It’s not the circumstances of Ronald Allen Smith’s crimes or trial that make his case noteworthy. A native of Red Deer, Alberta, Smith killed two men who stopped to pick him up while he was hitchhiking through Montana in 1982. He was tried, convicted, and sentenced to death for his crimes. Nor does Smith’s sentence make him unique. Since 1980, 1,136 people have been executed in the United States. The death row population today is more than triple what it was in 1982.
Smith’s case stands out from others because it represents the first time the Canadian government did not seek clemency for one of its citizens condemned to death on foreign soil since the practice was instated in 1976.
Until 2007, the government would automatically advocate on behalf of Canadians sentenced to die abroad. In late October of that year, the Conservative government’s Department of Foreign Affairs changed the policy, stating it would no longer seek clemency for Canadians on death row in democratic countries where they could expect a fair trial – neglecting to specify what qualified as a “democratic country” beyond the U.S. The decision to request clemency is now decided on a case-by-case basis. Prime Minister Stephen Harper stated that on the basis of his government’s strong initiatives to tackle violent crime, seeking clemency on behalf of acknowledged murderers would “send the wrong message to the Canadian population.”
The following month, the Conservatives announced they would not be co-sponsoring a United Nations resolution calling for an international moratorium on the death penalty, even though Canada has consistently sponsored similar resolutions every year between 1998 and 2005. Conservative spokesperson Catherine Gagnaire explained to the Associated Press that her government believed the resolution had adequate support already, and Canada would not vote against it when it came before the General Assembly. Harper has said that his government is not interested in resurrecting the debate to reinstate the death penalty in Canada – that these decisions are just a reflection of his government’s tougher stance on crime.
Amnesty International has argued that decisions such as these represent a regression in Canada’s ongoing struggle to promote human rights. They fear the introduction of grey areas in Canada’s stance on capital punishment could endanger Canadian lives.
The struggle to abolish the death penalty in Canada spanned over 60 years. Robert Bickerdike introduced the first abolitionist bill in Canada in 1914, arguing that capital punishment was essentially state murder, a blot on Christianity, an ineffective deterrent to crime, and a brutal and unnecessary punishment.
While Bickerdike’s argument failed to compel his contemporaries and a motion for adjournment quickly defeated the bill, he remained a lone voice of dissent in Parliament, stubbornly refusing to accept defeat. He tried to get his bill passed for three more years, and never succeeded.
Despite rejecting an all-out ban on capital punishment, the Canadian government did begin to limit offences punishable by death, striking rape from the list of capital offences in 1954. Following this move, pressure against the death penalty increased in government. For almost a decade, every session of Parliament included an abolition bill. This resulted in the first major debate about the death penalty in 1966. The debate was lengthy, emotional, and resulted in capital punishment being limited to murder, the killing of officers of the peace, and certain stipulations under the National Defence Act.
On July 14, 1976, after a 98-hour debate, and despite death threats against abolitionist members of Parliament, MPs voted to abolish capital punishment from the Canadian Criminal Code, retaining it only for the extreme cases of mutiny or treason – charges that had never been pressed against a Canadian. The last vestiges of capital punishment were erased from Canadian legislation on December 10, 1998, when the remaining passages making reference to capital punishment were removed from the National Defence Act. Only once in the gradual erasure of the death penalty in Canada has the possibility of reversal presented itself. In 1987, under the leadership of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, the Progressive Conservatives tried to hold a free vote for the reinstatement of capital punishment. The bill was rejected.
Many feared that the loss of the ultimate punishment would unleash crime and destruction upon the Canadian public. Contrary to predictions, the homicide rate did not increase after 1976. According to statistics compiled by Amnesty International, the homicide rate in Canada began to fall for the next 20 years, reaching an all-time low of 1.9 homicides per 100,000 people in 1998. Yet, the homicide conviction rate nearly doubled in the decade after abolition, possibly, according to some, because Canadians were more willing to convict individuals when they weren’t required to decide between life and death.
The international community has been moving toward death sentence abolition since the mid-1940s. In December 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which detailed the rights and freedoms of individuals (including the “right to life”), was adopted and ratified. Since the declaration, 118 UN-member states have abolished the death penalty; only 78 countries and territories still retain it. The initial declaration has sparked numerous additional declarations, covenants, conventions, and optional protocols to encourage the elimination of the death penalty.
Adopting numerous resolutions to abolish the death sentence internationally and still refusing to extradite people who will be facing the death penalty upon return, Canada has always been a solid backer during the international push for abolition.
On the surface, the changes made in 2007 seem minor. Harper has assured Canadians that the death penalty is no closer to being reinstated in Canada than it ever was. But there may be serious ramifications for our non-interference in international cases. After the Conservatives’ decision not to advocate on behalf of Ronald Smith, Irwin Cotler, a McGill professor, ex-minister of justice, and international human rights lawyer, spoke out to the media.“Why would we now refuse to intervene to protect a Canadian citizen sentenced to death in an American state, thereby effectively reinstating capital punishment for Canadians?” he asked in an interview with the Associated Press.
Alex Neve, secretary general of Amnesty International Canada, heaped criticism on the decision about Smith, telling the CBC that Canada was adopting a role as an “active bystander,” and pointing out the international effects that the decision would have on Canada’s reputation as an upholder of human rights. Dan McTeague, one-time secretary to the minister of foreign affairs and an influential player in William Sampson’s release in 2003, who faced beheading in Saudi Arabia after being accused of planting a bomb under a car, openly criticized the double standard set up by the Conservatives. “Foreign policy is always a mirror of our domestic values,” he told the Associated Press.
Critics see the contradiction exposed by McTeague as the sticking point. It’s not weak to have tough standards for Canadian criminals while still protecting them from punishment abroad that is deemed too inhumane and abhorrent to be practiced in Canada. It is, however, inconsistent to condemn a practice on ethical and legal grounds at home, but condone it when another nation perpetrates it. The ambiguity of the term “democratic country” itself could pose a threat to Canadians whose lives hang in the balance.
Where historically, Canadian intervention in another nation’s decision to use the death penalty was standard, it has now become a judgment of that nation’s commitment to democracy or the state of their legal system. Conservative MP Stockwell Day asked the media: “[Why] intervene to bring murderers who have received due process in democratic countries back to Canada?” But as Lorne Waldman, a member of legal team for Maher Arar – a Canadian imprisoned in the U.S. Guantanamo Bay – pointed out after the Smith affair: “You don’t create policy based upon one individual case. [The death penalty is] either acceptable in all cases or it’s not acceptable. And if we reject it, we reject it for everyone, even the most difficult cases.”