TORONTO – A 79-year-old Toronto woman taken to court over her refusal to fill out the mandatory census declared she had no regrets Wednesday despite being found guilty of violating the Statistics Act.
Janet Churnin was handed a conditional discharge — which means she will have no permanent criminal record after she completes her sentence of 50 hours of community service within a year.
Churnin will remain on probation until her community service is complete, but the former social worker said she thought she received “a fair judgement.”
“I’m glad I managed to get my point across and I do feel sort of satisfied with the decision,” the soft-spoken senior said outside court. “I did break the law, but I think I had every reason to and I suppose (the judge) is right. There’s always consequences to your actions.”
Churnin, who had faced the possibility of a $500 fine and/or three months in jail, also admitted she was relieved at her sentence.
“I thought (the judge) was going to be a lot harder on me to tell the absolute truth,” she said. “I do volunteer service anyway so it’s no hardship to do community service.”
At the core of Churnin’s refusal to fill out the 2011 short-form census were concerns over U.S. arms maker Lockheed Martin’s role in the data collection process.
After reading a newspaper article about the corporation’s software being used by Statistics Canada, Churnin worried there was a chance information on Canadians could be accessed by Lockheed Martin, or even the American government if the corporation was forced to turn over the data under the U.S. Patriot Act.
Churnin, a self-described pacifist, also wanted in no way to support Lockheed Martin, or to be associated with the defence company in any way.
A third factor in her refusal was a desire to protest the federal government’s scrapping of the long-form census, which was replaced with a voluntary national household survey.
Churnin’s lawyer had argued at trial that her Charter rights were violated by being required to answer the short-form census because Statistics Canada didn’t do enough to address her concerns about Lockheed Martin.
The judge presiding over the case disagreed with those arguments Wednesday and found Churnin had no lawful excuse for not participating in the census.
“Ms Churnin is not being required to express anything to Lockheed Martin, nor can the provision of census information be viewed as an expression of support for Lockheed Martin,” Cathy Mocha said while delivering her ruling.
“The fact that it may be remotely possible for someone to obtain the information doesn’t alter the expectation of privacy here. This danger is present any time any computer is used to store information.”
The head of census operations at Statistics Canada testified at Churnin’s trial that Lockheed Martin had no access to the agency’s data operation centre or its census response database.
But Churnin’s lawyer had suggested there was a possibility Lockheed Martin could have built a “back door” into its software, which could potentially put the Canadian data at risk.
The Crown had countered that Canadians can’t refuse to comply with legitimate government obligations simply on the basis of moral disapproval or speculative security fears.
In deciding on a sentence, Mocha said she tried to balance Churnin’s moral stand with the court’s obligation to deter others from breaking the law.
“I appreciate your personal views with regards to peace initiatives, but there are other ways to accomplish those peace initiatives without violating the law,” Mocha told Churnin.
“One of the things the government requires is basic information about its citizens so it can effectively implement public policy. It does this through the census.”
The outcome of Churnin’s case was markedly different from that of an 89-year-old peace activist who also refused to fill out the 2011 census.
In that case, Audrey Tobias was found not guilty in October by a Toronto judge who soundly criticized the government for trying to prosecute someone who was a “model citizen.”