Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s Speech in Support of the Abolition of Capital Punishment (House of Commons, June 15th, 1976.)

“I am sure that very few of us consciously contemplated, when we decided to run for public office, that we would find ourselves playing a decisive role in the resolution of a question as awesome as that of life and death. Yet, here we are, with all our individual limitations, required by the office we hold to make a decision on as profoundly important an issue as has ever divided Canadians.

It is not open to anyone among us to take refuge, in the comforting illusion that we are debating nothing more than an abstract theory of criminal justice, and that it will be the Cabinet’s sole responsibility to decide the actual fate of individual murderers, if this bill is defeated.

I want to make it very clear that, if a majority of honourable members vote against abolition, some people are going to be hanged. Their death would be a direct consequence of the negative decision made by this House on this bill.

I say that, Mister Speaker, not from any desire to be morbid or melodramatic, nor from any desire to try to absolve the Cabinet, in advance, of its share of responsibility for the taking of human life in the future, if this bill is defeated. I say it in order to impress upon the House as strongly as I can that what we will actually be deciding, when we vote on this bill, is not merely how the law of the land will be written, but also whether some human beings will live or die.

At this moment, eleven men are being held in Canadian prisons under sentence of death for the murder of policemen or prison officials. Some have exhausted their rights appeal – others have not. Therefore, while it is impossible to pre-judge how Cabinet will treat any individual case when the time comes to decide whether to invoke the royal prerogative of mercy and commute a death sentence to life imprisonment, it is inevitable that the defeat of this bill would eventually place the hangman’s noose around some person’s neck.

To make that quite clear: if this bill is defeated, some people will certainly hang.

While members are free to vote as they wish, those who vote against the bill, for whatever reason, cannot escape their personal share of responsibility for the hangings which will take place if the bill is defeated.

It is in that contest, Mister Speaker, that I wish to place my remarks on the issue before us.

Any discussion of capital punishment must begin with the identification of its intended purpose, which is clearly the security of society, the protection of innocent people against the ultimate criminal violence. It is not that goal which divides us. It is the goal we all share. What divides us is the question of appropriateness of state execution of murderers as a means of achieving that goal.

It is clear that the protection of innocent people against assaults on their lives and liberty is one of the highest duties of the state. It is equally clear that this duty requires aggressive and effective prevention, prosecution and punishment of criminal violence.

It is essential that people have confidence in the law, essential that they have confidence in the ability of the legal process to protect them against the lawless. Reinforcing that vital sense of confidence and security is the primary aim of Bill C-83, the companion piece to the bill we are now debating.

Longer mandatory sentences, and tightening of parole regulations in relation to convicted murderers will give society the assurance it needs that those who have unlawfully taken the life of another will be removed from our midst for a very long time.Other provisions are designed to restrict the availability of guns, the most common murder weapons, and to strengthen the ability of our police forces to prevent and solve crimes. There is every reason to believe that such measures will effectively inhibit criminal activity whereas capital punishment offers no such assurance. That is why the time has come for Parliament to decide whether we should remove capital punishment from the Criminal Code.

The crux of the question before us is whether execution is an effective and therefore justifiable weapon for the state to use in order to deter potential murderers.

There are those who sincerely believe that no man or group of men ever have the right to end a human life. They believe that life is a divine gift which only God has the right to take away. I am not one of those who share that belief.

Our law, from its earliest beginnings, has always recognized the right of an individual to kill another when there exists reasonable grounds for believing that killing an aggressor is necessary to the protection of one’s own life or that of another.

Moral philosophers and theologians have recognized for many centuries the right of a country to defend itself in a just war, even when defence involves the killing of enemies.

So the question before us is not whether execution by the state is justified per se. The question is whether state execution is an effective deterrent to murder, and therefore a justifiable act of collective self-defence.

The deterrent effect of capital punishment is at the very core of the issue, and since one’s moral view of the justification of capital punishment is entirely determined by one’s judgment of its deterrent effect, the proper focus of this debate is factual data and logical induction, not moral philosophy. In that sense, the issue before us must be resolved – by a practical rather than a moral judgement.

I know there are those who say that execution is justified because it prevents a murderer from ever again committing the same crime. It certainly does. But if you rely on that reasoning, you are killing a man not because his death may deter others from following in his footsteps, but because of what he might possibly do at some time. To justify such preventive execution, there would have to be some reasonable grounds for believing that a convicted murderer, if released into society, would murder again. In fact, the probability lies strongly in the other direction.

We know of only four people who have been found guilty of murder by a Canadian court, and convicted of murder a second time. In order to be absolutely sure than no murderer would murder again, we would have to take the lives of all persons convicted of either first- or second-degree murder, even though the probability is that an infinitesimal percentage of them would ever murder again if allowed to live. That’s an unacceptably high price to pay in human lives for a sense of security insignificantly greater than we have now.

I might ask those who would execute a person to prevent a future murder how they could logically avoid advocating the execution of mentally ill people who are found to have homicidal tendencies?

Well, you may say, let’s execute the murderer for the crime he has committed. Let’s take a life for a life. Let’s remove a savage animal from the human race.

I do not deny that society has the right to punish a criminal, and the right to make the punishment fit the crime, but to kill a man for punishment alone is an act of revenge. Nothing else. Some would prefer to call it retribution, because that word has a nicer sound. But the meaning is the same.

Are we, as a society, so lacking in respect for ourselves, so lacking in hope for human betterment, so socially bankrupt that we are ready to accept state vengeance as our penal philosophy?

