An Open Letter to Stockwell Day

It saddens me that you have taken the unfortunate step of unilaterally changing modern Canadian policy and are now refusing to seek clemency for Canadian citizens facing execution abroad.

This change in policy upsets me because it introduces a dangerous ambiguity in the rights that all Canadians are supposed to be entitled to, regardless of where they live. I also believe that this policy, despite the life-and-death human rights issues it covers, was undemocratically imposed on the Canadian people without proper consultation or even a vote in parliament.

I realize that the debate over the merits and the morality of the death penalty can still produce heated discussions in this country. I realize that in the particular cases that this reversal of policy currently applies to that the affected individuals did receive a fair trial and were convicted of serious crimes by a jury of their peers. But those facts are irrelevant to what’s at issue here.

The official policy of this country for the past thirty years, by both Liberal and Conservative governments, has been that the state does not have the right to execute people for crimes they have committed. By our legal system, this is a truth held to be self-evident, applying to all Canadians. And such a tenant, if held to be true for Canadians in Canada, should be held true for Canadians everywhere.

Without this tenant, dangerous ambiguities enter the process. Are we now to determine whether a particular country follows the rule of law? Will we do this on a case by case basis, or will we have a list of countries that gets reviewed periodically or changed when the political situation of countries abroad change? Will Canadians be assured that such deliberations by future governments will not be influenced by the state of relations between our two countries, such as the negotiation of trade agreements? And what assurances will we have that a government that does not want to challenge the current ban on the death penalty here in this country, might not want to try to export our murderers to countries where executions could take place should the opportunity present itself?

These may seem extreme examples, but stranger things have happened, and these examples certainly come into play once you step away from the statement of principle that this country opposes the use of the death penalty anywhere. It is also a hypocritical stance to take given that this country, by a duly-appointed representative of this government, joined 71 other nations this past week in urging the United Nations to call for an international moratorium on the death penalty.

If you Mr. Day or your government don’t agree with this country’s lack of a death penalty, it is certainly your right to hold that opinion. If you wish to see the policy changed, then it is your government’s right to introduce legislation and give Canadians everywhere a fair chance to engage in this debate again. But you have not done this. Even in your recent legislation toughening up criminal sentences you have not done this. And I can only assume that you haven’t done this because polls suggest that Canadians don’t wish to engage in such a debate, that most Canadians accept that capital punishment is not the Canadian way.

Therefore, what you have done is abrogated your responsibility for maintaining the human rights of Canadians, regardless of where they happen to be. Worse, you have taken this extraordinary step — something both Liberal and Conservative governments before you have refused to do — without consulting parliament or the Canadian people. That is an inappropriate subversion of Canadian rights on a whim.

Mr. Day, I call upon you and your government to reaffirm Canada’s stance against the death penalty, regardless of where it is implemented. Failing that, I call upon you to put this matter before parliament, and before the Canadian people. We should have the right to determine what rights Canadians are entitled to, regardless of who they are or where they are. This is not a matter that should be hidden behind the veil of ministry policy. It is not something that you should try to sneak past us. We deserve better.

Further Reading

  • Why the Death Penalty Decision Matters - The Vanity Press
  • Edmonton Sun columnist, conservative Licia Corbella speaks out against Day’s decision (h/t Le Revue Gauche)

    “Canada is a country that opposes the death penalty. Period.

    Now, with no debate, the minority federal Conservative government has changed decades of Canadian foreign policy to stop seeking clemency for Canadians facing the death penalty in other countries.

    Asked about his government’s about face on protecting a Canadian from the death penalty, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said seeking clemency for Smith would run counter to his government’s tough stance on crime.

    In other words, Harper is comfortable with reversing decades of democratic Canadian procedure while in a minority position, but isn’t comfortable being at odds with party policy.

    How’s that for a killer of logic not to mention Canadian ethics?

    It’s also bad politics for the Tories, who have been portrayed with having a scary “hidden agenda” that they will roll out should they ever win a majority.

    Yes, Smith is a monster. But Canadians decided long ago that capital punishment is an even bigger monster.

    Shame on the federal Tories for letting it loose.”

Update: Monday, November 5, 11:19 p.m.

This article was pointed out to me. Stockwell’s activities here have proven to be dangerously selective for Canadian citizens abroad. I mean, the “we’ll respect the decision of democracies where the rule of law applies” dodge doesn’t apply here. Consider:

  • A Canadian jailed in China for participating in a “Free Tibet” process? Day will defend the man’s right to freedom of expression (yay!).
  • A Canadian on death row in Montana who has confessed to a double murder. Day will not request clemency from the Montana governor (fair enough, I guess. Due process was followed).
  • A Canadian in Cuba accused of having sex with teenagers aged 15 and 16? Nope.

Rule of law, fine. But a democracy? Stockwell Day believes that Cuba is a democracy? And note the inconsistency of Day’s reasoning. Better to keep him in Cuba — not to serve justice for breaking Cuban laws, but because the crime he committed there (which isn’t currently illegal here) makes him a risk to public safety here. As far as I know, he has no criminal record here. So, anybody who comes at me complaining that I don’t respect the laws of foreign countries, you might want to contact Mr. Day to let him know that he doesn’t appear to be doing so, either. His reasons are far more arbitrary and spurious.

The Edmonton Journal, hardly a Liberal bastion (IP corrects me on this, though it is a part of the chain that includes the National Post, but it doesn’t distract from the very good point it makes), says it best:

“But Canadians must have confidence that their government and its employees will be there for them if they get into trouble when they are abroad, in a genuine effort — doubtless not always successful — to have them treated as we would treat them at home.

“Absolutely, some individuals may not deserve that effort. But only if it is made in all cases, non-judgmentally, can the rest of us be sure we too will get help from a government that doesn’t automatically take the word of foreigners.

“Perhaps, opposition to the death penalty is a value Day does not share. That’s fine. But it is not the job of a minister of the Crown to cherry pick values to uphold.

“True, he could propose a change in the law to Parliament, and risk all the divisive uproar that would entail. But failing that, he should stand by Canadian values as they are currently established, and by Canadians who run afoul of different values abroad.”

Stockwell Day is refusing to do his job, which is to serve all Canadians everywhere, and he is being exceedingly arrogant in his cherrypicking of which Canadians he deems worthy of saving and which he’ll cut loose. “Canadians must have confidence”, says the Edmonton Journal? I’ve lost confidence in Stockwell Day’s abilities as a minister. And after he did so well recently in the Maher Arar case as well. This is getting to the point where I think the only reasonable thing for Day to do is resign.

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