Death Penalty in Canada

Calls to abolish the death penalty in Canada go back to 1867. However, the most concerted efforts in Parliament for abolition can be said to have started with MP Robert Bickerdike in the early twentieth century. A long line of Prime Ministers openly opposed the death penalty. This began with John Diefenbaker and ended with Stephen Harper, who openly supported the death penalty. 

Does Canada have the death penalty?

The death penalty in Canada was abolished on December 10, 1998. On that date, all remaining references to the death penalty were removed from the National Defence Act – the only section of the law that, since 1976, still provided for execution under the law. Despite that, the last executions in Canada were made under the Criminal Code in 1962 when Ronald Turpin and Arthur Lucas were hanged at Toronto’s Don Jail. The last time the Canadian military had a legal execution was in 1945, when Harold Pringle was shot at dawn in Italy.

Since 1867, all civilian executions in Canada were conducted by hanging (military executions were traditionally by shooting). However, there were some experiments in variations of hanging methods in 1890. The traditional long drop was the standard until the death penalty abolition for ordinary crimes in 1976.

Death penalty legally blocked in Canada

In 2001, the Supreme Court decided in United States v. Burns that it would violate the constitution for Canada to extradite a prisoner who faced a death penalty where destined. In 2005, the Canadian government signed and ratified the Second Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. With no mechanism for withdrawal, this legally prevents any return of the death penalty in Canada.

Hamid Ghassemi-Shall death penalty

Canadians are at risk of the death penalty in foreign countries

As a fully abolitionist country, the only Canadians at risk of execution are in foreign countries. Presently, Canadians in Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United States are at risk of the death penalty.

In recent years the federal government has not made consistent efforts to prevent the execution of Canadians. While in some cases, such as Hamid Ghassemi-Shall or Canadian Resident Saeed Malekpour, the response has been open and strongly opposed to the death sentences. In others, notably Ronald Smith, the government has made little if any effort and sometimes only in response to a court judgment ordering effort.

Canada’s leadership on abolition crumbles

In recent years, Canada’s previous leadership in international efforts for abolition has crumbled. The long-time government policy to support efforts for clemency for Canadians who faced the death penalty was upended in 2007. Canada also reversed the previous practice of co-sponsorship of United Nations efforts for universal abolition.