Crime in Canada spurs calls for reviving capital punishment

Canada's reputation as a law-abiding country - at least in relation to its large neighbor - is becoming tarnished.

One result is that the country is awash with growing debate about the death penalty, which the Liberal Party government abolished six years ago.

The current interest in the topic stems from an inmate uprising in July at Montreal's Archambault prison that left three guards and two prisoners dead.

Although many Canadians favor reinstitution of capital punishment for killers of prison guards and police, such a move is not likely as long as Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau continues to hold a majority in Parliament. He strongly opposes capital punishment.

In comparison to their US neighbors, Canadians are privileged to live in a society relatively free of violent crime.

The murder rate here is 2.87 per 100,000 citizens, compared to 8.4 per 100, 000 in the US. What is more, in Canada the number of homicides has declined every year since the federal government banned capital punishment in 1976.

In 1980, the most recent year for which statistics are available, there were 593 murders among a population of 23 million, compared to 668 murders six years ago among a slightly smaller population. This fact is often cited by those who are against the reintroduction of the death penalty.

The anti-capital-punishment forces have another argument: the possibility of mistaken execution.

Last spring, for instance, a Micmac Indian from Sydney, Nova Scotia, was released from federal penitentiary after serving 11 years for murder. Newly discovered evidence showed he may not have committed the murder. Yet, before 1976, he might have been hanged.

But sentiment in favor of limited use of the death penalty remains strong.

Gallup polls have shown that slightly more than 70 percent of Canadians favor the death penalty for convicted murderers of police and prison guards or for terrorists convicted of homicide.

The emotional issue is the source of curious twists in Canadian politics. The Liberal government, which controls Parliament, has no intention of letting the issue gather momentum. Mr. Trudeau has refused to allow the question to be aired.

That tactic was condemned by Joe Clark, former prime minister and Conservative Party leader, even though Mr. Clark himself opposes capital punishment. He said the Liberals were eroding Parliament's power by defying those elected representatives who want to see the issue discussed and voted upon.

One advocate of capital punishment is Peter Worthington, editor of the conservative Toronto Sun. Bringing back hanging would make society ''more secure , which is society's right,'' he says.

''We long ago transferred responsibility for defending ourselves to the state , which has an obligation to protect its citizens,'' he adds.

In an opposing view, the Toronto Star pointed out that the sacredness of human life is a hallmark of civilized societies, concluding, ''It is the same tenet that demands that capital punishment be rejected as abhorrent, since it can never be redressed if it is found to be mistaken and an innocent person is put to death.''

A recent report said property crimes such as theft, robbery, or arson are committed every 18 seconds in Canada. A violent crime occurs every 4 minutes.

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