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Canadians split on idea of bringing back death penalty: poll

50% of Canadians would support reinstating capital punishment for murder.
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Canadians remain divided on the idea of bringing back the death penalty in this country, a new Research Co. survey reveals.

In the year 2020, the justice systems of at least 18 countries around the world allowed a human being to be executed for a crime.

Most of these individual instances where capital punishment was applied took place in China, Iran and Saudi Arabia. Canadians do not hold these three nations in particularly high regard. When we last asked in December, positive opinions at the Canada-wide level reached 15% for Iran, 19% for China and 23% for Saudi Arabia.

There is no serious discussion going on in any legislature across Canada to bring back the death penalty. However, since its elimination in July 1976, there have been moments when heinous crimes have been met with pleas for its re-introduction – even more so now with the unbridled power of communications that social media affords.

Research Co. and Glacier Media ask Canadians every year about their views on capital punishment. The results in 2021 show there is still some appetite for the death penalty in specific areas of the country, and views vary dramatically according to a person’s political allegiance.

For almost three in 10 Canadians (29%), the conversation about changes to existing guidelines ends rather quickly: they consider that the death penalty is never appropriate. This represents a two-point increase since 2020, in a group that finds a larger representation among women (32%), Quebecers (31%), Atlantic Canadians (30%) and Canadians aged 18 to 34 (29%).

For 10% of Canadians (down three points), capital punishment is always appropriate. This leaves a majority of the country’s residents (51%, up one point) who think the death penalty is sometimes appropriate.

This year, 50% of Canadians (down one point since 2020) would support reinstating the death penalty for murder in the country, while 36% (also down one point) are opposed. There is practically no movement on this specific question, and some of the consistencies observed last year are still prevalent.

Canadians who voted for the Conservative Party in the 2019 federal election are significantly more likely to be in favour of the return of capital punishment (66%) than those who supported the Liberal Party (50%) or the New Democratic Party (NDP) (43%) in that democratic contest.

The regional analysis serves to confirm the ideological slant. Residents of Saskatchewan and Manitoba (61%) and Alberta (56%) hold the highest level of support for the reinstatement of the death penalty, followed by Quebec (52%), Atlantic Canada (48%), Ontario (48%) and British Columbia (46%). There is a significant gender gap as well, with 57% of men in Canada backing the return of capital punishment, compared to 45% of women.

The reasons cited by supporters of the death penalty vary, but majorities believe it would serve as a deterrent for potential murderers (53%), be a fitting penalty for the crime of taking a life (52%) and save taxpayers money and the costs associated with having murderers in prison (also 52%). Fewer supporters expect capital punishment to provide closure to the families of murder victims (47%) or suggest that murderers cannot be rehabilitated (32%).

Opponents of the death penalty are primarily concerned with failures in the justice system, with 67% saying a person may be wrongly convicted and then executed. Fewer also think that it is wrong to take a convicted murderer’s own life as punishment (50%), that the death penalty would not serve as a deterrent for potential murderers (47%), and that murderers should do their time in prison, as indicated by a judge. Still, only 20% of opponents believe a person convicted of murder can be rehabilitated.

There is some movement when we ask about the best punishment approach for convicted murderers in Canada. Support for life imprisonment without the possibility of parole increased by three points to 51%, while the proportion of Canadians who back the death penalty fell three points to 34%.

The visceral reaction that we observe on the initial question about the idea of capital punishment disappears when the only other option is life behind bars. Significant pluralities across all regions – with the glaring exception of Alberta – are in favour of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. Yet while only 23% of New Democrats and 32% of Liberals are in favour of the death penalty in this head-to-head scenario, the proportion climbs to 49% among Conservatives.

There have been some high-profile crimes in British Columbia’s Lower Mainland recently, which may lead centre-right politicians to call for added punitive measures. The survey outlines the death penalty as a notion that, while appealing in some areas and circumstances, is ultimately rejected by a significant proportion of Canadians, as long as the proper mechanisms are in place to ensure justice.

Mario Canseco is president of Research Co.

Results are based on an online study conducted from May 7 to May 9, 2021, 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.