Over the past couple of years, discussions about the death penalty have carried on in some countries.
The United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union (EU) precipitated a debate on the reconsideration of capital punishment. For proponents, the threats that Britain faces are different and require new sentencing tools, particularly for terrorism offences.
In this frame of mind, British Conservative Party MP Lee Anderson casually touted the “100 per cent success rate” of the death penalty last month, claiming that “nobody has ever committed a crime after being executed.” The remarks drew the censure of Prime Minister and Conservative leader Rishi Sunak, who simply stated that Anderson did not speak “the government’s view.”
At this point, there is no politician in Canada who is seeking to revise the issue. The country abolished the death penalty for murder in 1976. It took another 23 years for the last remaining form of capital punishment in the country – service offences committed by members of the military – to be eliminated.
For the past four years, Research Co. and Glacier Media have asked Canadians about the death penalty. Support for the return of capital punishment in murder convictions was remarkably stable in 2020 (51 per cent), 2021 (50 per cent) and 2022 (51 per cent).
This year, 54 per cent of Canadians support reinstating the death penalty for murder in Canada, up four points in a year. Just over a third of Canadians (36 per cent, down one point) are opposed to this course of action, while 10 per cent (down two points) are undecided.
Men (57 per cent) and Canadians aged 55 and over (59 per cent) are more likely to envision a Canada where the execution of murderers is an option. Majorities of residents in all regions, with the exception of Quebec, are in favour of the change.
Fewer than half of Canadians who voted for the Liberal Party and the New Democratic Party (NDP) in the 2021 federal election (48 per cent and 49 per cent respectively) favour the reinstatement of the death penalty. Among Conservative Party voters, support rises to 71 per cent.
The motivations of Canadians who sit on either side of the debate remain consistent. Most of those who want capital punishment in the books believe it would serve as a deterrent (57 per cent), fits the crime committed by a person convicted of murder (55 per cent) and would save taxpayers money and prison costs (51 per cent). Conversely, two thirds of death penalty opponents (66 per cent) are concerned about a person being wrongly convicted and then executed, while more than two in five (42 per cent) do not consider the death penalty as proper punishment.
It is important to note that the increase in support for amending Canada’s legislation is accompanied by a rising acceptance of the concept of capital punishment. In 2020, 50 per cent of Canadians told us that the death penalty was “sometimes” appropriate. This year, the proportion has risen to 58 per cent, with only one in four Canadians (25 per cent) saying this option should “never” be entertained. For just under one in 10 Canadians (nine per cent), capital punishment is “always” appropriate.
Once again, political allegiance helps explain the fluctuation. Just under a third of Liberal and NDP voters from 2021 (32 per cent and 29 per cent, respectively) say capital punishment is never appropriate, compared to 16 per cent among Conservative supporters.
One question where the movement is negligible is on the preferred punishment for convicted murderers in Canada. A majority of Canadians (53 per cent) favour life imprisonment without the possibility of parole (up one point since 2021), while more than a third (37 per cent, also up one point) would prefer the death penalty.
There is no shortage of possible explanations for the way some of these numbers have moved over the past year. The results could be interpreted as the embodiment of the disappointment that many Canadians experience when they feel the justice system has missed the mark. Alternatively, we could focus on how local crimes that get reported extensively are processed by residents on social media’s realm of immediate retribution and absence of filters.
Still, the survey makes it evident that flirtation with a concept is not the same as support for change. We start with 67 per cent of Canadians who think the death penalty is “always” or “sometimes” appropriate, and drop to 54 per cent on the question about the reinstatement of capital punishment for murder in Canada.
Then, when provided with a choice that ensures that a convicted murderer is never released, the outright endorsement of the death penalty stands at 37 per cent. In short, while many Canadians appear to be window-dressing when pondering the concept of capital punishment, the calls to action do not manifest as prominently on legislative change and judicial prerogative.
Mario Canseco is president of Research Co.
Results are based on an online study conducted from March 10-12, 2023, among 1,000 Canadian adults. The data has been statistically weighted according to Canadian census figures for age, gender and region. The margin of error, which measures sample variability, is plus or minus 3.1 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.