Canada’s Political Culture and its Influence on Capital Punishment
I. INTRODUCTION TO CANADA’S POLITCIAL CULTURE AND ITS INFLUENCE ON
LAWS PERTAINING TO CAPITAL PUNISHMENT
On July 14th, 1976, Bill C-84 was passed, which resulted in the abolition of
capital punishment in Canada. Capital punishment, also known as the death penalty, is
the killing of an individual who has been tried and convicted guilty of committing a
heinous crime. Ideologies surrounding the death penalty date back to 1772 B.C when
282 Babylonian laws titled The Code of Hammurabi, were constructed. The Code of
Hammurabi is where the “eye for an eye” theory of justice first resonated.
After Confederation in 1867, a revision of Canadian laws occurred and the death
penalty was only applicable to three types of offences: murder, rape and treason.
However, in 1976 the death penalty was abolished and replaced with mandatory life
sentence without the possibility of parole for 25 years. In order to bring military law and
civil law in line, capital punishment was also removed from the Canadian National
Defence Act in 1998.
The call for the abolition of the death penalty dates back to 1914 when MP Robert
Bickerdike presented a private member’s bill to end capital punishment. This bill was not
passed and was also rejected after several resubmissions (Renke and Gendreau, 2018).
Within the Canadian legal system, Canada’s political culture has a lasting
influence on legislation regarding capital punishment. Liberalistic ideologies such as
fundamental freedoms, the goals of the correctional system and the belief in learning
from past mistakes have ultimately shaped the ways that Canadians view capital
Opinions acknowledging the immorality of the death penalty have been discussed
within Canadian politics for over one hundred years. Laws pertaining to capital
punishment have transformed over the decades and there is no doubt that the evolution
of Canada’s political culture influenced this noteworthy change.
II. CANADA’S FUNDAMENTAL RIGHTS AND FREEDOMS:
Capital punishment was first removed from the Canadian Criminal Code in 1976,
but was fully abolished in 1998 when it was removed from the Canadian National
Defence Act. The Constitution Act, which includes the Charter of Rights and Freedoms,
holds an important role in Canada’s history. The Charter of Rights and freedoms outlines
important rights and freedoms that all Canadians are obligated to have. By creating
unification with military and civil law, Canada acknowledged the importance that the
Charter of Rights and Freedoms holds in order to create a fair and just society. When the
topic of reinstatement of the death penalty was brought to Parliament in 1987, majority
of members voted against this proposed bill.
The Constitution Act:
On April 17, 1982, under Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s Liberal government,
Canada’s Constitution Act was signed. This Act was established in order to create
independence from Britain and also includes the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which
outlines fundamental rights that all Canadian citizens obtain. Within the Charter, there
are several fundamental freedoms which are outlined:
“2. Everyone has the following fundamental freedoms:
(a) freedom of conscience and religion;
(b) freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the
press and other media of communication;
(c) freedom of peaceful assembly
(d) freedom of association”
(Canadian Charter, 1982, s 6(2)(b)).
The implementation of the Charter of Rights and freedoms has strengthened
human rights for all Canadians and created an environment where citizens feel safe and
welcome. The constitutionally protected right of freedom of conscience and religion
exemplifies the acknowledgment of the sense of morality that surrounds many religions.
Canada is not a country that has separation of church and state, as ideologies that
surround Christianity have immensely influenced Canada’s constitution and stance on
the death penalty.
A Reflection on Christianity:
In 1971, Canada was 47% Catholic, 41% Protestant, 4% other religion and 4%
unaffiliated (Pew Research Centre’s Religion & Public Life Project, 2018). Many pushed
for the abolition of the death penalty due to the belief that a human being does not have
the authority to take another human being’s life. Christianity is based on forgiveness and
compassion and many believe in God’s commandment of “Thou shalt not kill” (Exodus
21:13). This belief is also supported by many Canadians as it is believed that one cannot
punish a terrible act by ending the life of the person who has been charged. In Matthew
5:39, Jesus says, “But I tell you, don’t resist him who is evil; but whoever strikes you on
your right cheek, turn to him the other also”. The scripture can be interpreted as stating
that one should not retaliate against a person who has done them wrong by doing the
same act or worse. Many may argue that justice is being served to those who commit
these heinous crimes, but Catholic teachings express that ending one’s life after another
taken is revenge, and does not bring justice to the life lost. Throughout history,
politicians began to possess similar beliefs, thus creating a change within the Criminal
Code in 1976. All in all, it is evident that Christian ideologies have influenced many
opinions and decisions made regarding capital punishment.
