House of Commons Hansard #36 of the 36th Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was treaty.

Topics

Criminal Code
Private Members' Business

11:05 a.m.

Reform

Jay Hill Prince George—Peace River, BC

moved that Bill C-212, an act to amend the Criminal Code and the Young Offenders Act (capital punishment), be read the second time and referred to a committee.

Madam Speaker, last week Gallup released the results of its most recent survey on Canadian support for the death penalty. According to that poll, if a national referendum were to be held today a full 63% of the Canadian public would vote in favour of reinstating capital punishment.

The Reform Party believes that on moral and contentious issues such as capital punishment Canadians should grapple with their own consciences and vote according to their personal convictions in a binding national referendum. We have called for a binding referendum on the death penalty but the government has said no. The government has told the people that it knows what is best for them and that they do not have the choice.

That is why I have introduced the bill. If the government will not hold a binding referendum at the time of the next federal election, I believe we should hold a true free vote in the House of Commons where all MPs can vote the views of their constituents rather than those of their political bosses or their own personal beliefs. That would be democracy.

The bill imposes a sentence of capital punishment on all adults found guilty of first degree murder. First degree murder occurs when a murder is planned and deliberate, when death occurs during a sexual assault or kidnapping, or when the victim is a police officer or a correctional officer. First degree murder is not an accident. It is cold, calculated and brutal.

To address the concerns people have about the finality of the death penalty important safeguards have been built into the legislation. There is an automatic right of appeal at the first level. Even if convicted people themselves do not appeal they are deemed to have appealed and the court will review the case on all questions of fact and law to determine if the conviction is valid.

All appeals are to be conducted in a timely fashion. If the jury and court are satisfied that overwhelming evidence shows someone is guilty beyond doubt there is no reason he or she should languish on death row for years. The sentence, if upheld, is to be carried out within a reasonable period of time. The death penalty is to be carried out by lethal injection. This is a more humane method of execution than hanging or electrocution. It ensures a quick and painless end and does not turn the culmination of a tragic chain of events begun by a brutal murder into a media and public circus.

People might ask why the bill is necessary. The death penalty should be reinstated for many reasons. First and foremost is that the state must protect society. In this debate we cannot forget the inevitable release of murderers. Between 1986 and 1995, 133 convicts released from prison for first and second degree murder returned to our communities and committed crimes again. These included 87 violent crimes and sex offences. They also included 10 murders. It is clear that our so-called rehabilitation programs are not working.

Two convicted murderers also escaped, only to murder again. How does one explain to the families of those victims that 12 murderers were given the opportunity to strike again? How could anyone possibly defend our justice system to the family of just one of these victims?

While there are 12 examples that I could use, I draw the attention of the House to one in particular. Four murders were committed in 1989 by Allan Legere who escaped from prison while serving a life sentence for the bloody beating death of an elderly shopkeeper in 1986. He escaped, only to murder four more law-abiding innocent Canadians.

I am certain that someone here today will raise the cases of Donald Marshall, Guy Paul Morin and David Milgaard. All three of these men spent years of their lives behind bars, convicted of crimes they did not commit. This is not something any Canadian is proud of. My hope is that their years of needless suffering and incarceration have taught us a grave lesson about how easily justice can be subverted. Their hard won battles have exposed problems in our system that we must be ever vigilant to avoid repeating.

When local police departments are under enormous public pressure to produce a guilty party, that is when we must scrutinize the evidence presented with an even more critical eye.

No one should be convicted of first degree murder and put to death based on circumstantial evidence. We now have much improved DNA technology. These high profile cases have alerted the public and the justice system to the possibility of overzealous police forces seeking speedy convictions.

David Milgaard was convicted of second degree murder so he never would have faced the death penalty in any case. Under the bill all evidence and facts would have been carefully re-examined in the convictions of Guy Paul Morin and Donald Marshall. They were recently exonerated on the basis of DNA evidence. If their trials had been held today they would have never been convicted. The DNA tests that proved them innocent could just as easily prove, beyond a shadow of a doubt, someone else's guilt.

