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Poll: Majority of Canadians support death penalty for murder

Robert Pickton parole issue reignites calls for changes to the system
While most Canadians support the death penalty for murder, a slight majority say they prefer life imprisonment without parole

In the first few months of 2024, Canadians were exposed to stories—particularly on social media—that reignited the debate on capital punishment. In British Columbia, the case of Robert Pickton was back in the spotlight after his impending eligibility for day parole was criticized by federal Conservative Party leader Pierre Poilievre.

Pickton, originally detained in 2002, was convicted for the murders of six women, but was charged in connection with 20 other disappearances. Pickton’s life sentence does contemplate the possibility of parole in 2027, although it is highly improbable that any board will approve it.

The Conservatives, who successfully connected with Canadian voters on the concept of mandatory minimum sentences when Stephen Harper was their leader, also hammered the current federal government on the decision to transfer Luka Magnotta—who was convicted of first-degree murder in 2014—to a medium-security facility in Quebec. Type the names “Pickton” or “Magnotta” on X, and you will be immediately exposed to tweets calling for the return of capital punishment.

Starting in 2020, Research Co. and Glacier Media have asked Canadians annually about their views on the death penalty for murder. Although our country eliminated this possibility in July 1976, we have consistently seen about half of Canadians voicing support for reinstating capital punishment.

We also asked Canadians to choose between two distinct approaches as possible punishments for convicted murderers. With this question, more than half of respondents express a preference for life imprisonment without parole, and not execution.

In this year’s survey, just over half of Canadians (53 per cent, down five points since 2023) think the death penalty is “sometimes” appropriate. About one in four (26 per cent, up one point) say it is “never” appropriate, while 14 per cent (up five points) say it is “always” appropriate.

The intriguing fluctuations on this question are related to ethnic origin. While 31 per cent of Canadians of European descent believe the death penalty is “never” appropriate, the proportions are lower among respondents whose origins are Indigenous (20 per cent), South Asian (15 per cent) and East Asian (10 per cent).

Across the country, 57 per cent of Canadians support reinstating the death penalty for murder in Canada. This is the highest number we have recorded in five yearly measurements, up three points since 2023 and up six points since 2022.

Majorities in every region side with the return of capital punishment, starting at 52 per cent in Quebec, and rising to 57 per cent in Ontario, 58 per cent in British Columbia, 60 per cent in both Atlantic Canada and Alberta, and 62 per cent in Saskatchewan and Manitoba. Conservative voters in 2021 are more likely to endorse this course of action (69 per cent) than counterparts who voted for the Liberal Party (56 per cent) or the New Democratic Party (49 per cent).

Canadians who support the return of the death penalty primarily cite four reasons: Deterrence (50 per cent), a punishment that fits the crime (also 50 per cent), saving taxpayers money and the costs associated with having murderers in prison (48 per cent) and closure for the families of murder victims (47 per cent). Fewer than three in 10 (28 per cent) think murderers simply cannot be rehabilitated.

For opponents of the death penalty, the main stumbling block is the possibility of wrongful convictions that lead to executions (67 per cent). Fewer think it is wrong to take a murderer’s life (45 per cent). Forty per cent prefer to abide by the decisions of judges when it comes to prison time, and more than a third (38 per cent) say capital punishment will not serve as a deterrent. Fewer than one in five (18 per cent) believe murderers can be rehabilitated.

The final question shifts the debate dramatically.

More than half of Canadians (55 per cent, up two points since 2023) prefer life imprisonment without the possibility of parole to deal with convicted murderers, while just over a third (35 per cent, down two points) choose the death penalty.

We had majorities of Canadians in every province arguing for the return of the death penalty. When the issue is analyzed within the context of the justice system, outright support for the death penalty stands at 37 per cent in Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Alberta, 36 per cent in Ontario, 35 per cent in B.C., 34 per cent in Atlantic Canada and 33 per cent in Quebec. Almost half of Conservatives (48 per cent) still choose capital punishment, compared to 34 per cent of Liberals and 23 per cent of New Democrats.

This year’s survey is consistent with what we have reported in the past. There is a noticeable climb in the proportion of Canadians who support bringing back the death penalty, but it is not accompanied by a rejection of a system that would guarantee that convicted murderers would be behind bars for life.

It would have been easy for the leader of the opposition to come out in favour of reinstating capital punishment. Poilievre’s stance signals an intention to make parole—or other elements of current sentencing guidelines that might seem too temperate for outside observers—more difficult to attain for those currently imprisoned.

Mario Canseco is president of Research Co.

Results are based on an online study conducted from March 8-10, 2024, among 1,002 adults in Canada. 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.