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1976: Death penalty abolished in Canada

The Story

Does the government have the right to take the life of one of its citizens? For the first time, the Canadian government says no. After a decade of fierce debate and an impassioned, last-minute speech by Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, the House of Commons narrowly passes Bill C-84, abolishing the death penalty in Canada.

Medium: Radio
Program: The World At Six
Broadcast Date: July 14, 1976
Guests: Warren Allmand, Ed Broadbent, John Reynolds
Host: Judy Maddren, George Rich
Reporter: Terry Hargreaves
Duration: 3:18

Did You know?

• The vote on Bill C-84 was 131 to 124 in favour of abolishing the death penalty, one of the closest in Canadian parliamentary history. It was a "free vote" - Members of Parliament could vote as they wanted to, and did not have to follow their party's official position. Cabinet members were required to vote for the bill. Many MPs voted against party lines: 37 Liberals voted to keep the death penalty, while 16 Conservatives voted to abolish it.

• A week before the vote, Prime Minister Trudeau intervened by giving a passionate speech in the House of Commons on why the death penalty must be abolished. "Those who vote against the bill cannot escape their personal share of responsibility for the hangings that will take place if the bill is defeated," Trudeau told MPs. His speech was considered a turning point in the debate, but was not recorded for broadcast.

• Capital punishment was replaced with a mandatory life sentence without possibility of parole for 25 years for first-degree murder.

• In 1976 most Canadians favoured capital punishment. Some, like Conservative MP John Reynolds felt the debate should be taken to a national referendum. Others, including New Democratic Party leader Ed Broadbent believed such matters were too important to leave to popular opinion and should be decided by fully informed elected representatives.

• Attempts to abolish the death penalty in Canada date back to 1914. In 1954 rape was removed from capital offences. In 1960 the Canadian Bill of Rights introduced capital and non-capital categories for murder.

• The last execution in Canada took place on December 11, 1962, when Ronald Turpin and Arthur Lucas where hanged for killing police officers. After that all death sentences were commuted to prison terms.

• A motion to abolish the death penalty was defeated in 1966. In 1967 the government passed temporary legislation commuting all death sentences, except for killers of on-duty police officers and prison guards. This five year moratorium was renewed in 1972.

• Since the 1950s there were regular motions to abolish the death penalty; since 1976 there have been regular motions to reinstate it. In 1987, Parliament voted 148-127 against restoring the death penalty.

• There were 710 executions in Canada between 1867 and 1962, and more than 400 death sentences were commuted.

• In July 1976 - the same month - the United States Supreme Court reinstated the death penalty.

• Until 1998 Canada retained the death penalty for certain military offences including treason and mutiny, but no Canadian solider had been charged with a capital crime in over 50 years.

Also on July 14:
1912: Northrop Frye, author, educator and literary critic is born in Sherbrooke, Que. Frye, who was also a professor at Victoria College in Toronto, wrote The Great Code and Fearful Symmetry among other popular books.
1938: Renowned Canadian architect, Moshe Safdie is born in Haifa, Palestine (now Israel). Among his most famous structures was Habitat, built in Montreal on the site of Expo 67. He also designed the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa.


The Death Penalty Debate more