Mr. Speaker, it gives me great pleasure today to take part in the debate on motion M-411 introduced by the member for York West.
Briefly, motion M-411 states that:
—the government should reaffirm that: (a) there is no death penalty in Canada; (b) it is the policy of the government to seek clemency, on humanitarian grounds, for Canadians sentenced to death in foreign countries; and (c) Canada will continue its leadership role in promoting the abolition of the death penalty internationally.
This debate is very timely in that we believed that the issue of the death penalty had been closed, politically speaking, for more than 20 years. However, this Conservative government has recently sent out some rather disturbing signals on this issue. Are the Conservatives giving us a glimpse of the policies they would adopt if they had a majority government? It is up to them to prove otherwise.
I do not want to debate this government's reactionary claims. Instead, I would like to discuss each point in this motion, to show the people who are watching why the death penalty should be avoided and why it is unworthy of the society we live in today.
First, Canada no longer allows the death penalty. It was officially abolished on July 14, 1976 for all crimes, except certain offences committed by soldiers. However, in fact, there has not been a civilian execution in Canada since 1962.
The military death penality was officially abolished in 1998, even though no soldier had been sentenced to death by a military court since the second world war, when there was only one execution. The decision to abolish the death penalty was based on a number of principles. I will not list them all, but one principle holds that there is no going back when a criminal is put to death. Any judicial error or miscarriage of justice cannot be corrected. Justice being human, it is impossible to guarantee that these sorts of errors will not occur.
Moreover, a justice system that applies the death penalty is focused on punishment, not re-education. It is implicitly ruling out the possibility that the criminal can change for the better one day. We must not confuse justice, which recognizes the harm that has been done to the victim, with vengeance, which is the desire to do harm. Justice can be the first step in the healing process for the victim, whereas vengeance imprisons the victim or victims in feelings that we know are negative.
Plenty of humanist arguments honourably support the decision to abolish the death penalty and could be the topic of a separate debate. This is why I maintain that wanting to reverse the abolition of the death penalty is a clear demonstration of narrow-mindedness and irrationality in terms of what we are at our very core: human beings.
Second, there is the fact that one of our policies is to seek clemency, for humanitarian reasons, on behalf of our citizens facing the death penalty in other countries. I would like to point out here that Canada did not hesitate in the past to appeal to other countries and ask that the death penalty not be imposed on its citizens who had been convicted. We do so not only for humanitarian reasons, but also to be consistent with our domestic laws.
Furthermore, this position has been reinforced by the Supreme Court, which ruled on February 15, 2001, that, under Canadian law, the death sentence constitutes cruel and unusual punishment. As a result, it prohibited the extradition of Canadian and other citizens to foreign countries if there is any risk they could be sentenced to death. In short, the Government of Canada must obtain guarantees that the death penalty will not be sought or imposed if the accused is to be extradited.
More recently, however, this government seems to be moving away from this humanist approach. Last fall, it refused to intervene with the State of Montana in the case of Ronald Allen Smith, an Albertan sentenced to death for the murder of two aboriginal men of the Blackfeet tribe in 1982. Mr. Smith was convicted of the murders and must serve an exemplary sentence, since his crimes are inexcusable.
However, the political debate triggered by this government has unfortunately strayed from the position mentioned earlier. Despite what the Minister of Justice said at the time, it was not a matter of bringing that individual back to Canada. Nor was it a question of public safety. It is not a debate on whether a country operates under the rule of law, or whether it is democratic.
The fact remains that we must follow the laws we have established for ourselves and not ignore them for the sake of the laws of another country. The Supreme Court was clear about this and we must abide by this position. This is why the government's inaction in Mr. Smith's case could permanently stain our international reputation.
In fact, it undermines our international involvement. For example, the Conservative government took a hard line with the Chinese government over human rights. But how will it explain that it defends the rights of people on death row in China, but not in the United States?
Canada has already been strongly criticized, notably by the Secretary General of the European Council, Terry Davis, who accused Canada of outsourcing the death penalty to other countries.
Our position must remain the same, regardless of the country, its importance or its domestic laws. Canada should have intervened and tried to get Montana to commute Mr. Smith's death sentence, while still respecting local laws.
I would like to take this opportunity to highlight the Bloc Québécois' extraordinary initiative to unite all opposition parties on December 6 to intervene with the governor of Montana. Our approach honoured our traditional position, did not excuse Mr. Smith's actions, and demonstrated absolute respect for Montana's institutions.
Third, it is time to show leadership in campaigning for the abolition of the death penalty worldwide.
Over the past few decades, we sponsored all UN resolutions concerning the abolition of the death penalty. Suddenly, in October 2007, that changed.
Canada surprised all of its natural allies by refusing to sponsor a resolution calling for a moratorium on the death penalty, a European Union initiative that enjoyed the official support of 87 countries.
At the time, the government said that it wanted to devote its energy to other more important documents. To hear them say it, one would think that supporting the resolution would have required a colossal effort on the part of the government. But according to a former Canadian ambassador to the UN, Paul Heinbecker, “co-sponsorship does not involve much more effort than a phone call or raising a hand during a meeting”. The government's position does not hold water and is very disappointing.
Fortunately, the resolution was adopted nevertheless but we sent a message that we are moving away from our tradition as a champion of fundamental human rights, a tradition that brought a very positive cachet to our international image.
Therefore, it is more than necessary to reaffirm this determination once more and at the same time to correct the message sent to the international community.
I will close by stating that citizens interested in human rights should be concerned about the change in this government's position. There is no indication that it is the government's intention, any time soon, to restore the death penalty, a punishment that has not been proven to be a deterrent and that remains unconstitutional in the eyes of the Supreme Court. However, the Conservatives' actions—particularly the refusal to sponsor the United Nations resolution or to intervene in Mr. Smith's case—should sound the alarm for our citizens.
That is why the Bloc Québécois supports Motion M-411. This motion is more than necessary at a time when ideological or rhetorical sound bites are used to please a particular segment of society.
Previous generations fought to defend human rights and the respect for human dignity. We must face up to our principles and we must clearly reaffirm our commitment to them.