CANADA

Hard choices on crime

HILARY MACKENZIE July 13 1987
CANADA

Hard choices on crime

HILARY MACKENZIE July 13 1987

Hard choices on crime

CANADA

For Bud Bradley, the 49-year-old law-and-order Conservative member of Parliament for Dunnville, in rural southern Ontario, it was a decision he had agonized over in the weeks leading up to the vote that began at 1:20 last Tuesday morning, June 30. And tension was mounting on the floor and in the packed galleries of the House of Commons as many of Bradley’s fellow Conservative MPS rose row after row to signal support for a motion that would commit Canada in principle to restoring capital punishment. Until that moment Bradley, a tough former soldier, had been counted among the most convinced supporters of the death penalty. But when Speaker John Fraser called for the votes of MPs in his row, Bradley remained firmly seated. It was, he said later, “probably the toughest decision I will ever make.”

Barely 15 minutes earlier the Ontario MP had slipped out of the chamber to reflect on the coming vote.

Returning, he sought out Justice Minister Ramon Hnatyshyn, a death-penalty opponent. Already beset by doubts about the morality of capital punishment,

Bradley pressed the justice minister for an assurance that Canada’s system for paroling violent criminals would be reviewed. In the end, Bradley joined 11 other Ontario Tories as well as dozens of other abolitionist MPs from all parties and every province to defeat the motion. The final vote was 148 to 127, a decisive rejection of statesanctioned killing which, most observers agreed, closed the debate on capital punishment for the foreseeable future. But Bradley’s last-minute question to Hnatyshyn, and the minister’s commitment last month to toughen Canada’s treatment of violent criminals,

opened up a fresh debate that is now likely to intensify.

The strength of Parliament’s rejection of capital punishment stunned even the most ardent of abolitionists. Although the drift against the death penalty had gained momentum over the last

four months, few expected that the vote would be decisive. Indeed, in anticipation of a slim margin, Commons officials had briefed Speaker John Fraser on the rules of procedure in case he had to break a tie. When the final count came at 1:40 a.m., jubilant abolitionists tossed shredded paper into the air and left their seats to embrace each other on

the floor separating the opposition from the government front benches. Later an obviously relieved Prime Minister Brian Mulroney told reporters: “I think the result is conclusive. The question is settled.”

It was a conclusion, however, that emerged only after some of the most determined lobbying that many parliamentarians had ever witnessed. The pressure, from both supporters and opponents of capital punishment, intensified in the critical final hours before the vote. Joseph Price, 42, a Newfoundland Tory who had been won over to the abolitionist side during debate on the motion, was repeatedly called away from his seat during the long day before the vote for hurried conversations with pro-death-penalty MPs intent on winning back his support. Said Price: “Those supporting the motion were getting desperate. The pressure was incredible.”

But abolitionists, armed with strong moral arguments and studies decisively discrediting the death penalty as a deterrent to criminals, were equally determined to prevent a reversal of Canada’s 1976 decision to outlaw capital punishment. A coalition that included parents of murdered children, members of churches and such human rights groups as Amnesty Internaos tional, focused the attack on the roughly 40 MPs who had z said that they had not do's cided how to vote. Some of those, questioned after the vote, said that they had been swayed by a softening of public opinion reflected in both private party polls and public soundings. Last month a Decima poll conducted for Maclean's showed support for capital punishment had slipped and that, although 61 per cent of those polled still supported the concept, many were only weakly attached to their conviction.

Abolitionists received a stirring boost late in the eight-day debate on the death penalty motion when the Prime Minister declared his personal opposition to the measure. Mulroney told the House: “It is wrong to take life, and I can think of no circumstances, excepting self-defence, to justify it. I believe it is repugnant.” For his part, Price told Maclean's that after months of soulsearching, he could not live with his initial decision to vote in favor of the death penalty. Said Price: “When you vote for the motion, you are saying it is okay to kill people. I wouldn’t want to look at myself in the mirror and say I contributed to that.”

In the end the voting reflected re-

gional differences in Canadians’ attitudes toward capital punishment. MPs from the three Prairie provinces, where The Maclean's/Decima poll found support for capital punishment was the strongest in the country (72 per cent of people said they supported it), voted 34 to 15 in favor of restoration. But that support was overwhelmed by opposition from other MPs. For abolitionists, the key battleground proved to be the Conservatives’ large Quebec caucus, unexpectedly ignored by pro-death-penalty lobbyists. Fortyeight of Quebec’s 57 Conservative members, including 10 cabinet ministers, voted against restoration, con-

firming a more liberal view on the subject among Quebec voters generally.

In polling by Decima, barely 51 per cent of Quebecers expressed support for the death penalty, the lowest figure for any region in the country. Said Montreal Liberal Warren Allmand, who led the original battle to ban capital punishment more than a decade ago: “I have never felt that in Quebec we had that deep-rooted, redneck sort of attitude that you find in the West or parts of Ontario.”

Among MPs who had campaigned in favor of capital punishment, the decision was a bitter disappointment. Peterborough, Ont., Conservative MP Bill Domm, for one, had led a personal cru-

sade to reinstate the death penalty and vowed to continue the fight. Declared Domm: “I fully believe that the issue will not go away.” He added: “If 70 per cent of my constituents want me to do something for them, I don’t intend to give up.” But for such abolitionists as Toronto lawyer Aubrey Golden, a member of the Coalition Against the Return of the Death Penalty, the vote, by a margin three times larger than Parliament’s original 130-to-124 decision against capital punishment, closed the subject for good. Said Golden: “It has been buried twice now.”

Still, the decision to reject the death penalty may forge an unlikely new

union between abolitionists and retentionists. Both agree that Canadians’ majority support for capital punishment points to real public concern that the justice system is failing to confront the problem of violent crime. United Church moderator Anne Squire, an opponent of capital punishment, said that the government must now look at other ways to deter violent crime.

Indeed, even before last week’s vote, Hnatyshyn had moved to counter criticism on the issue. The justice minister undertook to introduce legislation that would tighten parole and sentencing provisions for violent criminals. Meanwhile, David Daubney, the Conservative chairman of the Commons justice

committee, announced that the committee will hold hearings this fall on Canada’s prison, parole and sentencing systems.

The search for an alternative deterrent to violent crime is likely to focus new attention on the recommendations made in March by a royal commission headed by Mr. Justice Orner Archambault of Saskatchewan’s provincial court. After three years of study, Archambault’s $2-million commission urged that full parole be scrapped for most offenders, a measure that Archambault said would see violent criminals serve more of their sentences. At the same time, a complete overhaul of sentencing for all crimes would result in nonviolent offenders receiving shorter terms. But in the new mood of alarm over a justice system perceived as soft on crimi-

nals, there may be less enthusiasm for recommendations that maximum sentences for most crimes be lowered and that those serving life terms receive earlier consideration for parole.

By week’s end, the jubilation that followed Tuesday morning’s vote had given way to a sober assessment of the fresh questions hanging over the criminal justice system. But with justice reform now firmly on the agenda for both foes and supporters of capital punishment, the question of whether to treat criminals with a new harshness remained unresolved.

-HILARY MACKENZIE in Ottawa