How Mulroney buried the move to reinstate capital punishment

By Stanley Tromp, Globe and Mail, 13 Oct 2007




As former Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney promotes his bestselling memoirs, newly released internal documents shed new light on one of the most divisive and emotional disputes of his first term - capital punishment.

At 1 a.m. on June 30, 1987, a free vote for the reinstatement of the death penalty was held in the House of Commons. During the 38-hour House debate, Mr. Mulroney spoke passionately against it, calling the death penalty "repugnant" and "profoundly unacceptable." The option was voted down 148 to 127, defying most pundits' predictions that it would pass.

Now, minutes of the cabinet meetings for the year before the vote show that most ministers appeared to have no enthusiasm for reinstatement, despite its popularity with the public and in the Tory caucus. (In the end, 22 ministers voted against reinstatement, 15 for it.) In their deliberations, they considered everything from provinces' needs to hire executioners to how MPs' votes might be influenced by the exact method of execution.

The minutes were obtained by The Globe and Mail through the Access to Information Act, which allows citizens to view them only after 20 years have passed.

Before Canada abolished capital punishment in 1976, 710 people had been executed. But in the 1980s pressure was building to reinstate it, particularly after the killing of several police officers in Ontario and Quebec in the summer of 1984.

In the election campaign that year, Mr. Mulroney reluctantly promised a free vote on the death penalty. But he made it clear that he "himself would be voting against any reinstatement, and did not expect the House to vote in favour of reinstatement," the minutes say.

Any bill passed by the House would need to be passed by the Senate to become law. The leader of the Tory caucus in the Senate said the Liberal-dominated body would likely reject reinstatement. Yet at a cabinet meeting in January, 1987, the minutes note that "A bill that passed in the House and failed in the Senate would not be objectionable to the government."

The minutes say many stakeholders' needs had to be considered. For example, "The provinces have an interest in the restoration of the death penalty, as they will be required to identify and hire executioners."

Some ministers believed that another factor could influence how MPs voted: "Members' views might depend on what methods of execution were to be allowed: medieval strangling vs. electrocution or a pill, for example."

The minutes suggest that cabinet wanted to impose some order over the debate process, but without guiding its political outcome. Deputy prime minister Don Mazankowski "invited cabinet to eschew a private member's bill, on account of uncontrollability. ..."

For example, since the death penalty was removed from the Criminal Code (through a bill that had passed on a free vote by just six votes), 37 private members' bills had been introduced to bring it back.

Since 1984, seven private members' bills had been given first reading in the House of Commons. In these, offences for which the death penalty could be imposed included first-degree murder, high treason, piracy, sabotage, terrorism, aircraft hijacking, arson, kidnapping, sexual assault and the taking of hostages.

All the bills exempted persons under 18, and pregnant women would have their execution stayed until after their baby had been delivered. In fact, cabinet minutes note that the capital punishment topic had "no implications" for the status of women, because the Charter of Rights and Freedoms ensured that both genders shared equal opportunity for execution.

Five bills designated hanging as the method of execution and two proposed lethal injection. The minutes say the Tory justice minister had received 850 letters on the topic, some writers urging the death penalty even for armed robbery and drug dealing. On the other hand, several "distinguished European ex-ministers of Justice" had written to the Canadian justice minister urging him to oppose it, the minutes say.

Mr. Mulroney writes in his memoirs: "My approach to this delicate topic was shaped at both St. Francis Xavier and Laval. ... In the late 1950s, a man I believed innocent named Wilbert Coffin had been put to death in Quebec, after an investigation and trial heavy with political overtones. I also looked on in horror when Canada shocked the world by sentencing 14-year-old Stephen Truscott to death by hanging, a sentence fortunately never carried out."