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The only method used in Canada for capital punishment in nonmilitary contexts was hanging. Before Canada eliminated the death penalty for murder on July 14, 1976, 1,481 people were sentenced to death, with 710 executed. Of those executed, 697 were men and 13 were women. The last execution in Canada was on December 11, 1962 at Toronto's Don Jail.



John Radclive

John Radclive was Canada's first professional executioner, placed on the federal payroll as a hangman in 1892. He can be shown to have hanged at least 69 people in Canada, although his life total was probably much higher. At his death, the Toronto Telegram said he had 150 executions. He died of alcohol-related illness in Toronto on February 26, 1911, at the age of 55.[1]

Arthur Ellis

Arthur Ellis was the pseudonym of Arthur B. English, a British man who became Canada's official hangman in 1913, after Radclive's death. Ellis worked as a hangman in Canada until the botched execution of Thomasina Sarao in Montreal in 1935, in which she was decapitated.

He died in poverty in Montreal in July, 1938.

The Crime Writers of Canada present annual literary awards – the Arthur Ellis Awards – named after this pseudonym. Ellis is prominently featured in the 2009 documentary Hangman's Graveyard.

Camille Blanchard

The executioner who worked as Camille Blanchard, a pseudonym, succeeded Ellis. Blanchard was on the Quebec government payroll as a hangman, and executed people elsewhere in the country on a piece-work basis. The hangman was traditionally based in Montreal where between 1912 and 1960 the gallows at Bordeaux Prison saw more executions (85) take place than any other correctional facility in Canada.[1]

Blanchard carried out many executions (for which he wasn't paid) in the postwar period in Canada, such as the double hanging of Leonard Jackson and Steven Suchan of the Boyd Gang in the Don Jail in 1952, and Robert Raymond Cook's execution in Fort Saskatchewan, Alta. in 1960.[2]


The execution of Stanislaus Lacroix, 21 Mar 1902, Hull, Quebec. At top right, onlookers watch from electric wire poles.

In 1961, legislation was introduced to reclassify murder into capital or non-capital offences. A capital murder involved a planned or deliberate murder, murder during violent crimes, or the murder of a police officer or prison guard. Only capital murder carried the sentence of death. In 1967, Bill C-168 was passed creating a five-year moratorium on the use of the death penalty, except for murders of police and corrections officers. On July 14, 1976, Bill C-84 was passed by a narrow margin of 130:124 in a free vote, resulting in the de jure abolition of the death penalty, except for certain offences under the National Defence Act. These were removed in 1998.

However, since Liberal cabinets after Lester Pearson's victory in 1963 commuted all death sentences as a matter of policy, the de facto abolition of the death penalty in Canada occurred in 1963, with the legal abolition a formality.

First-degree murder, which before abolition was the offence of capital murder, now carries a mandatory life sentence without eligibility for parole until the person has served 25 years of the sentence.

Military executions

During the First World War, 25 Canadian soldiers were executed. Most were shot for service offences such as desertion and cowardice, but two executions were for murder. For details of these see Canadian soldiers executed in first world war.

One Canadian soldier, Pte. Harold Pringle, was executed during the Second World War for murder.

Canada's Military had a policy of no cruel and unusual punishment when it came to execution by firing squad. This meant that if the firing squad failed to kill the condemned on the first try, also known as a botched execution, the sentence would be automatically commuted to a life sentence, rather than proceeding with another attempt.

Reasons for banning the death penalty

Canada banned the death penalty because of fears about wrongful convictions, concerns about the state taking the lives of individuals, and uncertainty about the death penalty's role as a deterrent for crime.[2]

The 1959 conviction of 14 year old Steven Truscott was a significant impetus (although certainly not the only one) toward the abolition of capital punishment. Truscott was sentenced to death for the murder of a classmate. His sentence was later commuted to a life sentence and in 2007 he was acquitted of the charges.

Last people executed in Canada

The last two people executed in Canada were Ronald Turpin, 29, and Arthur Lucas, 54, convicted in separate murders, at 12:02 am on December 11, 1962 at the Don Jail in Toronto.

The last woman to be hanged in Canada was Marguerite Pitre on January 9, 1953, for her part in the Albert Guay affair.


The majority of offenders put to death by Canadian civilian authorities were executed by the "long drop" technique of hanging developed in the United Kingdom by William Marwood. This method ensured that the prisoner's neck was broken instantly at the end of the drop, resulting in the prisoner dying of asphyxia while unconscious, which was considered more humane than the slow death by strangulation which often resulted from the previous "short drop" method. The short drop sometimes gave a period of torture before death finally took place.

