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Poll illustrates the ongoing death-penalty divide in North America

While Canada has not executed a person convicted of murder since 1962, discussions about the death penalty have never gone away.
Yeexin Richelle/Shutterstock

While Canada has not executed a person convicted of murder since 1962, discussions about the death penalty have never gone away. Unfortunately, serious attempts to gauge public opinion about capital punishment in Canada have often been met with opportunism from headline grabbers masquerading as sociologists.

Asking Canadians about the death penalty in the middle of Paul Bernardo’s 1995 trial, for instance, will yield an emotional response that is not rooted in logic. This is a delicate topic that must be met with nuance, not pretentiousness.

Earlier this month, Research Co. asked Canadians and Americans about their feelings on capital punishment, as well as the proper sentence for a person who has been convicted of murder. There are certain themes where the two countries agree, but the motivations that place people on either side of this debate can differ.

Some Canadians are not particularly thrilled with the concept of execution. More than one in four (27%) call the practice “never appropriate,” while 13% refer to it as “always appropriate.” This is a big contrast with the United States, where only 18% of Americans find the death penalty “never appropriate” and 16% deem it “always appropriate.”

When Canadians are asked about reinstating capital punishment for murder – which was eliminated in July 1976 – just over half (51%) support this idea, while 37% are opposed.

Men (55%), Canadians aged 55 and over (56%), Albertans (55%) and British Columbians (54%) are more likely to favour the return of the death penalty. In addition, those who voted for the Conservative Party of Canada in last year’s federal election are significantly more likely to welcome this notion (68%) than those who voted for the Liberal Party of Canada (52%) or the New Democratic Party (37%).

In the United States, almost three in five Americans (59%) support the possibility of prosecutors relying on the death penalty for murder cases, while just over one in four (27%) are opposed.

South of the border, we do not see wild shifts among age groups. Most self-described Republicans (76%) are in favour of keeping capital punishment in the books, along with majorities of independents (56%) and Democrats (51%).

An analysis of the reasons cited by supporters of the death penalty on both sides of the 49th parallel shows at least three in five Canadians and Americans (60% and 68%, respectively) subscribing to an “eye for an eye” mentality. If a convicted murderer has taken a life, execution fits the crime.

About half of supporters also believe that capital punishment serves as a deterrent for potential murderers (50% in Canada and 47% in the United States), and about two in five (41% in Canada and 42% in the United States) say it provides closure to the families of murder victims.

The biggest difference is observed on the impression of the death penalty saving taxpayer money and the costs associated with having murderers in prison. While only 43% of American supporters of capital punishment feel this way, the proportion climbs to 57% among their Canadian counterparts.

Conversely, sizable proportions of opponents of the death penalty (73% in Canada and 65% in the United States) cast doubt on the efficacy of the justice system, saying that a person may be wrongly convicted and then executed. Canadian opponents of capital punishment are more likely to feel that it is wrong to take a murderer’s life (50%) than are their American counterparts (41%).

A separate question that asks North American respondents about the best approach to punish a convicted murderer yielded dissimilar results. Americans are evenly split, with 42% choosing life imprisonment without the possibility of parole and 42% preferring the death penalty. As expected, most Republicans (56%) pick execution while most Democrats (53%) prefer life behind bars.

When asked the same question, almost half of Canadians (47%) prefer life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, while 37% select capital punishment. Only two regions of the country grant majority support to life behind bars: Atlantic Canada (54%) and British Columbia (52%).

When Canadians and Americans are asked about the death penalty, fewer than one in five believe it is “always appropriate,” and majorities appear to endorse it. However, Canadians are more likely to disdain execution and favour life imprisonment without parole as a punishment for convicted murderers.

The motivations cited by supporters of the death penalty are remarkable. Many Canadians look at capital punishment as an exercise in government spending restraint. Americans, who currently have this policy at the federal level and in 29 states, are not as likely to believe that the death penalty saves taxpayer money. •

Mario Canseco is president of Research Co.

Results are based on an online study conducted February 7–9 among 1,000 Canadian adults, and an online study conducted February 6–8 among 1,000 U.S. adults.