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Capital punishment in Canada dates back to 1759, in its days as a British colony. Before Canada eliminated the death penalty for murder on July 14, 1976, 1,481 people were sentenced to death, with 710 executed. Of those executed, 697 were men and 13 were women. The only method used in Canada for capital punishment of civilians after the end of the French regime was hanging. The last execution in Canada was the double hanging of Arthur Lucas and Ronald Turpin on December 11, 1962, at Toronto's Don Jail.
On June 30, 1987, a bill to restore the death penalty was defeated by the House of Commons in a close 148-127 vote, in which Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, Minister of Justice Ray Hnatyshyn and Minister of External Affairs Joe Clark opposed the bill, whereas Deputy Prime Minister Donald Mazankowski and a majority of Progressive Conservative MPs supported it.
In 1749, Peter Cartcel, a sailor aboard a ship in the Halifax harbour, stabbed Abraham Goodsides to death and wounded two other men. He was brought before a Captain's Court where he was found guilty and sentenced to death. Two days later he was hanged from the yardarm of the vessel as a deterrent to others. This is one of the earliest records of capital punishment in Canada. However, it is difficult to accurately state numbers of capital punishment since there were no systematic efforts to accurately record names, dates, and locations of executions until after 1867 and many records have been forever lost owing to fires, floods, or decay.
After Confederation, a revision of the statutes reduced the number of offences to only three general offences that were punishable by death: murder, rape, and treason. In 1868, Parliament also stated that the location of the execution was to be within the confines of the prison, as opposed to the public hangings in the past. As a result, by the 1870s, the jails had begun to build the gallows five feet from the ground with a pit underneath instead of the previous high scaffold, built level with the prison wall.
In 1950, an attempt was made to abolish capital punishment. Mr. W. Ross Thatcher, at that time a Cooperative Commonwealth Federation Member of Parliament, moved Bill No. 2 in order to amend the Criminal Code to abolish the death penalty. However, Thatcher later withdrew it for fear of Bill No. 2 not generating positive discussion and further harming the chances of abolishment. In 1956, the Joint Committee of the House and Senate recommended the retention of capital punishment as the mandatory punishment for murder, which opened the door to the possibility of abolition
In 1961, legislation was introduced to reclassify murder into capital or non-capital offences. A capital murder involved a planned or deliberate murder, murder during violent crimes, or the murder of a police officer or prison guard. Only capital murder carried the death sentence.
Following the success of Lester Pearson and the Liberal Party in the 1963 federal election, and through the successive governments of Pierre Trudeau, the federal cabinet commuted all death sentences as a matter of policy. Hence, the de facto abolition of the death penalty in Canada occurred in 1963, with legal abolition a formality. On November 30, 1967, Bill C-168 was passed creating a five-year moratorium on the use of the death penalty, except for murders of police and corrections officers. On January 26, 1973, after the expiration of the five-year experiment, the Solicitor General of Canada continued the partial ban on capital punishment, which would eventually lead to the abolition of capital punishment. On July 14, 1976, Bill C-84 was passed by a narrow margin of 130:124 in a free vote, resulting in the de jure abolition of the death penalty, except for certain offences under the National Defence Act. These were removed in 1998.
First-degree murder, which before abolition was the offence of capital murder, now carries a mandatory life sentence without eligibility for parole until the person has served 25 years of the sentence.
The last woman to be hanged in Canada was Marguerite Pitre on January 9, 1953, for her part in the Albert Guay affair.
The last person sentenced to death was Mario Gauthier on May 14, 1976, for the murder of a prison guard in Quebec. He was reprieved as capital punishment was abolished for all common crimes on July 14 the same year.
During the First World War, 25 Canadian soldiers were executed. Most were shot for service offences such as desertion and cowardice, but two executions were for murder. For details of these see List of Canadian soldiers executed during World War I.
One Canadian soldier, Pte. Harold Pringle, was executed during the Second World War for murder.
John Radclive was Canada's first professional executioner, placed on the federal payroll as a hangman by a Dominion order-in-council in 1892, on the recommendation of the justice minister Sir John Thompson: Radclive had trained under British hangman William Marwood. He can be shown to have hanged at least 69 people in Canada, although his life total was probably much higher. At his death, the Toronto Telegram said he had 150 executions. He died of alcohol-related illness in Toronto on February 26, 1911, at the age of 55.
Arthur Ellis was the pseudonym of Arthur B. English, a British man who became Canada's official hangman in 1913, after Radclive's death. Ellis worked as a hangman in Canada until the botched execution of Thomasina Sarao in Montreal in 1935, in which she was decapitated. He died in poverty in Montreal in July, 1938, and lies buried in the Mount Royal Cemetery.
