The death penalty, commonly referred to as capital punishment, is a legal sanction that imposes death as a punishment for certain crimes deemed egregious or heinous enough to warrant such a severe penalty by the state. However, Canada has a unique (and arguably progressive) stance on the death penalty, as it abolished capital punishment many years ago, citing humanitarian reasons.
At present, following the implementation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, the death penalty would breach a person’s section 12 rights against cruel or unusual treatment or punishment. The use of the death penalty has been abolished in Canada and has subsequently not occurred since 1962. Many human rights groups and organizations have vehemently opposed the application of the death penalty.
It should be noted that, although there has been overwhelming support and legislation to block/prevent the reinstatement of the death penalty in Canada (detailed below), many may find it surprising that according to a 2023 online survey by research co., more than half of (approximately 53 percent) Canadians in a national sample indicated support for capital punishment on murder convictions. This is notably lower than the United States, where according to pew research, the death penalty is supported approximately 60% of the time for murder convictions.
The use of capital punishment/ the death penalty may often be discussed during political discourse. Although it remains abolished in Canada, the discussions surrounding the concerns of its application, and the humanitarian efforts put forth by advocates against the death penalty are important to discuss to remember its history, as well as maintain awareness on this topic.
What is the Death Penalty?
The death penalty, commonly referred to as capital punishment, is a punishment that is legally sanctioned by some jurisdictions/governments, that consists of the killing of the offender responsible for the crime as punishment for committing a serious (and oftentimes) violent crimes, such as murder, and treason. It is sanctioned in some specific states/locations within the United States of America, but not in Canada.
The death penalty is described as a cruel, inhuman, and degrading method of punishment. It is opposed by amnesty international. The ethical and human rights issues raised by hundreds of advocacy groups globally opposing implications of capital punishment have resulted in significant debate worldwide.
The methods of application of the death penalty have varied throughout jurisdictions, however in Canada, the application by hanging was used. In the United States, there are various methods used.
Does Canada Have the Death Penalty?
No, Canada no longer has the death penalty as punishment for convictions of serious criminal offences. Therefore, you cannot be sentenced to death in Canada. The death penalty in Canada was fully abolished on December 10, 1998 (as per amnesty international). As described above, the last time the death penalty was applied in Canada was in 1962.
As also described above, the implementation of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms in 1982 further supports that the death penalty would breach a person’s section 12 rights against cruel or unusual treatment or punishment.
The death penalty in Canada was abolished for applications to civilians (non-military citizens) in 1976 as a result of Bill c-84, and in 1998 was fully abolished from use in a military context (treason etc).
What is the history of capital punishment in Canada?
Capital punishment has a complex history in Canada. Prior to 1867, each province and territory had the authority to determine its own approach to the death penalty. In 1865, the Canadian government centralized the death penalty under federal jurisdiction, providing a more consistent approach to capital punishment. From 1867 to the elimination of capital punishment, 1481 people had been sentenced to death, and 710 of them had been executed (697 men, 13 women).
In 1976, Bill C-84 resulted in the abolition of the death penalty, replacing capital murder with first-degree murder, which carried a life sentence of 25 years imprisonment. Although the death penalty remained in law under the National Defence Act for serious offences such as treason, the death penalty was later eliminated for these military offences as well. Among other humanitarian reasons for abolishing the death penalty was the concerns over wrongful convictions.
The 1959 wrongful conviction of teenager Steven Truscott was a significant factor in creating public opinion nationally to oppose to use of the death penalty and toward the outright abolition. In short, Truscott was sentenced to death for the murder of a classmate, and his sentence was later changed to that of a life sentence. However, in 2007, he was fully acquitted of the charges. What could have been the loss of an innocent life cannot be overstated, and fears about wrongful convictions, concerns about the state taking people’s lives, and uncertainty about the death penalty’s role as a deterrent for crime remain valid reasons why many people remain opposed to the death penalty.
Death Penalty Legally Blocked in Canada
In 2001, the Supreme Court ruled (US v Burns) to violate the constitution for Canada to extradite a prisoner who faced the death penalty in another country. The abolition of the death penalty in Canada resulted from changing societal values, evolving human rights perspectives, and concerns about the risk of wrongful convictions. Today, the Canadian government officials have been unwavering and firmly committed to the protection of human rights and the principle that every individual has the right to life and security. In fact, in 2005, the Canadian federal government ratified the second optional protocol of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), legally preventing any return of the death penalty in Canada.
Can a Canadian Be Sentenced to the Death Penalty Abroad?
Yes. Although Canada does not have the death penalty domestically as described above, Canadian citizens can face the death penalty if they are charged with capital offences in other countries. The Canadian government is actively involved in advocating against the imposition of the death penalty on its citizens abroad and works to ensure fair trials and due process for those facing serious charges.
However, it is prudent to be mindful of the laws and legislation of different jurisdictions when travelling internationally. Countries such as (including but not limited to) the United States, China, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Egypt, Afghanistan, Japan, and Kuwait, continue to use the death penalty. The death penalty is currently authorized in 27 (of 50) states in the US.
What are the most serious penalties for a crime in Canada?
In Canada, the most serious penalties for crimes are imprisonment, including life imprisonment, for offences such as murder, treason, and other crimes deemed most serious based on the length of incarceration in sentencing. The criminal justice system focuses on rehabilitation, deterrence, and protection of the public, rather than resorting to the death penalty as a punishment. It is through this humanitarian lens that the death penalty has been abolished.
It should be noted that section 745 of the Criminal Code is known as the “faint hope clause.” The section originally applied to offenders sentenced to life imprisonment without parole eligibility for 15 years or more; as well as offenders convicted of high treason or first-degree murder who were not eligible for parole for 25 years; and offenders convicted of second-degree murder, whose parole eligibility is set between 10 and 25 years. Under the original faint hope clause, an offender who served 15 years of a life sentence could apply to the chief justice of the province where he or she was convicted for a reduction of his or her parole eligibility period. The chief justice then designated a superior court judge to impanel a 12-member jury to hear and determine the application.
The fact that the federal government of Canada took the appropriate measures to abolish the death penalty over four decades ago, reflects an unwavering commitment to human rights, justice, and the safeguarding/valuing of human life. This is largely in part of efforts which have created awareness and subsequently recognized the potential for wrongful convictions and the irreparable harm that capital punishment can inflict. At present, Canada is often viewed as a global leader in various humanitarian efforts, and the progressive legislation implemented abolishing capital punishment long ago supports this. Moreover, the government of Canada’s position by ratifying international agreements, as well as positions against extraditing those who may be facing the death penalty, shows its commitment to the abolition of the death penalty globally and works to protect its citizens from facing capital punishment abroad. Instead of the death penalty, the Canadian justice system relies on imprisonment as the most severe punishment for serious crimes, emphasizing rehabilitation, deterrence, and public safety. The abolition of the death penalty demonstrates Canada’s staunch advocacy and unwavering commitment to upholding human rights and fostering a just and compassionate society that strikes a proper balance between public safety, rehabilitation, and reintegration for offenders.