Janet Churnin, retired social worker, in court over census protest

A retired Toronto social worker is in court over her refusal to fill out the short-form census two years ago.

Pleads not guilty for refusing to submit short-form census

A retired Toronto social worker will be in court Friday over her refusal to fill out the short-form census two years ago. 0:41

A retired Toronto social worker is in court today over her refusal to fill out the short-form census two years ago.

Janet Churnin, 79, could face a fine, as well as jail time, for contravening the Statistics Act by not filling out the census forms.

However, Churnin’s choice was a deliberate one, made in protest of the cancellation of the long-form census, which she says was a valuable tool in helping marginalized Canadians, and because the form is processed by U.S. military contractor Lockheed Martin.

Churnin isn’t backing down. She entered a plea of not guilty shortly after noon on Friday, in court at Toronto's Old City Hall.

"I wasn't going to fill it out because of the money going to Lockheed Martin and I wasn't going to fill it out because it was useless," Churin told CBC News in an earlier interview in her downtown Toronto apartment.

Her lawyer, Peter Rosenthal, said their defence will be built around Churnin's charter rights to protection against unreasonable search and seizure — rights he will argue are threatened by StatsCan’s “negligent” reliance on the U.S. company’s software.

"By allowing Lockheed Martin to have access to that data, it could end up being used for U.S. government purposes, which becomes a violation,' he said.

What happened to the old census?

The last compulsory long-form census was released by StatsCan in 2006. Just before the 2011 census was to be released, the Conservative government announced it would no longer be mandatory, and replaced it with a voluntary household survey which, in combination with a still-mandatory short form census, it said would provide adequate demographic information to Statistics Canada. The change prompted outrage among some statisticians and researchers, including the former head of Stats Can, Munir Sheikh, who quit in protest.

Rosenthal also represented 89-year-old activist Audrey Tobias, who similarly landed in court last month after she too refused to send in her short-form census.

In her case, the judge told a packed courtroom she was "a martyr in the making," and that she wasn't guilty because there wasn't proof beyond a reasonable doubt that she intentionally broke the law the moment she decided not to send in the form. In that case, Rosenthal also based his defence on a charter violation, arguing that forcing her to complete the census went against her freedoms of conscience and free expression — an argument the judge, who will also hear Churnin’s case, rejected.

Outside the court Audrey Tobias thanked the judge for his ruling. (Trevor Dunn/CBC)

Instead, Judge Ramez Khawly’s decision to acquit Tobias stemmed from some conflicting testimony and the condition of her memory, which left him with enough reasonable doubt to let her off.

"It was a very unusual ruling not likely to be repeated," Rosenthal said.

Despite her lawyer’s apprehension, Churnin remains upbeat and says she is prepared to accept the sentence if she is convicted.

“If they put me in jail for not signing a form and they don't put [Mayor] Ford in jail for smoking cocaine, well we've got a funny justice system,” she said.

With a report from the CBC's Stephanie Matteis


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