Prime Minister Stephen Harper's musings on the death penalty have ignited a political debate in Ottawa even though he said he has no plans to act on the issue and legal scholars believe attempts to bring back capital punishment would likely be struck down by the Supreme Court.
Mr. Harper told the CBC this week he personally thinks "there are times where capital punishment is appropriate," adding he has no intention of bring the issue forward "in the next Parliament." On Wednesday, a spokeswoman for the Prime Minister's Office added: "The government has absolutely no plans to reinstate capital punishment."
The statements did not stop the opposition parties from attempting to score political points on the issue of the death penalty, which has not been used in Canada since 1962 and was removed from the Criminal Code in 1976.
NDP MP Joe Comartin said that the government is keeping the door open to a return to capital punishment by portraying it as what he called a "viable, useful tool for a society."
Mr. Comartin said capital punishment is "a useless tool in deterring or controlling crime," and that he would expect any prime minister to "simply make a blanket statement that he or she was opposed to capital punishment."
Liberal MP David McGuinty said the Conservatives have broken many promises in the past and could seek to bring back the death penalty if they obtain a majority in the House of Commons.
Mr. McGuinty pointed to the fact the Canadian government no longer advocates on behalf of every Canadian who faces the death penalty abroad, and that Mr. Harper could seek to change the government's domestic position as well.
"I can anticipate he'd do so even more openly if he were to have more unfettered power," Mr. McGuinty said in an interview, adding that he holds similar fears regarding abortion and gun control.
Bloc Québécois MP Claude de Bellefeuille added she found it "worrying that Mr. Harper could float this trial balloon in a bid to reopen the debate on the death penalty."
But legal experts said the Supreme Court took a strong position against capital punishment in a 2002 ruling in a case involving the extradition of two people who faced the death penalty in the United States. In a unanimous ruling, the court condemned the death penalty as an irreversible punishment, and said the two Vancouver men could be extradited only if Canada obtained a guarantee that they would not face execution.
"Even though [that case]was about extradition and not the constitutionality of the death penalty in Canada, any attempt to reinstitute the death penalty would raise serious constitutional questions," said Jamie Cameron, a professor at York University's Osgoode Hall Law School. "In my opinion, the odds are that it would be found unconstitutional."
While groups opposed to the death penalty praised the 2002 ruling, members of the Canadian Alliance, some of whom are now in government as Conservatives, criticized it.
"The court has opened up a door to allowing terrorists and murderers from other jurisdictions to come to Canada," said Vic Toews, who was an opposition MP at the time and is now the Public Safety Minister.
The Progressive Conservative government of Brian Mulroney held a free vote on the reinstatement of the death penalty in 1987. A return to capital punishment was opposed by 148 MPs, and favoured by 127.
In Canadian history, 1,481 people have been sentenced to death, and 710 of them have been executed.
According to the federal Department of Justice, "Canada has played a key role in denouncing the use of capital punishment at the international level."
With a report from Jane Taber