An eye for an eye? Or something else?

ROBERT LEWIS April 19 1976

An eye for an eye? Or something else?

ROBERT LEWIS April 19 1976

An eye for an eye? Or something else?


The letter to Tory MP Heward Grafftey was impassioned and to the point: “Abolish capital punishment and I hope you and your loved ones are the victims of these selfsame killers you are protecting.” That message from a Quebec voter last month and similar letters to other opponents of the death penalty left Canada’s parliamentarians with no doubts about the intensity of a swing back to the retentionist mood of the 1950s, when seven in 10 Canadians favored execution for murder.

When the government introduced its abolition bill* in March as part of a crime package, a semi-official Liberal headcount indicated that the outcome is as uncertain as jailhouse life—a slim eight-vote margin in favor of the legislation. Government strategists are bravely predicting vic-

*In 1967 and 1973 Parliament retained the death penalty for murderers of policemen and prison guards, although no one has been hanged in Canada since 1962. Only cabinet ministers are required to vote for the new bill; backbenchers are free to vote as they want.

Murders in Canada, 1964 and 1974


Total murders


By handguns

tory but the abolitionist cause could suffer further erosion during the 11-day Easter recess. That is when homeward-bound MPS will encounter firsthand the passion against the bill.

The debate is scheduled to start after MPS return to Ottawa on April 26. The government hopes the vote will come before summer adjournment in late June, a month before three men are scheduled to hang for murdering police officers.

In the United States a similar capital punishment timetable is unfolding. With 468 inmates sentenced to death, the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to decide in June on a challenge to the court’s 1972 decision that the death penalty is “cruel and unusual” punishment under the Eighth Amendment. Some court-watchers are expecting a reversal by “Nixon’s Court,” if only because of a series of recent retreats from the liberalism of the years under the now retired chief justice Earl Warren.

In both countries the harder line is a response to increased crime and heightened fears (see chart). More generally, as criminologist Ezzat Fattah of Simon Fraser University concludes in a recent study on Canadian attitudes to the death penalty, political assassinations (Pierre Laporte and the Kennedys) and violence in both countries have contributed to “an increasing demand for harsher treatment and more severe penalties.” Unlike the Americans, the Trudeau government is seeking to trade abolition for punishment. The measures on hanging provide for:

• Twenty-five years without parole for first-degree murder (killings that are planned, involve policemen or prison workers, or are committed during rapes, kidnappings or hijackings). After 15 years a convict can ask the court to review parole possibilities. This replaces the minimum no-parole period of 10 to 20 years (the average is around 11 years) for death sentences now commuted to life terms.

• Ten years without parole for second-degree murder (for example, crimes of passion arising from household quarrels—the average is now 7.5 years). In both categories, temporary leave is prohibited until the last three years of a sentence.

Liberal MPS voting on the issue for the first time are discovering that even the tougher sentences do not placate many constituents. Cornwall MP Ed Lumley, who came to Ottawa as a “gut retentionist” in 1974, is feeling the inevitable peer pressure in a party with an abolitionist tradition. He is canvassing his constituents, does not plan simply to vote as they wish, but confesses: “I don’t believe it’s strictly a conscience vote either.” Toronto MP Alan Martin, also undecided, finds it difficult “to accept that the only way to protect lawand-order is an act of murder by the state.” But he adds, “I’mjust not clear if the Canadian public is ready to look at another aspect.” Iona Campagnolo, of Skeena, BC, wants hanging retained for murder of policemen and prison guards, and she is uncomfortable with the notion of denying hope for rehabilitation through the harsh minimum sentences.

Even Prime Minister Trudeau has undergone a change since 1973, when he argued that hanging was not justified as a means for society to defend itself; now he views capital punishment as a practical judgment, “not one of conscience.” He indicates that if the death penalty is not abolished the government won’t be commuting sentences either: “The possibility exists that the government will have to hang some people.”

Despite the wrath, abolition is not generating as much mail on Parliament Hill these days as is another part of the government’s “peace and security” package—the proposal to license both gun owners and vendors.

The scheme is a response to broad popular support for controls and alarming statistics that indicate a 30% increase in gun deaths since 1970, most of them unrelated to crime. (In 1974, of the 1,467 firearm deaths 122 were accidents and 1,021 were suicides, with both types accounting for 78% of the gun deaths.) In an attempt to limit the proliferation of guns, the government will require owners and ammunition buyers 18 years and over to obtain a federal firearms license and pass a fitness test (applicants would need two guarantors). Dealers would also need a permit. Minors over 14 could get a special permit to shoot only under supervision.

Not since the infamous pay-raise issue have MPS received so much mail, most of it critical of the control bill. Some of it is highly organized, even mimeographed. Among opponents are the National Wildlife Federation, whose spokesman is former RCMP Commissioner Leonard Nicholson. He argues that “you just can’t legislate accidents out of the way easily.” Instead of a new federal bureaucracy, Nicholson suggests that existing provincial hunting license facilities be expanded and that, in conjunction with gun clubs, competency tests be administered in the use of firearms. The more strident Firearms for Responsible Ownership (FARO) warned in one newsletter: “Face It Fellow Firearms Enthusiasts, It’s Time To Quit Kidding Ourselves. They Want Your Guns!!!”

Some Tories have picked up that theme in the Commons. Edmonton’s William Skoreyko argued: “If you disarm the populace as was done in Hitler’s time . . . you leave the people at the mercy of unscrupulous politicians.” Any “confiscation” of guns under controls, he went on. “would leave our society defenseless” and smacks of “Communist doctrine.”

While some of the rhetoric sounded like stock American National Rifle Association issue, the fact is that Canada has its own gun-lovers—an estimated two million, with about 10 million firearms.

The official Progressive Conservative position is in line with complaints raised by lobbies and individuals about the administration of the program. They, and many rural Liberals, too, are seeking changes in the fine print—and are likely to get them when the bill emerges from detailed committee study starting later this month.

If the Tories get the changes they want they will vote for the bill, which will prevent a split between rural members who oppose the bill and others, mainly urban MPS, who feel that something has to be done even if the drafting is imperfect.

Justice Minister Ron Basford and Solicitor General Warren Allmand will not amend the basic principle of the bill. But they are prepared to make changes demanded by the opposition, among them use of provincial agencies to administer gun competency tests, and less stringent requirements for guarantors in the north, which is a problem for isolated native huntsmen. In the end, however, the government will maintain a firm position, put best by one of its advisers on gun control: “If there weren’t as many guns there would not be as many homicides.”