The Question of Morality:
Morality is centralized around the knowledge of what is right and what is wrong.
Albert Camus, a french philosopher stated, “Capital punishment is the most premeditated
of murders” (Wiseoldsayings.com, 2018). Through the understanding of morality, public
hangings were changed to private hangings, lethal injection was established and then
capital punishment was abolished all together. While the death penalty historically was
praised for serving “justice,” the concept receives scrutiny due to the fact that justice is
not being served at all. Many believe that God or a greater being should only be given
the power to give and take lives. It is unjust for a human being to have the ability to
choose if another human being deserves to live or die. People cannot hold themselves to
the same standard as a god and make impactful decisions. As a society, it is not our duty
to choose who deserves life, as this is immoral and wrong.
III. THE GOALS OF THE CORRECTIONAL SYSTEM:
In 1892, the Criminal Code of Canada was enacted by Parliament within the
Constitution. The Code outlines the purpose and principles of sentencing within the
Canadian legal system. Minor revisions have been made to the Criminal Code in 1906,
1927 and 1953.
The Criminal Code:
The Criminal Code serves an important purpose as it outlines punishments for
crimes, sentencing options and youth sentencing. An important aspect of The Criminal
Code is the principles of sentencing. The Criminal Code states:
“The fundamental purpose of sentencing is to protect society and to contribute,
along with crime prevention initiatives, to respect for the law and the
maintenance of a just, peaceful and safe society by imposing just sanctions that
have one or more of the following objectives
(a) to denounce unlawful conduct and the harm done to victims or to the
community that is caused by unlawful conduct;
(b) to deter the offender and other persons from committing offences;
(c) to separate offenders from society, where necessary;
(d) to assist in rehabilitating offenders;
(e) to provide reparations for harm done to victims or to the community; and
(f) to promote a sense of responsibility in offenders, and acknowledgment of the
harm done to victims or to the community”
Over the years, many began to realize that capital punishment failed to meet the
commitment of the Criminal Code, as those who committed crimes were not
rehabilitated and crime rates were still skyrocketing. One of the main objections with
sentencing is to not provide a sense of “revenge,” but to rehabilitate criminals in order
for them to lead civilized lives in prison, and within society if they are released. After
abolishing the death penalty, a change in legislation was made on April 1, 2003 that
continues to impact the youth across Canada. The Youth Criminal Justice Act was
implemented in order to emphasize the importance of rehabilitation for youth aged
twelve to eighteen. Repercussions are given to youth who commit crimes, however the
major focus is rehabilitation in order for the youth to become civilized adults who are
able to re-enter society and serve a purpose. Since the implementation of this Act, the
number of youth in custody has greatly decreased (Refer to Index, Chart 1). Correctional
Services Canada states that rehabilitation is a priority as there are different programs
created that help rehabilitate men, women and those of aboriginal descent (Csc-
Decrease in Crime Rates:
According to Statistics Canada, Canada’s crime rates have been decreasing over
the past two decades. From 1962 to 1991, the crime rate began to increase steadily but
then drastically declined. In 2013, crime was reported to be at its all-time low since 1969
(Refer to Index, Chart 2). There is no doubt that the abolition of capital punishment has
led to decreased crime rates, as life sentences encourage individuals to rethink
committing heinous crimes due to the extensive time that will be spent in prison.
Through the evaluation of the Criminal Code, the emphasis on rehabilitation and
the decrease in crime rates, it is evident that the death penalty contradicts the political
values that has shaped Canada into the liberalistic country that it is.
IV. REFLECTING ON HISTORIC ERROR:
It is important to reflect on historic events in order to plan for a future without
reoccurring issues. According to Correctional Services Canada, the main goals of the
correctional system is to protect and serve society (Csc-scc.gc.ca, 2018). The system also
fights to protect those who are innocent in order to avoid wrongful convictions. Several
miscarriages of justice have tarnished the reputation of the Canadian justice system.
Canada works towards implementing a just society where wrongful conviction does not
occur and human rights are applied to all citizens.
