“My concern is for the society which adopts vengeance as a motive”

Quote from Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau’s speech in the House of Commons as he rallied support for abolishing capital punishment.

The year was 1976. It was a time of change and modernization. The Eaton’s catalogue was discontinued, the Timbit was introduced, and Canada was about to host its first ever Olympic Games in Montreal.

But inside the House of Commons, a debate older than the country had reignited. The matter at hand was the so-called hanging question – should Canada retain or abolish the death penalty?

The capital punishment debate, somewhat like the flag debate 12 years earlier, featured passionate discussions on each side.

Those in favour of keeping capital punishment had public opinion on their side – a majority of Canadians favoured the death penalty at the time. And as backbench MP Peter Elzinga declared, “to say that the death penalty is no deterrent is to say that men do not fear death.”

But for those who wanted to kill off capital punishment, including Trudeau, the death penalty was primitive. And, just as he thought the state had no place in the nation’s bedrooms, Trudeau believed the death penalty had no place in the penal philosophy of a young, modern nation.

As Trudeau said at the time, “my concern is for the society which adopts vengeance as an acceptable motive for its collective behaviour.”

In the end, the bill passed by a narrow margin of six votes. The death penalty died in Canada on July 14, 1976.

Old Don Jail, Toronto – Site of Canada’s last executions.

Image Source: Creative Commons, “Old Don Jail” by Edmondson Photography

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