The executioner who worked as Camille Blanchard, a pseudonym, succeeded Ellis. Blanchard was on the Quebec government payroll as a hangman, and executed people elsewhere in the country on a piecework basis. The hangman was traditionally based in Montreal where between 1912 and 1960 the gallows at Bordeaux Prison saw more executions (85) take place than any other correctional facility in Canada.
Blanchard carried out many executions (for which he was not paid) in the postwar period in Canada, such as the double hanging of Leonard Jackson and Steven Suchan of the Boyd Gang at the Don Jail in 1952, and Robert Raymond Cook's execution in Fort Saskatchewan, Alberta, in 1960.
The first method of hanging was "hoisting" in which a rope would be thrown over a beam and the convicted person would then be hoisted into the air by others pulling on the rope. The slip knot would then tightly close around the neck until strangulation. A variation of this included the person with a rope around their neck to stand on a cart and then it would be pushed from under them. This led to the development of suspension in which "the drop" caused by jerking something from underneath the offender became the main component of the execution. Executioners experimented with the length of the rope for the drop. They specifically began to discover new ways of causing instant death upon hanging. In 1872, the length of a drop extended to nearly five-feet which dislocated the neck perfectly. Almost one year later, the length of the drop was extended to seven feet.
The majority of offenders put to death by Canadian civilian authorities were executed by the "long drop" technique of hanging developed in the United Kingdom by William Marwood. This method ensured that the prisoner's neck was broken instantly at the end of the drop, resulting in the prisoner dying of asphyxia while unconscious, which was considered more humane than the slow death by strangulation which often resulted from the previous "short drop" method. The short drop sometimes gave a period of suffering before death finally took place.
Early in his career, John Radclive persuaded several sheriffs in Ontario and Quebec to let him use an alternative method in which the condemned person was jerked into the air. A gallows of this type was used for the execution of Robert Neil at Toronto's Don Jail on February 29, 1888:
The old plan of a "drop" was discarded for a more merciful machine, by which the prisoner is jerked up from a platform on the ground level by a weight of 280 lbs, which is suspended by an independent rope pending the execution … At the words 'Forgive us our trespasses,' the executioner drove his chisel against the light rope that held the ponderous iron at the other end of the noose, and in an instant the heavy weight fell with a thud, and the pinioned body was jerked into the air and hung dangling between the rough posts of the scaffold.
The hanging of Reginald Birchall in Woodstock, Ont. in November 1890 seems to be the last time a device of this kind was used. Radclive had first been exposed to executions as a Royal Navy seaman helping with shipboard hangings of pirates in the South China Sea, and it is possible he was trying to approximate something similar to hanging a man on a ship's yardarm. After Birchall's hanging, Radclive used the traditional long drop method, as did his successors.
While hanging was a relatively humane method of execution under ideal conditions with an expert executioner, mistakes could happen. Condemned prisoners were decapitated by accident at Headingley Jail in Manitoba and Bordeaux Jail in Montreal, and a prisoner at the Don Jail in Toronto hit the floor of the room below and was strangled by the hangman.
Some Canadian jails - such as those in Toronto and Ottawa, Ontario; Headingley, Manitoba; and Fort Saskatchewan, Alberta - had permanent indoor execution facilities, but more typically offenders were hanged on a scaffold built for the occasion in the jail yard.
Military prisoners sentenced to death under Canadian Military Law were shot by a firing squad.
Among the reasons cited for banning capital punishment in Canada were 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. The 1959 conviction of 14-year-old Steven Truscott was a significant impetus (although certainly not the only one) toward the abolition of capital punishment. Truscott was sentenced to death for the murder of a classmate. His sentence was later commuted to a life sentence and in 2007 he was acquitted of the charges.
According to one poll, support for the death penalty in Canada is actually approximately the same as its support in the United States, at 63 percent in both countries as of 2013.
The Supreme Court of Canada, in the case United States v. Burns, (2001), determined that Canada should not extradite condemned persons, unless they have assurances that the foreign state will not apply the death penalty, essentially overruling Kindler v. Canada (Minister of Justice), (1991). This is similar to the extradition policies of other nations such as Germany, France, the Netherlands, Spain, Italy, the United Kingdom, Israel, Mexico, Colombia and Australia, which also refuse to extradite prisoners who may be condemned to death.
In November 2007, Canada's minority Conservative government reversed a longstanding policy of automatically requesting clemency for Canadian citizens sentenced to capital punishment. The ongoing case of Alberta-born Ronald Allen Smith, who has been on death row in the United States since 1982 after being convicted of murdering two people and who continues to seek calls for clemency from the Canadian government, prompted Canadian Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day to announce the change in policy. Day has stated that each situation should be handled on a case-by-case basis. Smith's case resulted in a sharp divide between the Liberals and the Conservatives, with the Liberals passing a motion declaring that the government "should stand consistently against the death penalty, as a matter of principle, both in Canada and around the world." However, an overwhelming majority of Conservatives supported the change in policy.