Death Penalty in Canada

In 1976, death penalty was done away with in Canada and instead replaced with a life sentence that is mandatory and 25 years of no possible parole for those that have committed first degree murder. Subsequently, Canadian military law was aligned with Canadian civil law when capital punishment was banished from the National Defense Act of Canada in 1998(Chandler, 1976). This, paper will focus on the history of the death penalty in Canada, how it all started, the reasons why one would be convicted to it, as well as, how it was removed and the reasons for its removal.


The removal of the death sentence was an important event in the progression of human rights in Canada. According to the Canadian Charter of rights and freedoms, in section 7, everyone has a right to life. This right is also enshrined in several other legal documents. For a long time, Canadians struggled against the death penalty and their efforts were always met with much resistance and opposition. This is evident due to the fact that several attempts to have it removed were made from as early as 1914 but efforts to do away with it effectively started in 1961. This penalty in Canada had its origins in 1759 when Canada was a British colony. Prior to the abolition of the death penalty in Canada, a total of 1481 people had been sentenced to die, and 710 had been executed and out of these were 13 women and 697 men. The method that was used to execute the death penalty was hanging with Ronald Turpin and Arthur Lucas being the last two people to be executed in Canada. The two had been convicted of murder and as they awaited their execution, they could hear shouts of protests against what the citizens termed as “public murder”. We therefore realize that it took much lobbying by the citizens of Canada before the death penalty could be abolished.

History of Death Penalty in Canada

In the year 1749, a sailor named Peter Cartcel wounded two men and stabbed a man by the name Abraham to death. When he was brought before the captain’s court and found guilty, he was sentenced to murder by hanging and this was done as a warning to the rest. This is probably the oldest account of capital punishment and where it all started for Canada. However, reliable records of similar executions can only be traced back to 1867.In 1865, crimes of treason, rape, and murder would receive a death penalty in both lower and upper Canada. This was reached after the statutes were revised, thus reducing the offences to these three. Things were taking a turn for the better for Canadian offenders as subsequently in 1868, the parliament ruled that public hangings would no longer take place and such activities would only take place within the prison confines. The very high gallows that had been built then were brought down to the level of the prison walls by the 1870s.However, after much protest against this sentence, murder was then categorized into non- capital and capital offences in 1961(Kropf, 2007).

Capital offences of murder then included pre planned murder and the murder of a prison guard or police officer while executing their duties. 1962 was the year when the last executions took place in Canada at the Don Jail in Toronto and at the same time, a heated demonstration was happening just outside the prison. The last two people to be convicted were Robert Turpin who was convicted for the murder of a police officer which was unpremeditated while avoiding arrest and Athur Lucas who was executed for the murder of a witness in a case concerning drugs. Since that time, Canada kept reducing the number of crimes that were punishable by death. In 1963, an attempt to abolish capital punishment through a bill in parliament was unsuccessful after being defeated. About three years later, there was a great debate concerning the death penalty in parliament. The house leader of the Liberal Government; George Mcilraith tried to introduce a bill replacing capital punishment with life imprisonment but it was also defeated.

Eventually in 1976, the death penalty was banished from the Criminal Code of Canada and instead replaced by a life sentence that was mandatory and which also was without a possibility of parole for the first 25 years for all murders of the first degree. This bill was passed in the House of Commons through a free vote. However, the death penalty still existed in the National Defense Act of Canada for the very deadly offences of the military such as mutiny and treason. In 1998, Canada also made a huge step and removed capital punishment from the National Defense Act. Through the years, the issue continued to ignite heated debates especially from wrongful convictions and serial killers(Institute, 1987). There was a debate to reintroduce the death penalty in 1987 in the House of Commons, it was however defeated through a free vote. Later in 1988, the National Defence Act of Canada was aligned with the civil law by removing the death penalty from it(Schabas, 2002).

Since then, Canada has been active in saying no to capital punishment in the recent past, and has even gone to the extent of opposing requests from the US for extraditions unless the latter provides an assurance that the death penalty will not be sought by their executors. Until recently, the federal government of Canada was in the habit of requesting for clemency on behalf of Canadians convicted abroad. However, in 2007, Stephen Harper’s government instituted a change in procedure and as a result, a statement was made by the public minister to the effect that Canada would no longer actively pursue the restoration of those Canadians who had been tried in foreign democratic states and were facing death sentences. This was in response to enquiries regarding Ronald Smith’s case, who was a Canadian on death row in the United States of America and now awaits death induced through a lethal injection for the murder of two men.As a result of this decision by the Canadian authorities, harsh reactions emanated from Amnesty International as they were displeased by the fact that Canada had softened its stand on capital punishment(Kropf, 2007).The decision has further put the Canadian government under criticism from various stakeholders and there has been an argument that withdrawal of support for Smith is a Breach of fairness. The Federal Court has since ruled that the government should ensure that they defend Smith and ensure that the sentence is commuted.

