To learn more about the show check out our website here. You can also follow us on Facebook or Twitter, or contact [email protected] to join our weekly email update list.
Talking Radical Radio is brought to you by Scott Neigh, a writer, media producer, and activist based in Hamilton (formerly Sudbury), Ontario, and the author of two books examining Canadian history through the stories of activists.