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For two, almost three, generations, Canada has not had the death penalty. While Canada had the death penalty for its first 100 years, the last 50 years have been free of capital punishment.
The history of the death penalty in Canada goes back to long before Canada existed, to the days of New France.
This episode isn’t about the history of capital punishment in Canada, but more when Canada decided to get rid of it and move away from sentencing people to death.
As can be expected, it was a highly contentious issue.
So, let’s go back a little bit.
Prior to 1858, there were about 250 offenses that could result in the death penalty including stealing turnips and even hiding in a forest in a disguise. It was also something that a lot of people liked to watch. On Aug. 10, 1816, Elijah Dexter was led to the scaffold to be hanged for the murder of his neighbour. The event was described as such quote:
“A great crowd was on hand, and they gave a great cheer when Dexter appeared, for many had waited hours for this show.”
After Confederation, the number of offenses that could bring on the death penalty was reduced to only three, murder, sexual assault and treason.
For the first few years of Canada’s existence, public executions still happened. The second-last person to be publicly executed was Thomas Whelan, who had shot and killed politician Thomas McGee. He was executed in front of 5,000 people on Feb. 11, 1869. The last person to be publicly executed was Nicholas Melady, who had killed his father and stepmother.
It should be noted that the mass hanging of eight Indigenous leaders near Battleford was sort of a public hanging. There are a number of firsthand accounts that exist about the hanging, with most of the accounts coming from settlers in the area who saw the hanging. Several sources also indicate that children from the Battleford Residential School were brought to witness the hangings as well. The Indigenous were put to death over the Frog Lake Massacre and the Looting of Battleford. The trial wasn’t an overly fair trial but settlers wanted retribution for the 1885 North West Resistance. The hanging would occur on Nov. 27, 1885.
It would take until the 1910s for the issue of the abolishment of the death to be brought up on a federal level in Canada. Robert Bickerdike was a Member of Parliament and he would speak up in 1914, and again in 1916, by introducing a bill to replace the death penalty with a life sentence. He would state the death penalty was an insult to Christianity and religion. He would add quote:
“There is nothing more degrading to society at large than the death penalty.”
His bill would go nowhere and the death penalty would remain.
In 1950, Ross Thatcher, another Member of Parliament, moved a bill to amend the Criminal Code to abolish the death penalty.
Thatcher gave several reasons for the abolishment of the death penalty including the finality of the punishment and that he felt it was unchristian. He would also add it was brutal, stating that between 1917 and 1937, the average time of death after the trap was sprung in a hanging was 14.7 minutes.
He would say quote:
The bill would not pass second reading but Thatcher stated he would introduce a bill every year until the law was changed.
In an odd twist of fate, Thatcher would go on to become the premier of Saskatchewan and his son, Colin, who would become an MLA in Saskatchewan, would be convicted of murdering his ex-wife in 1984. If the death penalty had not of been abolished in Canada, Colin Thatcher likely would have been put to death.
In June of that year, the Solicitor General stated that it would be remiss of the government to abolish capital punishment. Solicitor General Lapointe would say quote:
“The type of murderer hanged is usually a vicious cold-blooded killer.”
In 1956, the Joint Committee of the House and Senate recommended the retention of the death penalty for murder.
In 1961, murder was reclassified as capital and non-capital murder, what we would call first and second degree murder today. This legislation kept the death penalty for first degree murder, but not for second degree.
The road to abolition of the death penalty in Canada would begin in 1963 when Lester B. Pearson and the Liberals came to power after defeating John Diefenbaker and the Progressive Conservatives.
Diefenbaker, who had a long history in law, was against the death penalty and executions would slow during his time as Prime Minister. He would say quote:
“Since I have been Prime Minister, no man has been hanged when there has been a recommendation for mercy.”
The last two people to be executed in Canada would be Ronald Turpin and Arthur Lucas, who were convicted of separate crimes but both were hanged on Dec. 11, 1962. While public executions had been gone for nearly a century by that point, that didn’t stop motorists from stopping their cars outside the Don Jail as the execution approached, hoping to see it happen. A crowd of 500 people had gathered outside the prison, with many protesting capital punishment. It took 15 police officers to control the crowd, and four people were arrested.
