A Short History of Conscientious Objection in Canada

Pre-Confederation                                                                                                                                          Back

The first protection for those objecting to compulsory military service was provided by Lord Simcoe, the Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada. He promised exemption to Quakers, Mennonites and Brethren in Christ to encourage them to immigrate to Canada. This promise became law in the Militia Act of 1793: ". . . persons called Quakers, Mennonites and Tunkers (Brethren in Christ) who from certain scruples of conscience, decline bearing arms, shall not be compelled to serve in the said militia . . ." The Militia Act did require those who were exempted to pay an annual fee to the colonial government to cover the costs of maintaining the militia. The importance of this wording is that it recognizes "scruples of conscience" rather that only religious grounds for the objection.

In principal, Quakers and Mennonites opposed payment of the fees. Despite their opposition, most Mennonites did pay as they had done earlier in similar circumstances in Europe and the United States. Most Quakers refused to pay. Penalties included the seizure of property and prison terms. Lobbying efforts to remove the requirement of the fee were successful in 1849.

1867 to World War I

In 1868, the year after Confederation, the Militia Act was amended significantly. It now limited exemption to specific religious groups (Quakers, Mennonites and Tunkers) and others of "any religious denomination, otherwise subject to military duty, but who, from the doctrines of his religion is adverse to bearing arms and refused military service." The exemption was "upon such conditions and under such regulations, as the Governor-in-Council may from time to time prescribe." Members of the named religious groups had to provide certificates of membership. This legislation limited conscientious objection to a religious basis and made it subject to conditions or regulations set by cabinet.

Between this time and World War I, several Orders in Council were issued by the government providing "entire exemption" for certain religious groups that the Canadian government wished to encourage to immigrate to Canada. These were Mennonites from Russia (1873), Doukhobors (1898) and Hutterites (1899).

World War I

A new Military Service Act was passed in 1917. It made all British subjects between the ages of 20 and 45 subject to military service. Exemption was provided for anyone who " . . . conscientiously objects to the undertaking of combat service, and is prohibited from doing so by the tenets and articles of faith in effect on the sixth day of June, 1917, or any organized religious denomination existing and well recognized in Canada at such date and to which he in good faith belongs." A "Schedule of Exemptions" identified certain types of people who were exempt. This included members of the religious groups protected by the Orders in Council of 1873 and l898.

Persons claiming CO status under this law were required to appear before a local tribunal to make their claim. If successful they were granted a certificate of exemption from combat duty. If an individual was covered by the Schedule, he did not have to appear before the tribunal and there were no conditions attached to his exemption. Men in both groups might be required to perform medical or other services that did not involve combat.

Implementation of the CO provisions was mixed, as local tribunals varied in their decisions. Tribunals often perceived a request for CO status as unpatriotic. The decision of a local tribunal could be appealed at an appeals tribunal or even a central appeals judge. Those applying for CO status without an accepted religious faith faced military discipline and possible imprisonment. Initially they received a district court martial with imprisonment of up to two years. Later, if it was determined that a CO was insincere or he refused non-combatant duty, he faced a general court martial for which the sentence ranged from five years to life in prison.

In April 1918 those on the Schedule lost their exemption. They were required to register within ten days of being called up. But, as it turned out, those persons affected were never called up and were deemed to be on leave during this period.

World War II

In World War II exemption provisions were written in regulations rather than by law. The National War Service Regulations 1940 were developed pursuant to the National Resources Mobilization Act which granted the government conscription powers.

The regulations recognized two categories of objectors: 1) Mennonites and Doukhobors who entered Canada pursuant to their respective Orders in Council, and 2) other conscientious objectors prohibited by their religion from bearing arms. Mennonites who arrived in Canada from Russia in the 1920s were inthe second category. Both groups could receive postponements of military training, not exemptions, but these were subject to cancellation. Both groups were required to perform non-combatant military service. Application for postponement for those in category 2 was through an autonomous local board. Consequently recognition of COs varied across the country, with some applications from members of historic peace churches being rejected.

Lobbying efforts to broaden CO status to include non-religious reasons of conscience took place. In December 1940 an Order in Council broadened the religious basis for conscientious objection to include any Christian with a conscientiously held belief. The final change came in 1942. This allowed for CO status to be claimed on non-religious but conscientiously held beliefs.

The historic peace churches (Quakers, Mennonites, Hutterites, Doukhobors, Brethren in Christ) found the performance of duties under the military as required for COs also to be contrary to their conscience. Lobbying by the peace churches started in 1940 for the provision of alternative service under civilian control. By May 1941 COs were required to report to work camps for the duration of the war. Assignments included work in forestry, national parks and road construction. By the end of World War II the work had been expanded to include essential services in agriculture and industry (this work was contingent on the COs contributing most of their pay to the Red Cross for relief work), medical and dental work in non-combatant corps, and for a small number of COs, fire fighting in Great Britain and relief work with the Friends Ambulance Unit in China. There was tension for some COs about the role of the alternative service in contributing to "the war effort." In December 1945 there were 10,831 men with CO status in Canada.

Current Status

In the current National Defence Act there is no recognition of conscientious objection. And, as Canada currently does not have conscription, there is no legislation with respect to conscientious objection. However, Canada's Charter of Rights and Freedom's recognizes the right of freedom of conscience. "Everyone has the following fundamental freedoms: (a) freedom of conscience and religion" (Sec.2). Given Canada's historic record, it is presumed that individuals could make a claim for conscientious objector status on the basis of the charter and historic precedents.

Until very recently, there was no provision for persons in the Armed Forces to apply for a release in the event that they came to a position of conscientious objection while in service. In the mid-1990s, the Defence Department made a commitment to allow persons with a genuine change of heart to leave the military before their five year commitment was up.