Death Penalty in Canada

Canada has been a fully abolitionist country since the 10th of December 1998.

On that date all remaining references to the death penalty were removed from the National Defence Act – the only section of law that since 1976 still provided for execution under the law. Despite that, that last executions in Canada were made under the Criminal Code, in 1962 when Ronald Turpin and Arthur Lucas were both 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), though there were some experiments in variations of hanging methods in 1890 the traditional long drop was the standard until abolition of the death penalty for ordinary crimes in 1976.

Calls to abolish the death penalty go back to well before Canada’s establishment in 1867 however the most concerted efforts in Parliament for abolition can be said to have started with Robert Bickerdike, MP in the early twentieth century. A long line of Prime Ministers openly opposed to the death penalty began with John Dieffenbakker and ended only with Stephen Harper who has openly supported the death penalty.  In 2001 the Supreme Court decided in Burns that it would be a violation of 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.

Canadians are at risk of execution in foreign countries

Hamid Ghassemi-Shall death penalty

As a fully abolitionist country, the only Canadians at risk of execution are in foreign countries. Presently there are Canadians in Iran, Saudi Arabia and the United States that continue to be 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 at times only in response to a court judgement ordering effort.

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