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Five reasons to fear that the death penalty isn’t, well, dead

By Pieta Woolley

Here in Canada, the death penalty was abolished by Parliament in July, 1976 — exactly 40 years ago this summer. Then-Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s speech helped push through the close vote, at a time when most Canadians favoured capital punishment. Apart from Louis Riel’s famous execution by hanging in 1885, try naming one of the 710 Canadians put to death between 1867 and 1976. Indeed, 40 years is a long time ago.

What’s more, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau declared this February that Canada will no longer let citizens sit on death rows in other countries. So all of this can make it feel as though the death penalty is becoming historical — something that ignorant people used to do, but modern, educated people eschew outside countries like the United States. Certainly, as Alicia von Stomwitz points out in her Observer interview with Dead Man Walking author Sister Helen Prejean, there’s plenty to reject about the death penalty — especially if you’re a Christian.

Realistically, though, just because Canada doesn’t condone the death penalty presently doesn’t mean it won’t ever come back. Here are five reasons to fear that the death penalty isn’t really dead in Canada.

1. Most Canadians favour it

In July 2016, Abacus Data released a poll that shows 58 percent of Canadians and 59 percent of Americans believe that the death penalty is morally acceptable. Considering that the two countries have opposite approaches to the death penalty (it’s illegal in Canada, and legal and common in the U.S.), the moral similarity stings. Perhaps, though, if Canadians were actively executing prisoners, we would lose our stomach for it.

2. If Quebec separates, even more Canadians will favour it

Just 51 percent of Quebecers say they find the death penalty morally acceptable. That relatively low number depresses the pan-Canadian statistic of 58 percent. Sadly, Abacus didn’t release full regional results for the poll. But it reported that 63 percent of Albertans approve of the death penalty. So if Quebec separates, Parliament may find itself representing a population that overwhelmingly approves of the death penalty.

3. Emerging far right governments love it

Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte’s “tough on crime” campaign promise has resulted in nearly 1,000 executions of drug suspects by police in just three months. North Korea’s Kim Jong Un has reportedly executed 70 people since 2011 — seven times as many as his predecessor. And in the U.S., Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump, who has rarely mentioned the death penalty during his campaign, has strongly supported it in the past. Today, there are nearly 3,000 prisoners are on death row in America. Since January, 15 people have been executed by lethal injecting in the country.

Though the overall number of countries actively executing prisoners has plummeted to just 58, the swing to the right internationally doesn’t bode well for the trend.

4. 1976 didn’t kill it in Parliament — or in the media

Ending the death penalty in Canada took decades; the first Parliamentary attempt was in 1914. Similarly, reintroducing it may take decades and multiple efforts. In 1987, the House of Commons narrowly voted down a bill that would have reintroduced the death penalty. In 2012, the National Post’s letters editor asked if it was time to bring back the death penalty, and many wrote in to support it. Among the letters was this fairly representative snippet by Toronto’s Ron Fawcett: “Our permissive society has created an environment of violence and fear, marked by teenage rioting, sexual predation and brutal killings. Bringing back the death penalty for serial killers and those who kill women and children is the right thing to do.”

5. The usual pro-life arguments against it are not atheist-friendly 

Leaders in the anti-death movement have been Catholic for the most part — consider both Pierre Trudeau and Sister Helen Prejean. In the U.S., self-identified Christians are far less likely than “average” Americans to support the death penalty. Furthermore, Christian Millennials are half as likely (just 32 percent) than the average to support capital punishment. But the arguments of the sacredness of human life, the judgement of God and the commandment to not kill may not have much impact among non-Christians. So as religious affiliation continues to decline, will the appetite for capital punishment indeed surge?

Author's photo
Pieta Woolley is a writer in Powell River, B.C.
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