We are entering the 21st century and our justice system should use the latest technology to determine the guilt or innocence of those charged.

Many people like to quote statistics, telling us that the murder rate has gone down since 1975. That was the peak year, at three murders per 100,000 Canadians. Why do they not take it from 1966 when the rate was less than half that, at 1.25 per 100,000? In 1996 the homicide rate was 2.11 per 100,000. Whether we measure it from 1966 or 1975 it is still far too many.

Another statistic is much more relevant to the debate today. I quote from a recent Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics publication known as Juristat . With respect to homicide it states that first degree murder as a proportion of all homicides rose steadily from 36% in 1978 to 57% in 1996. That means that in 1978, 238 people were charged with first degree murder. However, in 1996, 361 people were charged with first degree murder even though there were 28 fewer murders committed in 1996 than in 1978. Obviously something has changed if the proportion of planned and deliberate murders has increased by over 50% since capital punishment was abolished in 1976.

We should not consider the use of the death penalty out of hunger for vengeance but out of desire for justice. No act of vengeance can undo the harm done. No punishment can erase a victim's scars or bring back those who were murdered. The death penalty is not about vengeance. It is not the business of the state to exact punishment motivated by vengeance. It is the role of the state to mete out justice.

Capital punishment is about public safety. The only certain way to keep extremely dangerous individuals from harming again and again is to take away their opportunity to do so. Why is it wrong for society to take the life of someone who has knowingly violated our most fundamental laws and brutally slain a fellow human being?

In 1982 one-third of the 300 convicted murderers in Canada said they would prefer the death penalty over life in prison. In fact, in 1983 a convicted murdered in Saskatchewan formally requested the death penalty by lethal injection on the basis that his life sentence was cruel and unusual punishment. His request was denied by the court.

Some people believe we should just lock up murderers capable of the most heinous crimes for a few decades. Some of these people object to the death penalty strictly on moral grounds. That is their right and I believe they should be given the opportunity to voice that view in a referendum.

I take issue with those who object to the death penalty because they fear our justice system may have convicted an innocent person. What they are pointing out is not a problem with the death sentence, but a more fundamental problem with the ability of our justice system to determine the truth.

If you believe innocent people are being convicted, do not just object to the death penalty. It is equally wrong to keep an innocent person in jail for 10 or 20 years. Those who believe our justice system does not work have a moral obligation to reform it, to protect all innocent people, not just those facing a possible death penalty.

There is no question there are problems with our justice system. According to our laws, taking a human life is wrong. Somehow our system is seriously out of balance, and I refer specifically to the Latimer case.

Maybe people believe the second degree conviction of Tracy Latimer's father was warranted, but others believe it points to the need for different charges in the Criminal Code. I do not know whether the Minister of Justice is considering something like a mercy killing category, but if she is I strongly urge her to include a significant range of sentencing options to reflect all Canadians' moral convictions on this highly contentious issue.

Under the current system the sentencing judge has little latitude in sentencing Latimer. Some Canadians agree with this while others do not.

Let me bring another murder case to the attention of the House today. On Vancouver Island a man was murdered and his murderer walked. There was no public hue and cry to jail the perpetrator because the victim was apparently an undesirable person. Because people did not seem to generally like the victim, they demanded little or no punishment for the criminal. That is not right.

Somehow I believe our justice system forgot that its role is to protect all citizens, even those we do not like. As a society we cannot let individuals take the law into their own hands. We must prevent vigilantism and have room for compassion for those who act out of mercy, not malice. The state should have the option of imposing the severest of penalties for the most heinous of crimes to protect the citizens.

There is no way to bring the victim back. The death penalty would not do that. But it will prevent the murderer from murdering again.

Paul Bernardo may not be getting out for a long time, but his accomplice will be getting out very soon. Clifford Olson may have failed in his bid for parole this summer, but eventually he too may be released into our streets, into the neighbourhoods where our children are at play.