Early in his career, John Radclive persuaded several sheriffs in Ontario and Quebec to let him use an alternative method in which the condemned person was jerked into the air. A gallows of this type was used for the execution of Robert Neil at Toronto’s Don Jail on February 29, 1888:

The old plan of a “drop” was discarded for a more merciful machine, by which the prisoner is jerked up from a platform on the ground level by a weight of 280 lbs, which is suspended by an independent rope pending the execution … At the words ‘Forgive us our trespasses,’ the executioner drove his chisel against the light rope that held the ponderous iron at the other end of the noose, and in an instant the heavy weight fell with a thud, and the pinioned body was jerked into the air and hung dangling between the rough posts of the scaffold.[3]

The hanging of Reginald Birchall in Woodstock, Ont. in November 1890 seems to be the last time a device of this kind was used. Radclive had first been exposed to executions as a Royal Navy seaman helping with shipboard hangings of pirates in the South China Sea, and it is possible he was trying to approximate something similar to hanging a man on a ship's yardarm. After Birchall's hanging, Radclive used the traditional long drop method, as did his successors.

While hanging was a relatively humane method of execution under ideal conditions with an expert executioner, mistakes could happen. Condemned prisoners were decapitated by accident at Headingley Jail in Manitoba and Bordeaux Jail in Montreal, and a prisoner at the Don Jail in Toronto hit the floor of the room below and was strangled by the hangman. [4]

Some Canadian jails - such as those in Toronto, ON., Headingley, MB., and Fort Saskatchewan, AB. - had permanent indoor execution facilities, but more typically offenders were hanged on a scaffold built for the occasion in the jail yard.

Military offenders were shot by firing squad.

Executions and the public

At least in theory, hangings were supposed to take place in private after the 1870s. However, small county jails, which saw a hanging perhaps every few decades, were not always able to organize a fully private execution, and members of what MP Agnes Macphail described as the ‘morbid public’[5] came to see something of the spectacle.

At the hanging of Stanislaus Lacroix in Hull, Quebec in 1902, for example, onlookers climbed buildings and telephone poles to peer into the jail yard, as seen in the photograph on this page.

Even when nothing was visible except a jail official posting an official notice saying the execution had taken place, large crowds still gathered at the time of a scheduled hanging.

The hanging of Peter Balcombe in Cornwall, Ont. in May 1954 attracted a boisterous crowd:

The canvas-covered top of the gallows was plainly visible from the street. The crowd, many of them teenagers including many young girls, was in a holiday mood, shooting off firecrackers, joking and laughing for more than two hours before the execution took place. Several times, police details had to clear the streets so vehicles could pass as the onlookers pressed forward for better vantage points.[6]

Canada's view of international capital punishment

The Supreme Court of Canada, in the case United States v. Burns, (2001), has determined that Canada should not extradite condemned persons, unless they have assurances that the foreign state will not apply the death penalty, essentially overruling Kindler v. Canada (Minister of Justice), (1991). This is similar to the extradition policies of other nations such as Germany, France, Italy, the United Kingdom, Israel, Mexico, and Australia, which also refuse to extradite prisoners who may be condemned to death.

In November 2007 Canada's Conservative government reversed a long-standing policy of automatically requesting clemency for Canadian citizens sentenced to capital punishment in democratic countries. The ongoing case of Alberta-born Ronald Allen Smith, who has been on death row in the United States since 1982 for murdering two people and continues to seek calls for clemency from the Canadian government, prompted Canadian Public Safety Minister Stockwell Day to announce the change in policy. Day has stated that each situation should be handled on a case-by-case basis. The case resulted in a sharp divide between the Liberals and the Conservatives. The Liberals passed a motion declaring that the government "should stand consistently against the death penalty, as a matter of principle, both in Canada and around the world." However, an overwhelming majority of Conservatives supported the change in policy.[7]

See also


  1. ^ Joint Committee on Capital and Corporal Punishment and Lotteries (Ottawa, Queen's Printer, 1955)
  2. ^ Hustak, Alan, 1944-, They were hanged (Toronto, J. Lorimer, 1987)
  3. ^ The Globe, Wednesday, February 29, 1888, p. 8
  4. ^ Minutes of proceedings and evidence - Special Committee on the Criminal Code (Death Penalty) (Ottawa, Printer to the King, 1937)
  5. ^ Minutes of proceedings and evidence - Special Committee on the Criminal Code (Death Penalty) (Ottawa, Printer to the King, 1937)
  6. ^ Toronto Star, May 25, 1954, pp. 1-2
  7. ^ Day favours case-by-case approach to Canadians facing death penalty, the Canadian Press (reprinted by CBC News), March 14, 2008.(retrieved on December 14, 2008.

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