Remarks by Stephen Woodworth, May 15, 2017, International Conscientious Objectors Day


Good evening, everyone! Thank you all for joining in this Democracy Defence Initiative this evening. And a special thanks to whoever arranged this wonderful weather! Also, our thanks to our musicians, Rob and Joe Koechl on guitar and vocals, joined by Ken Oakes, all the way from Nanaimo, B.C., on saxophone!

We are here today to show we care!

We are here today to show we care about freedom!

We are here today to show we care about conscience!

We all have lines we won’t cross. This includes people of all faiths and people of no faith. We are here today to celebrate those, past and present, who resist pressure and who instead follow their hearts – conscientious objectors.

And we are here to celebrate those who have fought and sacrificed to preserve freedom for us to follow our conscience – and to protect conscientious objectors. In fact, today you will join their ranks.

Our freedom to follow our own conscience was first officially recognized in Canada hundreds of years ago – in the Militia Act of 1793, which said “. . . 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 . . .”

In 1868 this provision was amended to apply to individuals 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.”

In 1917 availability of conscientious objection was further widened to include anyone who ” . . . conscientiously objects to the undertaking of combat service, and is prohibited from doing so by the tenets and articles of faith…”

After that, lobbying efforts to broaden Conscientious Objector 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.

And today, even when there is no conscription….. since the mid-1990s, the Defence Department has made a commitment to allow persons with a genuine change of heart to leave the military before their five year commitment of service was up.

Finally, since the late 20th century, the term “conscientious objector” has also been extended to objecting to working for the military–industrial complex due to a crisis of conscience.

Even during two great World Wars, even when Canada’s very existence was at stake, we still guaranteed the freedom of every citizen to conscientiously object to causing anyone’s death.

Even in a time of crisis, even when the democratic majority thought it was desirable to kill enemy soldiers in defence, we still allowed citizens to refuse to cause anyone’s death.

And it was because of those challenges of world conflict – not in spite of them – that the wise leaders of the world guaranteed that all peoples would remain free, with Article 18 of the Declaration of Human Rights. Article 18 states “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, of conscience, and of religion….”

This Declaration was not just empty words. It was a hard-won foundation for civilized democracy. It is monstrous now to cast aside these ideals.

This history tells us that Canadians have, until recently, not tried to limit the freedom to follow one’s own conscience. Quite the contrary, with the true spirit of a liberal and progressive democracy, Canadians have adapted and broadened that freedom – until now.

Of course, until very recently, military service was one of only a few occupations where anyone was allowed to deliberately cause someone’s death. That is why we protect military conscripts who refuse to deliberately take someone’s life.

Recently, however, the Supreme Court of Canada has added the medical professions to those occupations where deliberately causing someone’s death is permissible. Let me make it clear that we are not here to debate that decision. For better or for worse, the court has decreed the establishment of assisted suicide availability for Canada.

We are not here this evening to try to persuade anyone about whether assisted suicide is for better or for worse. No! We are here simply to defend every citizen’s right to conscientiously object to being compelled, against their will, into violating their conscience. We are here to show that we care about freedom!

To help us understand what a difference freedom can make – and what a difference losing your freedom can make – we have invited three conscientious object or us to share their stories with us this evening.

I’ll begin by introducing you to Dr. Mark D’Souza. Dr. D’Souza is an Ontario guy, born and raised in Toronto. He practises as an emergency medicine doctor in Toronto, but also practised palliative care (until the recent passage of Bill 84). He is an Assistant Professor at Queen’s University, bringing more academic expertise to this issue than I possess. He is a regular guest columnist at the Toronto Sun. Dr. D’Souza told me , as a fun fact, that he is not a stranger to Waterloo Region – he spent 6 weeks at Grand River Hospital in Kitchener during his residency delivering babies. Please give a warm welcome to Dr. Mark D’Souza!


Next, I’d like to introduce Dr. Jodie Wang. Dr. Wang is a family doctor in Kitchener, and a mom of 9 kids. She’s a member of Concerned Ontario Doctors and Doctors for Justice. She is also a member of CMDS and the Catholic Physicians’ Guild, which are fighting the CPSO for conscience rights. She has been an outspoken advocate on social media for doctors’ rights to be conscientious objectors. Please welcome Dr. Jodie Wang!