Do you want people capable of rape, torture and murder living next to you? Do you want to take the chance with your children and grandchildren? When they get out, not if, do not count on them moving to someone else's neighbourhood.

The death penalty may not act as a deterrent for sick individuals bent on the destruction of other human beings, but if the death penalty does not deter them, neither does the prospect of imprisonment for 15, 20 or 25 years. Deterrence is not the issue. Seventy percent of Canadians who supported the death penalty in 1996 said they would still support it even if it was proven not to be a deterrent. Instead, the majority of Canadians believe that capital punishment is for the protection of society.

In summary, I believe the death penalty should be reinstated for those guilty of heinous first degree murders. This bill provides ample opportunity for appeals on the basis of fact and law with the option of commuting the sentence to life imprisonment. Capital punishment should be available to society to protect the citizens from those who have shown no remorse, no guilt and no possibility of redemption. The appeals process and the sentence are to be carried out in a timely fashion. Administering a lethal injection is more humane than hanging or electrocution and does not reduce the death sentence to a media spectacle.

I and the Reform Party believe that Canadian people should decide on whether they want to reinstate capital punishment in a binding national referendum, as I said earlier. Because the government has said no, as I also said earlier, the next best thing is a free vote in the House of Commons.

Sixty-three per cent of Canadians want the death penalty reinstated. It is the duty of members of this House to carry out the will of their constituents. Therefore, I would seek unanimous consent of the members present to make Bill C-212 votable.

Criminal Code
Private Members' Business

11:20 a.m.

An hon. member

Democracy denied as usual.

Criminal Code
Private Members' Business

11:20 a.m.

The Acting Speaker (Ms. Thibeault)

Does the hon. member have the unanimous consent of the House to move the motion?

Criminal Code
Private Members' Business

11:20 a.m.

Some hon. members

No.

Criminal Code
Private Members' Business

11:20 a.m.

The Acting Speaker (Ms. Thibeault)

Denied.

Criminal Code
Private Members' Business

11:20 a.m.

Liberal

Sue Barnes London West, ON

Madam Speaker, I feel compelled to participate in this debate on Bill C-212 which was introduced by the hon. member for Prince George—Peace River.

Bill C-212 would reinstate the death penalty for first degree murder committed by a person 18 years of age or over. This bill would also provide for an increase in prison terms for first and second degree murder which can be imposed upon persons under the age of 18.

I would like first to address the issue of reinstatement of the death penalty.

Capital punishment was debated extensively in this House prior to the 1976 vote that abolished it more than 20 years ago. Capital punishment has been debated a few times since it was abolished, not only in Parliament, but elsewhere. The most extensive debate since the abolition of capital punishment took place in this House in 1987. I clearly remember that debate because, as a private citizen, it was the first time that I actually wrote to my MP to encourage him to vote against capital punishment.

The 1987 debate was on the then government of the day motion and that motion called upon the House of Commons to support in principle the reinstatement of capital punishment and to establish a special committee to provide recommendations on the offences which should carry the death penalty, and on the method or methods which should be used to carry out the sentence of death.

The question as I said earlier was debated at length. There was a free vote in this House. It seems that some people cannot understand that a free vote democratically given in Canada has been done and it was refused. Some people push the agenda all the time.

A majority of the members then voted against the motion and thus against the reinstatement of capital punishment in the Criminal Code. Since that vote, capital punishment has not been an issue of great national prominence.

Why are we asked to debate the reinstatement of capital punishment at this time? It is private members hour and a Reform member has brought it forward. Are there any new circumstances that require or seriously say that Parliament should re-examine this issue? Perhaps I would understand if there was a trend showing a significant increase in the homicide rate. This could institute a requirement that we should again debate this issue and would justify reopening this debate on the death penalty.

Surely the hon. member from Prince George—Peace River is not motivated by an increase in the homicide rate. In fact the rate for 1996 is the third lowest rate since 1975. The homicide rate was three per hundred thousand of population in 1975, the last year when capital punishment was in force for murder. In 1987 when this House held an extensive debate on a government motion for the reinstatement of capital punishment, the homicide rate was down to 2.4 per hundred thousand, which means a 20% decrease compared to 1975.

