Death penalty abolished in 30-year reform campaign

“Execution of Stanislaus Lacroix” cutlines: Spectators peered over prison walls to see the hanging of Stanislaw Lacroix at Hull, Quebec, in 1902.

Law and order 1822-1967

From my book, About Canada, Toronto, Civil Sector Press, 2012.

For some two centuries, the death penalty hung over the parts of North America that eventually became Canada, before it was abolished—for all but military crimes.

Under British law, there were some 230 crimes that carried the death penalty, early in the nineteenth century. You could be hanged for stealing a horse or turnips, or for being found disguised in the forest.

Attitudes about such legal severity seemed mixed. When a convicted horse thief and two burglars were hanged in Montreal, it was seen by the government organ in York (Toronto) as proper warning and a sense that “justice is satisfied.”

“The fate of these culprits will, we trust, prove a salutary lesson to those whom they have left behind, whose moral and religious conduct require a warning for the amendment of their lives,” said the Upper Canada Gazette, November 6, 1823.

Authorities in Lower Canada seemed more lenient, with perverse effect. Rather than upholding the death penalty, those convicted of crimes considered less serious than murder, were set free. The authorities, said a grand jury, were “Increasingly reluctant” to impose the law. “The parties offended refuse to prosecute; petty jurors are unwilling to convict; and his Majesty’s Representative is, in almost every capital case, petitioned by numbers to exercise the Royal prerogative of mercy.”

The result was that “Impunity is enjoyed by the most atrocious and hardened offenders,” the report, published in the Montreal Herald and reprinted in the Kingston Chronicle, September 29, 1826, declared. Some were said to have been convicted of capital crimes as many as six times, and pardoned each time. The jurors, however, claimed that the “public mind is ripe” for more humane laws that could afford “convicts some chance and encouragement to redeem their character” and “become useful members of society.”

It took 30 years, but reform did come in 1859, when the number of crimes subject to the death penalty was reduced to 10 under the Constituted Statues of Canada (then comprising Lower and Upper Canada). It was now confined to “murder, rape, treason, administering poison or wounding with the attempt to commit murder, unlawfully abusing a girl under ten, buggery with man or beast, robbery with wounding, burglary with assault, arson, casting away a ship and exhibiting a false signal endangering a ship.”


In 1865, capital punishment was further limited to cases of murder, treason and rape.

The abolition campaign

The most determined effort to fully abolish the death penalty was launched in Parliament in 1914 by Robert Bickerdike (1843-1928), businessman, Liberal politician, and social reformer.

Bickerdike left the family farm in Beauharnois County, Quebec, at age 17 to learn the butcher trade in Montreal. He soon established a meat packing business and later expanded his successful interests to embrace insurance, finance, and shipping. As a politician, he was a champion of minority rights—Jews in particular—an early advocate of women’s suffrage, and bent on an almost life-long mission to abolish the death penalty.

On February 5, 1914 the House of Commons spent “practically all day” debating Bickerdike’s private member’s bill to abolish the death penalty. “The House seemed to be about evenly divided” on the issue, according to the Toronto Star.

Opponents of the bill argued that the death penalty was needed to deter murder. Frank Oliver, publisher of the Edmonton Bulletin (Alberta’s first newspaper) and former interior minister in the Laurier government, cited Judge Matthew Bigbie as evidence. A London lawyer sent in 1858 to keep law and order in the gold mining camps of British Columbia, Bigbie is reputed to have claimed, “Boys, if there is shooting, there will be hanging.” “There was shooting, and there was hanging after that,” Oliver told the House. “Then there was no more shooting.”

It was also claimed that capital punishment is “less degrading to society than the incarceration for life of a helpless prisoner.” One MP told the House: “If the choice were put before the convicts in Kingston Penitentiary, I am not sure that the majority… would not say, bring on the rope.”

Capital punishment, argued the bill’s supporters, is morally wrong, opposed by religious strictures, and does not deter murder or crime.

“We cannot atone for the loss of life by taking another life,” said Bickerdike. “No man who believes in his Creator dare vote against a bill to abolish legalized murder.”

As it turned out, no MP had to vote that year against abolishing the death penalty. Justice Minister and Attorney General Charles Doherty, who opposed the bill, adjourned the long debate at 10:30 in the evening, and it did not come up again until the following year, when it fared no better. Bickerdike introduced another ill-fated bill to abolish capital punishment in 1916.

Sitting on the editorial fence

When it came to taking a stand for or against capital punishment, newspapers generally appeared to be sitting on the editorial fence, apparently still undecided about the issue, as were most Canadians. Typical was the stand of the Toronto Star (February 9, 1920), which argued only “There should be one law for all. There is not now one law for all… The procedure by which a popular criminal escapes the gallows is not unlike that by which a popular fellow gets a comfortable office under government.”

Arguments for and against the death penalty erupted sporadically on newspaper pages during the next few decades. In the Toronto Globe, a clergyman implied a defence of capital punishment in 1920, while another clergy opposed it the following year.

On January 17, 1920, in his weekly “Sunday School Lesson” Globe columnist, Rev. G.C. Pidgeon implied that a very vengeful God was on the side of swift and decisive retribution. “God has always punished with exceptional severity sins of presumption,” Pidgeon wrote. When Arron’s two intoxicated sons, Nadab and Abihu, “offered fire on God’s alter, they were smitten with instant death.” When army sentinels fall asleep on the job, according to Pidgeon, it is “a capital offence for which men have deserved to die.”

On August 1, 1921, Rev. A. Mason hoped that Canadians would follow the example of the Swedish people who, he said, “rose up in their might and abolished the death penalty.” This was apparently accomplished in spite of Sweden’s executioner who, Mason noted, “has an axe to grind.”

Bikerrdike did not live long enough to see the triumph of his cause. The last executions in Canada came more than half a century after he first urged abolition of the hangman’s rope in Parliament.

The last two were Ronald Turpin and Arthur Lucas, hanged at the Don Jail in Toronto on December 11, 1962. Turpin had robbed the Red Rooster restaurant of $632.84 and was driving from the scene when he was pulled over by a police officer for a broken taillight. He shot and killed the policeman. Lucas, an American, had left his Detroit home for a trip to Toronto where he killed a witness in the trial of a Michigan drug lord, and also the witness’ girlfriend.

In 1967 Parliament passed a government bill to abolish capital punishment and impose life imprisonment for all murders, for a five-year trial, by a vote of 105 to 70. Excluded from the abolition were murders of an on-duty police officers or prison guards. In 1973 MPs sustained the five-year trial by a margin of 13 votes. Three years later, they voted to abolish all forms of capital punishment—except under the Defence Act—by a scant margin of six votes. A bill to restore the death penalty was more decisively defeated in 1987 by a vote of 148 to 127. Under the Defence Act, however, the death penalty can still be imposed on military personnel for cowardice, desertion, unlawful surrender, and spying for the enemy.


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