When the two men were told they would likely be the last people ever to hang in Canada, Turpin responded with quote:
In 1963, a de facto abolition of the death penalty began.
From 1963 to 1966, many death penalty cases were being commuted and it would be in 1966 that the first real discussion of the abolishment of the death penalty began in Canada.
During a debate in the House of Commons over abolition, John Diefenbaker would say on April 1, 1966 quote:
The motion to abolish the death penalty was put forward but this was defeated by a vote of 143 to 112. Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson, John Diefenbaker and NDP leader Tommy Douglas all voted for abolishing the death penalty.
Diefenbaker was only one of 19 Progressive Conservatives to vote for abolishment, while 75 opposed it. Francophone Members of Parliament also voted in favour of keeping capital punishment.
Solicitor General Pennell, who supported the abolishment of the death penalty, was seen to be crying with his head buried in his hands as he saw that the motion was going to be defeated. When asked about the decision, all he would say was quote:
Ralph Cowan, a Liberal MP who was in favour of the death penalty would state quote:
“The retentionists and I are more interested in the victims of murders than the murderers themselves.”
At the time, 15 men were on death row in Canada.
On Nov. 30, 1967, Bill C-168 passed and created a five year moratorium on the death penalty for everything except the murder of police officers or correction officers.
That moratorium expired in 1973 but on Jan. 26, 1973, the Solicitor General of Canada continued the partial ban on capital punishment with the goal of the official abolition of capital punishment.
The ban on capital punishment was not supported by the Canadian Police Association and many Canadians were not in favour. Meryle Cameron, president of the Canadian Police Association, would state quote:
“The polls indicate a very strong majority of Canadians want capital punishment kept and we hope politicians will consider very carefully before going against the wishes of their constituents.”
Many critics to the abolition of the death penalty wanted a referendum on the matter but Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau would state quote:
“My government would not have a referendum on capital punishment. If you elect somebody, you should give responsibility to him.”
Pauline Maitland, who lost her husband, a policeman, when he was killed in the line of duty would give a counter point on the matter on May 3, 1976, stating quote:
‘I would like you to know that the views of my myself and my husband’s family on capital punishment remain unchanged. We are totally against it. It would not bring Leslie back and it is too easy a way out for all of us. Society condemns murder but is willing to accept the murder of this man in the name of justice.”
Erik Nielsen, a Progressive Conservative MP from the Yukon would say of the death penalty quote:
The debate would last two months.
On July 14, 1976, by a free vote of 130 to 124 on Bill C-34, capital punishment was abolished in Canada. The free vote was criticized by some Members of Parliament. Robert Stanbury, a Liberal MP would say quote:
“I would have much preferred that the government had not only put forward a bill in the terms which met its convictions but that it stood by that bill and was prepared to stand or fall as a government on the way in which this House dealt with it. I feel that a free vote is in many ways an abdication of responsibility on the part of the government.”
Conservative MPs would state that Liberal back benchers voted for the bill, even though they may have opposed it, out of the worry it would keep them from a cabinet post.
John Diefenbaker would say quote:
“Anyone who tells me it was a free vote lives in a dream land.”
In the end, 98 of 135 Liberals voted for the bill. Of the 94 Progressive Conservatives, 16 voted for it and 76 voted against. All 16 New Democratic MPs voted for the bill and 10 of 11 Social Credit members voted for it.
At the time, roughly 75 per cent of Canadians favoured retaining capital punishment, even though there had not been an execution since 1962. At the time of the vote, 11 men were on death row.
Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau would state that the MPs who voted against the bill would have to share the responsibility if it was defeated and the 11 men were eventually put to death.
Allan Lawrence, a Progressive Conservative MP, would state quote:
“The country as a whole will rue the day this has happened.”
Oddly, despite his past support of abolishing the death penalty, former Prime Minister John Diefenbaker voted against the bill. He would say that he hoped quote:
“The result will not encourage those who wish to assassinate themselves into history.”
Diefenbaker would add that he opposed the bill because it did not retain hanging for crimes of treason or against the Queen.
Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau would state quote:
“I’m happy but I’ve got more work to do.”
For three men, that vote could not have come soon enough. They were scheduled to be hanged on July 17, which would now not happen.
It would receive Royal Assent on July 16, and came into force on July 26.