And now it’s my privilege to introduce to you Dr. Betty-Anne Story. Dr. Story has been a family doctor in Brantford, Ontario since 2005. Prior to attending medical school at Dalhousie University in Halifax, she completed a PhD in Synthetic Organic Chemistry and worked for 3 years as an Organic Chemistry Lab Instructor.  She graduated from medical school in 1999 and completed a Family Medicine residency at University of Western Ontario. She is one of the five physician applicants in the court application regarding conscience rights and the CPSO policies titled “Physician Obligations and Human Rights and Medical Assistance in Dying.” Please welcome Dr. Betty-Anne Story!



Ladies and gentlemen, now you have seen the human face of conscientious objection in Canada today. It is no easy task for brave and honourable men and women like our three speakers to stand against those in authority. It is no easy thing to have to expose your deepest beliefs to the possibility of attack. It’s not easy to take a public stand! Please rise and show them your appreciation!

In fact, the history of conscientious objectors shows that, whatever the law might say, conscientious objectors are often subjected to abuse. It was common during the First and Second World Wars for conscientious objectors to be insulted and bullied – labelled as “yellow” or “cowards.” Often, religious motives are met with bigotry and prejudice, and even hatred – even in our own time. Some conscientious objectors who were denied status were imprisoned or, like our guests today, threatened with fines or loss of livelihood.

We are here today because we want Canada to be better than that!

Another important historical fact is that the conscientious objectors of yesterday were not even compelled to assist indirectly in causing anyone’s death. They were not forced to make the bombs or plan ambushes. They were allowed to serve in agriculture or sent to plant trees.

Neither should the honourable men and women who serve in the medical professions today be ordered to indirectly contribute to causing someone’s death, by so-called “effective referral.”

Yet today in Ontario that is exactly what is being demanded! Authoritarian voices are being raised against the progressive and liberal spirit of freedom which those who came before us fought to preserve. In Canada today public authorities like the College of Physicians and Surgeons, and others, are dictating forced conformity, stamping out the diversity and tolerance that, until recently, we believed was honoured in Canada. Punishing honourable men and women for following their conscience is simply outrageous! When was any governing authority in Canada given that power?

What are you and I going to do about it?

Some people are going to court. They are asking courts to grant us freedom! I say that this is a necessary step, but it certainly not a sufficient one.

It’s not sufficient because a free people does not depend for their freedom upon any government authority, not even a court!

It is not sufficient because our freedoms were not granted to us just in the 1980’s by the Charter that our Court is being asked to interpret. Our freedoms as Canadians have existed for over a thousand years! Our freedoms existed even before the Magna Carta, which in 1215 merely recognized that we were a free people.

When the Declaration of Human Rights says that your equal worth and dignity is “inherent,” it is saying that your freedom is not a gift to be bestowed by the Supreme Court of Canada, or any other governing authority. And your freedom of belief and of conscience will continue even if the Supreme Court of Canada refuses to recognize that freedom!

As a democratic people, we depend upon our elected representatives to defend our freedom, just as in ages past. That is why the open letter we distributed is addressed to all members of the Ontario Legislative Assembly. They must stand up for our freedom for us!

How many doctors do we have with us this evening? What about the rest of us? Can those of us who are not doctors just shrug off this threat to freedom? And can those doctors who think “effective referral” would not bother their own conscience simply stand by and let others whose conscience has a different approach be punished?

Of course not! Freedom, like the very air we breathe, is necessary to the health of our community, and everyone in it. And, like pollution that fouls our air, authoritarian conformity endangers not just those who are its closest victims but everyone who breathes the same air.

If the honourable man and women who serve us as medical professionals, before now held in high esteem, can be ordered to violate their own conscience, how long do you think it will be before you too are ordered to cross the lines your conscience forbids you to cross?

At this time, I would like the candles to be distributed. In a moment, we will each light our own candle. The flame we light has a double significance. The flame of your candle represents the conscience which burns within you. The flame you light tonight also represents the flame of freedom.

Let us all stand in respectful silence for one minute as we honour conscientious objectors, past and present – and those who defended their freedom and ours.


Ladies and gentlemen, I hope that you will join us again in future to demonstrate that you care about freedom. And bring a friend with you, so we double our number! And when, in November’s Remembrance Day ceremonies, you hear praise for those who came before us and fought and sacrificed for freedom, you will have the warm knowledge that you have added your efforts to theirs.

Good night, and Godspeed.


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