The federal Liberals swept the Conservative government out of office in 1963. The Liberals were resolutely opposed to capital punishment, and made their position clear in December 1967, when parliament voted to suspend the death penalty for civilian crimes for a period of 5 years. In 1973, this moratorium was extended by another 5 years. Two years before this period was to expire, a formal vote was taken in the House of Commons that answered this burning question: Should Canada retain or abolish the death penalty?
The vote could have gone either way.
Public opinion firmly favoured the death penalty, and this was backed by powerful organizations such as the Public Service Alliance of Canada. But politicians on both sides of the spectrum were against capital punishment. In the buildup to the vote, John Diefenbaker, Conservative prime minister of Canada until 1963, said of the death penalty: “It’s too dangerous, and innocent men can be executed and have been executed.” One week before the vote then Liberal prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau weighed in with an ardent speech in the House of Commons: “My concern is for the society which adopts vengeance as an acceptable motive for its collective behaviour. If we make that choice, we will snuff out some of the boundless hope and confidence in ourselves and other people, which has marked our maturing as a free people.”
But the individual most closely associated with Bill C-84 was the man who tabled it in parliament in 1976, federal solicitor general and human rights activist Warren Allmand. Like Trudeau, he was a passionate abolitionist. "I don't think Canadians are bloodthirsty people,” Allmand told the CBC in 1975. “I know a lot of them don't agree with me now. But I think I could convince [them] that capital punishment is a bad thing.”
Allmand’s will prevailed. In a free vote on July 14, 1974, Bill C-84 squeaked through the House of Commons with 131 parliamentarians voting for and 124 against abolishing the death sentence for all civilian crimes in Canada. It was replaced by life imprisonment with no chance of parole for 25 years.
A motion to restore the death penalty was introduced in the House of Commons in June 1987. It was convincingly defeated. And in 1998 Canada achieved full abolitionist status when all references to the death sentence were stripped from the National Defence Act.