Q&A: Capital Punishment in Canada, Revisited

  • by Aprille Muscara (new york)
  • Saturday, August 28, 2010
  • Inter Press Service

David Daubney, former parliamentarian and current chair of Penal Reform International, was instrumental in the defeat of the motion.

In the run-up to the motion's vote, Daubney published an article detailing five key reasons why he would vote against the restoration of the death penalty.

In an interview with IPS, Daubney looks back at the historic moment when his country came dangerously close to reintroducing what Amnesty International calls 'the ultimate denial of human rights.'

Q: What kind of reactions did you get when you published that article? A: The article, which highlighted the main points of my 20- minute speech in the House on Jun. 5, 1987, was quite well received. I had a few intemperate letters and calls but most were positive and grateful for the information.

Some of my colleagues in the Commons, who were on the other side of the argument, were a bit cross with me as they had correspondence from constituents referring to my position as chair of the Justice Committee as authoritative on the issue. A number of others told me after the vote it led them to revisit their position.

Q: Your article convincingly outlined five important points against the death penalty. Do you see any value in capital punishment, whatsoever? A: No. As the article points out, I was prepared to consider its use for killers of police and correctional officers if I could be satisfied it would be a deterrent that would protect these frontline workers. The massive literature review I had my staff assemble - which is now on deposit at the Library of Parliament of Canada - disclosed no evidence that that was the case.

As the Supreme Court of Canada said in an extradition case in 2001, US v. Burns, (paragraphs 76 to 78): 'The death penalty has been rejected as an acceptable element of criminal justice by the Canadian people, speaking through their elected federal representatives, after years of protracted debate. ... It is... incontestable that capital punishment... engages the underlying values of the prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment [in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.] It is final. It is irreversible.

Its imposition has been described as arbitrary. Its deterrent values have been doubted. Its implementation necessarily causes psychological and physical suffering. It has been rejected by the Canadian Parliament for offences committed within Canada. Its potential imposition in this case is thus a factor that weighs against extradition without assurances [that the prosecution will not seek the death penalty.]'

Q: In your capacity as a parliamentarian during the reinstatement debate, what were the most difficult roadblocks you encountered in your efforts to defeat the motion? A: My approach to base my position on exhaustive research obviously did not work for many.

A few days before the vote there was a lengthy story in the Ottawa Citizen about my role in campaigning against the death penalty within the government caucus.

Although I lobbied members privately on a one to one basis, the word had got out. This resulted in a number of angry letters and calls and one case of physical threats and intimidation on the night of the vote from several constituents who worked in the Parliament buildings.

I encountered many former supporters while campaigning in the next General Election in the autumn of 1988 who said they were not voting for me because of my role in the death penalty debate.

This was undoubtedly a factor in my defeat but I remain proud of the contribution I was able to make to maintaining Canada's reputation as a just, fair and progressive society.

Q: Why was the motion expected to carry, and what factors played a role in its eventual defeat? A: During the 1984 General Election, the Progressive Conservative Party promised to hold a free vote (i.e. without whips) on whether to reinstate the death penalty, which had been abolished in 1976. The PCs won the election in a landslide with 211 seats to 40 for the Liberals and 30 for the New Democratic Party, a social democratic party whose policy was abolitionist. Only one Liberal was a retentionist.

So the matter was essentially decided within the government caucus, the majority of whom had favoured a return to capital punishment during the debate in the House of Commons.

Prime Minister Brian Mulroney delivered a strong speech against reinstating capital punishment, which influenced many MPs, particularly those from Quebec.

At the end of the day the motion to reinstate was defeated 148 to 127 with 79 PCs voting in the negative.

Q: During the 1987 debate, public opinion polls showed that more Canadians supported the death penalty than didn't. Since then, polling has shown that public opinion has moved in the opposite direction. What factors do you think played a role in this change? A: It is true that recent polling has shown a drop in the percentage of Canadians who support capital punishment, although a majority of respondents remain favourable. I think this is reflective of the significant decrease in the murder rate and a realisation that after 50 years or more of debate, the question is now settled as confirmed by the Supreme Court and the government.

Q: According to Statistics Canada, the murder rate has been in decline since the mid-1970s despite the abolition of the death penalty. How would you interpret this? A: I think the decline in the murder rate proves the deterrent argument continues to be without empirical support. There are doubtless other contributing factors such as an aging population and firearms controls.

© Inter Press Service (2010) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service

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