Causes of Wrongful Conviction:
Within the past, there were many wrongful convictions in Canada that have
placed innocent individuals on death row for years. Not only does this waste away years
of a person’s life, but it also ends the investigation of the crime. This causes actual
criminals to remain free and potentially commit more crimes. There are many causes of
wrongful conviction, such as eye witness identification errors, false jailhouse informant
testimonies, false confessions, tunnel vision, systemic discrimination, errors within
forensic science and professional misconduct (Aidwyc.org, 2018). When wrongful
convictions are exonerated, it costs the government millions of dollars to compensate the
innocent individual. We do not know if all people who were executed in the past were in
fact guilty. Innocence Canada, an organization committed to exonerating those who were
wrongfully accused has successfully exonerated 21 individuals. If the death penalty was
in action, these 21 people may have been put to death for a crime they did not commit.
The Last Hangings in Canada:
Interestingly enough, one of the last hangings in Canada raises an extensive
amount of doubt regarding guilt. Arthur Lucas and Ronald Turpin were the last men
executed in Canada in 1963. Criminal-turned-police informant, Therland Crater and
prostitute, Carolyn Newman were found brutally murdered in a home in Toronto. Lucas
was tried for Crater’s murder in front of an all white jury and although he knew Crater,
evidence was circumstantial and the witness was unreliable. Lucas’ hanging became a
near decapitation and for years there was no media coverage regarding this incident.
Being one of the last hangings in Canada, we do not know if Lucas was truly guilty or
R. v. Steven Murray Truscott:
A notable wrongful conviction that occurred in Canada was the case of R. v.
Steven Murray Truscott. Steven Truscott was a fourteen year old boy who was convicted
of murdering a young girl named Lynne Harper. On the evening of June 9, 1959, Steven
gave Lynne Harper a ride to a street corner on his bicycle and then parted ways. Two
days later the body of Harper was found brutally murdered, sexually assaulted and
strangled in the nearby woods. The Crown’s theory was that Truscott did not drop her
off, but raped and murdered her instead. Steven always insisted that he was innocent,
but was tried for the murder and sentenced to death by hanging. He applied for an
appeal that was denied, however he was able to receive a sentence of life in prison
instead of the death penalty. After ten years of incarceration, he was released on parole.
Truscott fought for nearly fifty years in order to clear his name of this charge. Factors
including lack of DNA evidence, eyewitness identification error and misconduct from the
prosecution team ultimately led to Truscott’s falsified conviction. Fresh evidence was
presented to the courts proved that Truscott was innocent. After spending half a century
as an innocent man who was stigmatized as a deranged rapist and murderer, the Ontario
government recognized Truscott’s wrongful conviction in 2008. They grated him $6.5
million in order to compensate for his time spent in prison alongside the negative
connotation associated with his name (Innocence Canada, 2018). Even so, monetary
compensation cannot heal all wounds. If Truscott was not granted life in prison instead
of the death sentence, he too would have been one of many innocent men put to death
for a crime he did not commit.
Canada is a country that often apologizes for errors made within the past in order
to move forward towards a better future. The abolition of the death penalty has helped
create a just society where individuals cannot potentially be executed for a crime they
did not commit. Through the evolution of the laws regarding capital punishment, it is
evident that Canada’s liberalistic ideal of reflecting on the past for a better future has
impacted the decision to abolish the death penalty.
V. CONCLUSION: CANADA’S POLITCIAL CULTURE AND ITS INFLUENCE ON LAWS
PERTAINING TO CAPITAL PUNISHMENT
Attitudes, beliefs and ideologies create meaning and order for political processes.
These ideologies influence the creation of laws, which govern the political system
(Encyclopedia.com, 2018). When Bill C-84 was passed on July 14th, 1976, the laws
pertaining to capital punishment in Canada changed forever.
Canada’s political culture influenced the abolition of the death penalty and the later
creation of the Constitution Act and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. These
fundamental freedoms are apart of Canada’s belief in justice and human rights. As well,
ethical, philosophical and religious values have raised many doubts regarding capital
punishment. Ideologies surrounding the death penalty have shaped the laws regarding
capital punishment through the evaluation of morality. Through the reflection of historic
error, the Canadian government has created laws and legislation in order to avoid
wrongful conviction and promote rehabilitation.
Through the expansion and influence of political culture in Canada, many
ideologies have influenced change that will forever mark Canada’s history. Liberalistic
ideals such as fundamental freedoms, the goals of the correctional system and the belief
in learning from historic error have changed the ideologies surrounding capital
punishment. The influence of Canada’s political culture abolished the death penalty and
put capital punishment behind us. While the justice system began with the saying, “An
eye for an eye,” it has greatly evolved. As Mahatma Gandhi said, “An eye for an eye for
an eye makes the whole world blind.” The importance of fairness, peace, justice, and
equality are important subjects that Canada vows to sustain within society.