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Opinion: Canadians’ views about death penalty split along party, regional lines

Support in B.C. for reinstating capital punishment rises 13 points since 2021 to reach a countrywide high of 59%, poll finds.
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Public support for the idea of reinstating the death penalty in Canada has risen three percentage points since last year, a new poll has found.

In April 2020, an electronic petition was filed in the United Kingdom to urge the government to consider the possibility of reinstating the death penalty.

At a time when the ramifications of Brexit were still being studied by businesses and residents, this seemed like a unique opportunity to set the United Kingdom apart from other European nations. After all, the last remaining instance where capital punishment could be theoretically considered in the United Kingdom – military offences and treason – disappeared in 1999 because the country was a member of the European Union (EU).

The electronic petition called for the death penalty to be “an option for convicted terrorists, mass murderers, serial rapists, paedophiles and child killers.” It also sought to limit the number of appeals to only one, which had to be initiated within three months of conviction and with no right to legal aid.

After six months, the electronic petition gathered 12,691 signatures of support – an extremely low number when compared to the outcome of similar drives in the U.K. to end child food poverty (more than 1.1 million signatures) or making verified identification a prerequisite for opening a social media account (more than 696,000 signatures). In a concise statement, the government simply said it had “no plans” to reconsider the ban on capital punishment.

Research Co. and Glacier Media track the views of Canadians on the death penalty every year. Even though capital punishment was eliminated in July 1976, there are voices that call for its return to Canada.

One of the issues where we see a little bit of movement is on the personal point of view of Canadians. A majority (54 per cent, up three points since 2021) think the death penalty is sometimes appropriate. This leaves two smaller groups that are decidedly at odds: 27 per cent who say capital punishment is never appropriate (down two points) and 11 per cent who think it is always appropriate (up one point).

The results on the question on reinstating the death penalty for murder in Canada are virtually the same as in 2021. A majority of Canadians (51 per cent, up one point) are supportive of this course of action, while more than a third (37 per cent, also up one point) disagree and 12 per cent are undecided.

It has not been a surprise to see the return of capital punishment become a captivating proposition for Canadians who vote for the Conservative Party. More than three in five Tory voters (63 per cent) are in favour of reinstating the death penalty. They are joined this year by 52 per cent of Canadians who cast ballots for the New Democratic Party (NDP) and 49 per cent of those who supported the Liberal Party.

One of the surprises on this question is the regional fluctuation. We still have majorities of residents of Saskatchewan and Manitoba (58 per cent) and Alberta (57 per cent) who would welcome the return of capital punishment, while the numbers are lower in Ontario (49 per cent), Quebec (47 per cent) and Atlantic Canada (42 per cent). There is a significant shift in British Columbia, where support for reinstating the death penalty is up 13 points since 2021 to reach a nationwide high of 59 per cent.

Supporters of capital punishment continue to believe that its presence in the Criminal Code would deter potential murderers (57 per cent, up four points) and save taxpayers money and the costs associated with imprisonment (55 per cent, up three points). Slightly fewer supporters think it is a fitting penalty for someone who took a human life (51 per cent, down one point) and a provider of closure to the families of murder victims (49 per cent, up two points).

Canadians who are opposed to the death penalty are consistent in their main concern, with 67 per cent fearing that a person may be wrongly convicted and then executed. There are some drops in the other reasons that people may provide to decry the practice, such as deeming it wrong to take a convicted murderer’s own life as punishment (42 per cent, down eight points), thinking it will not work as a deterrent (39 per cent, down eight points), and wanting murderers to do their time in prison, as indicated by a judge (also 39 per cent, down three points).

When Canadians are asked what they think is the most suitable approach to deal with a convicted murderer in Canada, a larger proportion continue to choose life imprisonment without the possibility of parole (52 per cent, up one point) to the death penalty (36 per cent, up two points).

Still, if there is ultimately any action to foster a public debate on this matter, it will probably come from the Conservatives. Majorities of Canadians who voted for the Liberals and the NDP last year say they prefer life in prison on these cases (60 per cent and 56 per cent respectively). Among Conservatives, a larger proportion favour the death penalty (47 per cent) over life behind bars (40 per cent). It will be interesting to watch if any of the contenders for the party’s leadership choose to discuss this matter in the next six months.

Mario Canseco is president of Research Co.

Results are based on an online study conducted from February 25 to February 27, 2022, 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.