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Abolition of the Death Penalty

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The abolition of the death penalty is a significant development in the advancement of human rights. Everyone's right to life is enshrined in Section 7 of our Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. This fundamental right is also enunciated in Article 3 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Article 6 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

The struggle for abolition of the death penalty was a long one and has always met with strong opposition. Although the first of many attempts at abolition was made as long ago as 1914, the erosion of the death penalty effectively began in 1961. At that time, the Diefenbaker government that had enacted the Canadian Bill of Rights a year earlier, introduced degrees of classification for murder under the Criminal Code. During the 1960s, death sentences were also being commuted at an unprecedented rate. In fact, the last execution in Canadian history was on December 11, 1962 when two people were hanged for murder. From this time forward, all death sentences were commuted by the government of the day.

The first serious discussion on the abolition of the death penalty did not take place until 1966. After days of parliamentary debate, a motion for abolition was ultimately rejected. It was after this defeat that in 1967, under Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson, the Government of Canada passed legislation temporarily suspending the death penalty for all crimes of murder except the killing of a police officer or a prison guard in the execution of their duties. During this trial period, all death sentences for murder were automatically commuted.

On December 29, 1972 the five-year moratorium ended. On May 29, 1973 another Bill was passed extending the moratorium for another five years. Before this suspension ended, the Government of Pierre Trudeau introduced Bill C-84 proposing the abolition of the death penalty. After another lengthy debate and a free vote in the House, the Bill was passed and became law on July 26, 1976. Parliament again reaffirmed its commitment to abolish the death penalty when a motion to reintroduce it was defeated during a free vote in the House of Commons in 1987.