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A snapshot of the execution of Stanislaus La Croix in Hull, Que., on March 21, 1902. It was not until 1976 that Canada abolished civilian capital punishment — after a total of 710 people had been sent to the gallows. ((National Archives of Canada/Canadian Press))

Two minutes after midnight on Dec. 11, 1962, Arthur Lucas and Ronald Turpin became the last people to be executed in Canada.

As they awaited their fate, the two could hear protesters gathered about 180 metres from their cell, speaking out against the practice the demonstrators called "public murder."

Turpin, 29, had been convicted of killing an officer after he was pulled over for a broken tail light while fleeing a robbery; Lucas, 54, killed an undercover narcotics agent from Detroit in Toronto.

The two ate the same last meal, were hanged back-to-back at Toronto's Don Jail and then were buried side by side, with no markers on their graves.

Before the hanging, Turpin and Lucas were told they'd likely be the last people hanged in Canada, to which Turpin responded, "Some consolation."

Capital punishment, however, would remain on the books for more than a decade.

Over the years, Canada whittled down the number of offences punishable by hanging. At first, all murder convictions resulted in execution, but in 1961, the charge was divided into non-capital and capital offences, which included planned or violent killings and the murder of police officers and prison guards.

710 executed

In 1967, a moratorium was placed on the death penalty.

But it was not until 1976 that Canada formally abolished the death penalty from the Criminal Code, when the House of Commons narrowly passed Bill C-84.

By then, Canada had hanged 710 people since capital punishment was enacted in 1859.

It would take until 1998 before Canada wiped out all references to capital punishment, with its elimination from the National Defence Act for such military offences as treason and mutiny.

Through the decades, the issue has been a source of fierce debate, ignited by serial killers such as Clifford Olson and wrongful convictions, like that of Steven Truscott.

In 1987, the House of Commons examined the issue again but ended up voting 148 to 127 in favour of not reinstating the death penalty.

Change in policy

Canada has actively opposed the death penalty in recent decades, refusing extradition requests to the U.S. unless there are assurances the U.S. prosecutors won't seek the death penalty.

The federal government has also, until recently, established a tradition of requesting clemency for Canadians sentenced to death abroad.

In late 2007, however, Stephen Harper's Conservative government indicated a change in procedure.

Then public safety minister Stockwell Day stated Canada would "not actively pursue" the return of Canadians facing the death sentence "who have been tried in a democratic country that supports rule of law."

The statement in the House of Commons was in response to questions about the case of Ronald Allen Smith, the only Canadian on death row in the U.S.

Smith faces death by lethal injection in Montana for killing two aboriginal men who offered him a ride while hitchhiking in 1982.

The Tories' decision drew harsh words from Amnesty International, which accused Canada of softening its opposition to capital punishment. It also became the subject of a court ruling.

On March 4, 2009, the Federal Court of Canada ruled that the federal government must take all reasonable steps to persuade the Montana government to commute the sentence.

Justice Robert Barnes wrote that the government's decision "to withdraw support for Mr. Smith was made in breach of the duty of fairness."