The main reasons why capital punishment was banned in Canada include concerns raised as to how ethical it is for the state to take people’s lives, wrongful convictions, and the fact that it’s not certain that a death punishment is actually effective in curbing crime(Schabas, 2002). A death punishment is an end in itself, not a means to an end. In a very emotional ruling in 1979, Steven Truscott; a 14 year old was convicted of murdering a classmate and though the sentence was later reduced to life imprisonment, the case acted as one of the reasons why capital punishment was abolished in Canada (Institute, 1987).

Sociological perspective on death penalty

In the recent past, the general public support for the capital punishment including death penalty has been conceptualized and the main finding is that the fear of crime is the main reason why the public are supporting death penalty. However, the perception of society about the increasing crime rates and their general beliefs of the roles played by punishment as way to deter crime have not changed (Hoenack & William, 1980). Death penalty is still frowned upon by the public and the is the same reaction that the society has despite knowing the efficacy of punishments. This means that the society still believes that depth penalty may not be the right response to criminality. Never the less, Hoenack & William, (1980).argues that in as much as there is a simple correlation between the number of executions and decrease in the number of criminal murders, the purpose of death penalty is to kill not to correct criminally or deter crime (Thomas & Foster, 1975)

From the sociological perspective, death penalty causes the fear of punishment, but does not deter the criminal from committing crime. In most case, sociopath and psychopaths commit murders; this means that once the criminals have decided to commit crime, they will not be stopped. No amount of punishment can stop psychopaths from committing crimes. Capi8tal punishment constitutes cruel and unusual punishment because it violates the original reasoning behind punishments (Thomas & Foster, 1975)

According to (French, 2007), punitiveness and the general desire by the public for revenge is the main driver of the society’s reason to support capital punishments. To the government, it is in line with the long-standing political conservatism and authoritarianism. Despite all these, the society’s desire for vengeance is short term as the remorse in the end contributes to the low esteem in tee part of scholars and other research communities. It is difficult to quantify the punishment just the same way it is difficult to practice restriction when applying capital punishments. This also contributes to the citizen response to this form of punishments. It is important for the government, policy makers and other stakeholders to research the reason for low esteem in relation to capital punishment (French, 2007)


Inconclusion, I feel that Canada should be commended for the steps the nation has taken over the years to abolish capital punishment. It is the duty of the state to protect its people, and safeguard their rights and it would therefore be ironic that the same state would be the one denying citizens of their right life through extremely inhumane means. In addition, the main reason why people are punished is so that they can reform, however, if their lives are ended in the course of punishment, then they do not have a chance to change their ways or even become better citizens. When this happens, punishment loses its meaning. Therefore, I still strongly feel that Canada should not soften their stand even when it comes to protecting Canadians sentenced elsewhere from capital punishment. The battle that has been fought to end the death penalty in Canada has been relentless, and it is therefore not the time for the state or its citizens to give up on this noble cause.


BIBLIOGRAPHY Chandler, D. B. (1976). Capital Punishment in Canada: A Sociological Study of Repressive Law. McGill-Queen’s Press.

French, L. A. (2007). Boundary maintenance and capital punishment: A sociological perspective. Behav. Sci. Law , 5: 423–432. doi: 10.1002/bsl.2370050406.

Hoenack, ,. S., & William, W. (1980). A structural model of murder behavior and the criminal justice system. American Economic Review , 70, 327—41.

Institute, U. N. (1987). The Death Penalty: A Bibliographical Research. Italy: Unite Nations Publication.

Kropf, J. (2007). A Matter of Deep Personal Conscience": The Canadian Death-penalty Debate, 1957-1976. Canada: Carleton University.

Schabas, W. A. (2002). The Abolition of the Death Penalty in International Law.New York: The Press Syndicate of the University of Cambrdige.

Thomas, ,. C., & Foster, S. C. (1975). A sociological perspective on public support for capital punishment. Am J Orthopsychiatry , ;45(4):641-57.


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