In 1995 the homicide rate had decreased further to 1.99. This represents a 33% reduction since 1975, the last year the death penalty was in force in this country. For 1996 the rate is 2.1.

I want to be clear. I do not underestimate, nor does anybody in this House, the crime of murder. Today we are all aware of yet another tragedy in Canada over the weekend. Every homicide is a tragedy and it raises questions about our society and raises questions for our society. Every homicide or murder must be punished with the most serious penalties and it is.

However, statistics do show us that the homicide rate was three per one hundred thousand of population when capital punishment was in force and it is down to around two per one hundred thousand now that capital punishment is no longer in our system, having been abolished, as I said, for over 20 years.

This decrease hardly supports the deterrent element of capital punishment. Not only has the homicide rate not increased with the abolition of the death penalty, it has actually decreased by one-third.

What these statistics mean is that there is no evidence that the death penalty is a useful tool to fight murders. If the death penalty is not an effective tool against homicides and murders, we should ask ourselves what useful purpose would be served by reinstating it.

I personally believe that the death penalty is an excessive means of achieving the objectives of sentencing. In recent years at least three well publicized cases have come to light which would cause one to pause and should cause this society to pause when considering the reinstatement of the death penalty: the wrongful murder convictions of Donald Marshall, Jr., Guy-Paul Morin and David Milgaard.

If capital punishment had been in effect, they may not have had a second chance at life. Capital punishment is final. There is no chance to correct the mistakes of the state, however well intentioned, however strongly we feel and however many inches of press can be generated. This type of error is also tragic and it is totally preventable when we do not have capital punishment as part of our recourse in our justice system.

On practical grounds, these are reasons I personally oppose the death penalty. The onus is on those who would want to change the law in such a fundamental way to make a compelling case. For myself, I am not persuaded by the arguments I have just heard and those being made.

It is not only on practical grounds that I oppose the death penalty, but I also oppose it on moral grounds. The issue of capital punishment raises the question of how we see ourselves as a country and a people. The trend in the world, at least among western nations, is to abolish the death penalty. To return to capital punishment in Canada would be contrary to the international trend and I personally believe that supporting a return to the death penalty for murder would be a very regressive step, one that my hon. colleagues in the Reform Party seem to wish to embrace.

Do Canadians really believe that they would feel safer living in a society where capital punishment is meted out? In fact to be very crass, do they even believe that this would save tax dollars? Please look to what is going on with our neighbours to the south. Canadians will find some of those answers.

The hon. member's bill would also increase prison terms for murder for persons under the age of 18 years. I found it surprising that he did not address that, seeing as that is part of the bill, but I am going to comment. I would like to remind the hon. member that parole eligibility periods for youth convicted of murder were significantly increased as of December 1, 1995.

I would like to outline for the House the provisions that currently apply to young offenders who are found guilty of murder. A youth who is 14 years of age or over at the time of the commission of the offence of first degree murder or second degree murder may be transferred to adult court. If convicted of murder in adult court, the minimum sentence is life imprisonment.

Before December 1, 1995 a youth convicted of either first or second degree murder in adult court was subject to a prison term set by the court at between five and ten years inclusive. Since our government changed this law after December 1, 1995, the following provisions apply.

First, a 16 or 17 year old youth convicted of first degree murder must serve a term of at least 10 years in custody. A 16 or 17 year old youth convicted of second degree murder must serve a term of at least seven years in custody and a youth 14 or 15 years of age who is convicted of either first or second degree murder in adult court must serve a custody term of between five and seven years inclusive as set by the court. If not specified by the judge, then the person must serve a term of five years.

I want to go back to before December 1, 1995 when youths of any age convicted of first or second degree murder in youth court were subject to a maximum sentence of five years less a day which was composed of two parts. The maximum custodial period was three years and the maximum period for conditional supervision in the community was two years less a day.