Individuals who strike back at the murderer of a loved one and kill him in a frenzy of passionate grief have sometimes been excused by the courts because they were thought to have temporarily lost control of their reason. I have received letters from the parents of relatives of victims demanding the death penalty for the murderer, and have been deeply sympathetic to the suffering of those who have suffered such a tragic and cruel loss of a loved one. But the state cannot claim the excuse of blind grief or unreasoning passion when long after the provocative act, and after calm and deliberate consideration, it kills a man.

My primary concern here is not compassion for the murderer. My concern is for the society which adopts vengeance as an acceptable motive for its collective behaviour. If we make that choice, we will snuff out some of that boundless hope and confidence in ourselves and other people, which has marked our maturing as a free people. We will have chosen violence as a weapon against the violence we profess to abhor. Who is so confident that he knows for sure that such an official endorsement of violence will not harden the society we were elected to improve, will not pervade gradually many different relationships in our society? Who is so confident that he knows for sure that acceptance of state violence will not lead to the greater social acceptance of lesser forms of violence among our people?

Vengeance and violence damage and destroy those who adopt them, and lessen respect for the dignity and rights of others among those who condone them.

There is only one other possibly justification for capital punishment – the one we started with – the belief that execution of murderers will protect society by acting as a deterrent to the commission of murder by other people.

There are some who adopt an experimental approach to the question of deterrence, like a scientist experimenting with different combinations of chemicals in the search for a new healing drug.

Let’s try it, they say, and see if it works. If it does, we’ll keep it. If it doesn’t, we can always stop using it. Let’s not slam the door, they say, on a possibly effective weapon against murder, on some specious philosophical grounds. There are innocent lives at stake. If capital punishment prevents just one murder, they say, it will be adequately justified.

That’s compelling rhetoric, but it contains a fatal flaw, namely that we would be experimenting with human lives. Respect for human life is absolutely vital for the rights and freedom we all enjoy. Even the life of the most hardened criminal must be accorded some degree of respect in a free society. If we take that life without proven purpose, without proven necessity, then we weaken dangerously one of the fundamental principles which allow us to live together in peace, harmony and mutual respect. That is why free peoples have always insisted that the onus is on the person who would interfere with another’s life or liberty to prove that such interference is necessary for the common good.

Strictly speaking, therefore, it is not up to me, as an abolitionist, to prove that the execution of murderers will not prevent other murders. It is up to the advocates of capital punishment to prove that it will. If they cannot, their case must fail. Otherwise, this debate turns into a guessing game, and the lives of human beings become so many chips on of the poker table. That’s not good enough. I don’t want to hear your guesses about the deterrent value of capital punishment. I don’t want to hear about gut feelings. I want proof. Not absolute proof. Not even proof beyond a reasonable doubt. A preponderance of evidence will do. A preponderance of available evidence showing that executions are likely to deter other murderers would serve as an adequate justification for the act, an adequate guarantee that a human life was not being taken capriciously.

Show me the evidence that capital punishment anywhere, at any time, has deterred other people from committing murder. My own reading of the speeches made here on this issue since the first week of May, together with the Solicitor-General’s daily monitoring of the debate, have indicated that no such evidence has been placed before the House.

The evidence does not exist, neither in the Canadian experience nor in the experience of any other jurisdiction. At best, the statistics are inconclusive. They prove nothing. There is no evidence proving that the use or non-use of capital punishment has had any effect whatsoever on murder rates anywhere in the world.

I must confess I cannot understand why anyone would agree to kill a man without the least shred of assurance that his death would accomplish any worthwhile social purpose. If penalties applied by the state against law-breakers cannot be justified for their rehabilitative, punitive or deterrent value, they cannot be justified at all – not in a civilized society. Capital punishment fails on all three accounts. To retain it in the Criminal Code of Canada would be to abandon reason in favour of vengeance – to abandon hope and confidence in favour of despairing acceptance of our inability to cope with violence crime except with violence.

It is because I have an enduring confidence in mankind, and confidence in society’s ability to protect itself without taking human life, that I am eager to support this bill and vote for the abolition of capital punishment.”


Note: I have a hard copy of this speech and could not find it online. If there are any mistakes they are due to my typing incorrectly and shall be fixed post-haste. The parts that have been highlighted were done by me.

6 responses to “Pierre Elliott Trudeau’s Speech in Support of the Abolition of Capital Punishment (House of Commons, June 15th, 1976.)

  1. Second paragraph, first line: refuse should read refuge, I believe. Thank you for sharing this. Hudson.

  2. Louis La Torre

    I am for capital punishment, death penalty. Then after hearing so many cases of innocent people gone to jail for a crime they have never committed, it leaves me wondering is our juidicial system flawless, or does it have serious flaws? Our Canadian juidicial system needs some serious revision, the Law Society of Upper Canada which govern themselves created by politicians hundreds of years ago, is a clear indication their antiquated laws and poor customer service needs to be scrapped. Enough of the BS, ask the Brits to help revise the Canadian juidicial system. I dare you.

  3. I believe “violence” in the second last line of second last paragraph should read “violent”. Then, further up the page, …in that “contest”should read “context”.
    A true gem of reasoning. Thank you.

  4. In paragraph 8, I believe the word should be “context”, not “contest”. It just seems to fit better with the tone and content of the remainder of the speech.

  5. One correction: “It is in that contest, Mister Speaker” -> “It is in that context, Mister Speaker”

    It’s a powerful speech.

  6. Pingback: Pierre Trudeau Reminds the House of Commons Voting Against the Abolition of Capital Punishment Means Voting to Kill People (June 15th, 1976) | Just because it's legal doesn't mean the cops will let you get away with it

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