The making of a COMT

A lifetime journey led me to make the moral choice to become a COMT—a “conscientious objector to military taxation.” World War II was raging when my journey began. I grew up in a Canadian city amongst patriotic people of British origin. Young men who were neighbours, relatives and even fellow church members were enlisting to help defeat Hitler. Some of them lost their lives in that endeavor. Even my beloved teacher came to school one morning in the splendid uniform of the Canadian navy.

Meanwhile, my Mennonite parents, teachers and wider church family were shaping my mind in other ways. The war savings certificates promoted at school got no approval at home—my first lesson in conscientious objection to military taxation. War costs money, but the government was not getting any from our family. In my baptismal instruction class I struggled with the doctrine of nonresistance. It sounded heroic for the sixteenth century, but definitely not cool in the 1940s. When my father served as pastor at an alternative service camp for COs, I became more aware that, while most of society was on the track rushing to war, some heroes refused to board that train.

The church schools where I received my secondary and college education strengthened my commitment to Christ and his teachings. When I taught with MCC’s Teachers Abroad Program in Kenya in the 1960s, I learned about the Kikuyu Christians who paid dearly at the hands of the Mau Mau for their unflinching commitment to the same nonviolent Jesus.

Back in Toronto in the 1970s and 1980s, the Cold War and anti-nuclear movement drew me and members of my faith community into Ban the Bomb demonstrations and marches. One day we heard Edith Adamson speak about what Quakers in Victoria, BC were doing to protest Canada’s use of their income taxes for military purposes. Adamson made it clear that, if we expect our young people to stay out of the army, we should be just as categorical about keeping our money from funding the army.

Adamson’s organization, eventually known as Conscience Canada, encouraged people to withhold the portion of income tax intended for military purposes, deposit it into a trust fund and lobby the government for a Peace Tax Fund to be used only for peaceful purposes. This was “fiscal” rather than “physical” conscientious objection to war. The idea captivated me and I decided to become a COMT as soon as my income from teaching piano lessons rose to a taxable level.

For at least 15 years I annually followed Conscience Canada’s instructions on how to file my income tax, withholding a specific percentage and sending a letter explaining as persuasively as possible the reason for this action. I received responses from successive Ministers of Finance informing me that my actions were illegal, along with cold letters from the Canada Revenue Agency (CRA) telling me I owed them money. The CRA probably considered my “debt” too insignificant to try to recover, but after my 65th birthday, it annually withheld a Goods and Services Tax refund due me until the full amount was erased. I suffered no great harm from all those years of civil disobedience.

Currently, the only legal way to avoid paying taxes for military purposes is to keep one’s income low and/or increase charitable donations up to the limit. But even for the pensioner who receives a refund after filing, the conscience is not perfectly at ease. We can downsize our income, but our monthly old age security allowance depends on investments in corporations which fuel the military. We are inextricably involved, so it seems.

We COMTs need to find new ways of inviting others to make the moral choice of conscientious objection to military taxation. We need to find new ways of appealing to legislators for the legal means of redirecting our taxes for peaceful purposes. We need to find new allies in those who object to lavish military spending.

Mary Groh lives in Toronto. She has been president of Conscience Canada since 2010.

Learn more by reading the Winter 2015 issue of Intersections – Conscientious objection.

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