The last person to be sentenced to death in Canada was Mario Gauthier, who was sentenced on May 14, 1976 after he was convicted of killing a prison guard in Quebec. When Bill C-34 passed, reprieved of his capital punishment sentence.
That would not be the end of the capital punishment debate. Conservative MP Bill Domm would become one of the leading advocates in Canada for restoring the death penalty. Domm had been elected in 1979, and through the 1980s he raised it as an important issue. He would say of the matter quote:
Brian Mulroney would promise a free vote on capital punishment during the 1984 election, but he would speak out against the idea of reinstating the death penalty several times.
Domm would introduce a bill to bring back the death penalty in 1987.
From April 1987 to June 1987, nearly 90 MPs addressed the debate over the course of 40 hours.
On June 30, 1987 at 1 a.m., the bill to restore the death penalty to Canada was defeated in the House of Commons by a vote of 148-127. The debate drew hundreds to the House of Commons galleries, who broke out in applause when the result was announced.
The bill was introduced by the Progressive Conservatives but was opposed within the party by several prominent individuals including Minister of External Affairs Joe Clark and Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. Several prominent MPs favoured the death penalty including Deputy Prime Minister Don Mazankowski, Finance Minister Michael Wilson and Health Minister Jake Epp.
Mulroney would say quote:
“I believe capital punishment is repugnant and I believe it is profoundly unacceptable. It is wrong to take life and I can think of no circumstances excepting self-defence to justify it.”
NDP MP Nelson Riis would say of the division over the bill quote:
“If Bill Domm is the strongest person to lead your cause, well your strength is somewhat diminished. When you’ve got the Pope and the Prime Minister on your side, you’ve got a pretty strong case.”
Riis, who did not support the death penalty, would echo what had been said about the free vote in 1976, stating quote:
“If you’re a backbencher considering your political future, with whom do you throw your lot? The prime minister or Bill Domm?”
Progressive Conservative MP Albert Cooper would state his support of the death penalty, saying quote:
“There is a sense out there that the criminal has more rights than the victim that the punishment doesn’t fit the crime. There is a growing feeling of fear.”
Former Prime Minister John Turner and current Leader of the Opposition would state in his speech that television violence led to insecurity in society, which caused the boost in the polls for bringing back to the death penalty. He would state quote:
“We forget they are actors, that actors don’t die.”
In the vote, 79 Progressive Conservatives, all 30 NDP and 39 Liberals opposed the motion. It was supported by 125 Progressive Conservatives, one independent and one Liberal.
One person who showed up for the vote was Progressive Conservative MP Barry Moore. He had been in a serious car accident a week earlier, but he showed up in the House of Commons with broken ribs to vote against the death penalty. He earned a standing ovation for showing up to vote.
Prime Minister Mulroney would state quote:
“It’s an excellent day for Canada. It’s an excellent day for parliamentary democracy. I’m personally pleased but most of all I’m pleased by the system.”
Domm was disappointed in the defeat of the bill. He would state quote:
“I won’t be as disappointed as the 70 per cent of Canadians who favour capital punishment.”
In actuality, polls found 61 per cent of Canadians supported the death penalty, the lowest level since it was abolished in 1976.
He would lay some of the blame on his own party leader, Mulroney, stating that some MPs were quote:
“Persuaded by the prime minister’s speech.”
The death penalty continued to be enforced in the Canadian Armed Forces for traitorous acts such as desertion, cowardice, unlawful surrender and spying for the enemy but this was ended by Bill C-25 on Sept. 1, 1999.
Over the course of its existence from 1967 to 1976, 1,481 people were sentenced to death in Canada. Of those 710 were executed, 697 of which were men.
It is unlikely the death penalty will ever return to Canada. In 2012, a Toronto Sun poll found that while 66 per cent of Canadians favoured the death penalty, only 41 per cent would actually support its re-introduction into Canada.
Information from Canadian Encyclopedia, Macleans, Correction Service Canada, Wikipedia, CBC, Edmonton Journal, Ottawa Citizen, Saskatoon Star Phoenix, Montreal Gazette, Windsor Star, Alberni Valley Times, Nanaimo Times, North Bay Nugget, Fort McMurray Today, Kingston Whig Standard,