It is unfortunate that I am out of time because I do have the facts that could be presented. Maybe one of my colleagues will finish this.

Right now I need to make the point that all youth convicted of first degree murder in youth court are subject to a maximum sentence of ten years which is comprised of a maximum of six years in custody and a maximum length of conditional supervision of four years. Youths convicted of second degree murder in youth court are subject to a maximum sentence of seven years which is composed of a maximum period of four years in custody and a period of conditional supervision which may not exceed three years.

It has only been two years since we have changed these rules. We have a justice committee looking at it. I am going to suggest that we let the Minister of Justice, who knows this is an important issue, deal with this as we have been doing all along. We take this seriously. In my submission, capital punishment plays no part in our just society.

Criminal Code
Private Members' Business

11:30 a.m.

NDP

Peter Mancini Sydney—Victoria, NS

Madam Speaker, I would first like to commend the mover of this piece of legislation for the work that has gone into it. I read his private member's bill today and it is clear that a considerable amount of effort has gone into drafting the legislation. I commend him for that but, and I am sure this will come as no surprise to him, I disagree with the contents of the legislation and the thrust of the private member's bill to reinstate capital punishment in this country and, as my hon. colleague just mentioned, to require life imprisonment for certain young offenders charged and convicted of first degree murder.

In the introduction and debate of this piece of legislation, I find it interesting that the hon. member said that this is not about vengeance. He indicated that vengeance plays no part in seeking the death penalty. He went on to say that it was not about deterrence. My hon. colleague, who spoke prior to me, indicated that the statistics are there and there is no evidence that capital punishment acts as a deterrent to murderers.

Therefore, if it is not about vengeance or deterrence, what is the purpose of the legislation? The mover says it is about safety. I presume what he means is that if we take a person who is convicted of first degree murder and execute them they are not going to commit murder a second time. The reality is that in this country we have life imprisonment. The reality is that the Paul Bernardos and Clifford Olsons, who are talked about by the mover of this bill, will not be released from prison. The purpose of prison is safety. If we can achieve the purpose of safety through prison then what is the point of execution? If we can achieve safety in a more humane and civilized way then surely the hon. member will agree, if vengeance is not part of the issue, and if safety can be achieved in another way, that is the way we should proceed.

Criminal Code
Private Members' Business

11:30 a.m.

An hon. member

Don't count on it.

Criminal Code
Private Members' Business

11:30 a.m.

NDP

Peter Mancini Sydney—Victoria, NS

I am not. That being said, consequently there is no necessary rationale for the legislation that has been brought into the House today. I submit we can achieve safety in a better way and as a better society. If we went to Canadians and said that the people who are convicted of first degree murder in the most heinous circumstances will not be released from prison unless they avail themselves of Canadians' will to release them through an application under the faint hope clause, Canadians would say fine, if safety is the issue and we know we are safe.

As I have indicated, I think the rationale is then gone for the piece of legislation.

My hon colleague, the mover of this bill, and I think there were some members of his party who heckled the member from the Liberal Party who spoke, said the reason we are having this debate is public opinion, the reason that we are reintroducing this whole issue, even though it has been debated not once but twice in this House, is that 63% according to Gallup want us to talk about this issue and want capital punishment.

I ask him, then, if public opinion is the rationale, will he put a caveat into his legislation and say we want the death penalty but we are going to review it as public opinion shifts? Perhaps in three years if 55% of the Canadian population according to some poll says we do not want capital punishment, we will reintroduce the legislation—

Criminal Code
Private Members' Business

11:35 a.m.

An hon. member

It never happened.

Criminal Code
Private Members' Business

11:35 a.m.

NDP

Peter Mancini Sydney—Victoria, NS

The hon. mover says that it has never happened. I guess what we are going to do is leave this to a public relations campaign between the victims rights groups perhaps on one hand and the council of churches on the other, the victims rights groups perhaps saying they want the death penalty and the council of churches saying it does not. Who can ever engage Canadians and win their support for the day, we will change the law accordingly.

