The death debate begins

MARCUS GEE May 11 1987

The death debate begins

MARCUS GEE May 11 1987

The death debate begins


It was a desultory beginning to a historic debate. Eleven years after Parliament voted to abolish capital punishment, the Conservative government reopened the emotional question in the Commons last week. But only about 55 of the 279 MPs were in the Commons for the event, and just 50 visitors watched from the public galleries. Prime Minister Brian Mulroney was conspicuously absent, as were all but three ministers in his 37-member cabinet. Liberal Leader John Turner compared the government to a “latter-day Lady Macbeth,” attempting to wash its hands of the issue. “That is not leadership,” said Turner. “That’s playing games with an issue that goes to the heart of the conscience of every Canadian.”

Indeed, the uncertain start to the debate underscored the government’s ambivalent approach to the death penalty. Mulroney pledged to hold a free vote on the issue during the 1984 election campaign, and since then Tory backbenchers have urged the government to fulfil that commitment. But many leading members of the cabinet-including Mulroney—personally oppose capital punishment. Tory strategists also said that a lengthy debate

would slow the government’s ambitious legislative program, including measures on tax reform, defence policy and pornography. Said an official in the Prime Minister’s Office: “There are things the government would prefer to be doing, but there are one hell of a lot of people in this country who think [the debate] is an entirely

Only about 55 MPs were present for the start of the debatey underscoring the government's ambivalence on the issue

valid way to spend people’s time.” Although Deputy Conservative House Leader Douglas Lewis said that the government would not rush a vote on the issue, pro-restoration Tories say that they would like a vote taken before Parliament recesses for the summer on June 30. But the pressure of Commons business will make that difficult. By week’s end, the government and the opposition had not even agreed

on when the debate would resume.

An affirmative vote in the Commons would only begin the process of restoring the death penalty. The motion now before the House calls on members to decide in principle whether they support the return of the death penalty. If the motion passes, a special parliamentary committee will study what offences should be punishable by death and whether a method of execution other than hanging, such as lethal injection, should be introduced. The committee’s report would form the basis of a bill that would then go through the standard three readings in the House—and another full debate. The bill might finally pass in the fall of 1988, but it would still have to win approval from the Liberal-dominated Senate, and a Maclean's poll in March showed that a large majority of senators oppose restoration.

Both Turner and New Democratic Party Leader Ed Broadbent attacked the government for reopening the divisive issue. Calling the motion “sheer hypocrisy,” Turner said that the government could not absolve itself of responsibility for the issue by holding a free vote (under which MPs vote according to individual consciences, not along party lines). But the Liberal leader has not always been an abolitionist. In 1966, when he was a minis-

ter without portfolio in Prime Minister Lester Pearson’s government, Turner voted against a motion to abolish the death penalty. Special adviser Michael Langill said last week that Turner’s thinking “had evolved since then.”

Both opposition leaders disputed the contention that the death penalty would deter murderers and attacked it on moral grounds. “Capital punishment simply adds to the degree of brutalization that is going on in society,” said Broadbent. “We need justice, not vengeance. We should encourage life, not death.”

In response, Tory MP William Domm—one of the country’s leading advocates of restoration—urged Parliament to respond to the public support for the death penalty shown in opinion polls. In an angry speech, Domm said that he was “sick to death” of hearing about the suffering of murderers about to be executed. Domm recalled the brutal series of killings by Clifford Olson of Vancouver, convicted of murder in 1982, and he added, “What about the 11 kids buried along the highway out in British Columbia who were raped and murdered?”

But Domm’s cause suffered a blow when two MPs who had previously supported the death penalty joined the abolitionist camp. Liberal Carlo Rossi, a former Montreal policeman, said that

he had reached the decision after talking with his son and daughter, who oppose execution. Said Rossi: “Let’s find a way other than violence.”

The next day former Conservative minister Jack Murta, who supported capital punishment in 1976 (the vote then was 130 to 124 for abolition), delivered a moving 20-minute speech against the motion. Most murders, Murta said, are the result of a “thoughtless explosion of violence” and would not be prevented by the death penalty. In an interview later, Murta acknowledged that most residents of his Manitoba riding of Lisgar favor restoration, but said that he had to follow his conscience. “It’s not so much your constituents you’ve got to go back and live with. It’s yourself,” said Murta. After his speech, opposition MPs rushed to shake Murta’s hand. Said New Democrat Lome Nystrom: “I’ve had a good feeling for the past two or three weeks that the tide is turning in our favor.”

Still, surveys of MPs have shown that the motion has a good chance of passing. If it does, Parliament will be plunged into a long and bitter debate. And before it is over, predicted Lewis, the issue “will touch every Canadian.”