Criminal Code
Private Members' Business

11:35 a.m.

An hon. member

Public opinion.

Criminal Code
Private Members' Business

11:35 a.m.

NDP

Peter Mancini Sydney—Victoria, NS

Exactly. Let us change each piece of legislation every year, depending on whether or not certain groups can present their case on television and in the media and gain the most public opinion.

Those people who were put to death between let us say 1997 and the year 2000 when the legislation might come up for review, well, they were on the wrong side of public opinion for three years. We will change it again in 2000 and we will not have the death penalty.

Maybe in 2010 we will change it again and those people between 2000 and 2010, good for them, they won the lottery. They did all right. Those after will suffer.

We are allowing the Gallup poll to determine legislation in Parliament where I believe we have been elected to represent our constituents' interests but also to lead this country into the next millennium.

That is our purpose and I think that is what we have to do. We now know there is no rationale for the piece of legislation. We now know it is being led by public opinion and that is the purpose of it, I suppose, to gain some points in another Gallup poll.

It would be Reform justice, I suppose. We know that jurors can err but I raise another point and I think it is an important point. In many states in America, our neighbours to the south, there is capital punishment.

The reality of what happens in study after study is that juries are reluctant to convict if they know the death penalty is what awaits the accused.

The mover of this legislation has talked about the Latimer case and it is interesting to note that jurors who convicted Mr. Latimer interviewed later on, and this is no secret, it was used by his defence council, indicated that had they known that the minimum sentence was 10 years, they would have entered a verdict of not guilty.

If we accept the statistics of my hon. friend, and I am not sure I do, let us suppose that 40% of Canadians on moral grounds opposed the death penalty, if they sit on the jury and cannot morally accede to the death penalty if it is law, they are left with no choice but to acquit.

I ask the mover of this legislation to think about that very carefully because it is a very real consequence in states where there is a death penalty.

The other side of this in reality is the frustration in the legal system. The bill makes provision for a mandatory appeal. It is a very American piece of legislation. I think we have to say that what we are doing here is free trade on certain kinds of justice issues.

We are importing American legislation into this country, into a judicial system and a court structured system that is British in nature. Let us be clear. We are trying to put a round peg into a square hole here and it is not going to fit.

If we do look to the American states where this type of legislation is in place, we see case after case where the appeals are dragged out for years. It is a fight for someone's life. Make no mistake, there are organizations in this country that would find funding to continue appeal after appeal, to look for clemency to move on.

I think we have to look at the reality of this. It is nice and easy to say this solves the problem, we are going to have an execution after we seek leave to appeal.

Since I have one minute left, I will try to wrap up. Like my colleague, there is so much to say on this issue that I could speak for a fairly long period of time. However, let me say that I find it absolutely contradictory and somewhat upsetting that the mover of this legislation would say that we are in favour of this and that we are going to do it nice and clean, in a way that nobody is really bothered, it will not be a public spectacle.

To those in favour of capital punishment, I say bring the accused into this Chamber, execute him here, watch him foul himself in this House, eye to eye, and then let them tell me that they are in favour.

I have not touched on the young offender areas of the bill, nor have I touched on an interesting little section that requires the body of the person who has been executed to be buried within the prison. And my friend says that this is not couched in vengeance. So much for Christian mercy.

Criminal Code
Private Members' Business

11:40 a.m.

Bloc

Michel Bellehumeur Berthier—Montcalm, QC

Madam Speaker, I am pleased to speak on this bill put forward by the Reform Party.

There is nothing surprising about this bill, considering that the Reform Party had tabled a bill during the 35th Parliament—

Criminal Code
Private Members' Business

11:40 a.m.

Reform

Jay Hill Prince George—Peace River, BC

Madam Speaker, on a point of order. This bill is not a Reform bill. This is my bill, the member for Prince George—Peace River, a private member's motion. Private members' motions and bills do not come from a party.