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Canada Won't Let Its Citizens Sit on Death Row Abroad

It's unclear what the immediate impact of this policy reversal will be, but two Canadian men who might benefit from it are Ronald Smith and Robert Bolden. They face execution in the US.
Canada's foreign affairs minister Stéphane Dion earlier this year. (Photo by Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press)

Canada will no longer tolerate having its citizens put on death row by another country, as its foreign affairs minister decries capital punishment as being beneath "a civilized society."

The change was announced on Monday by Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Dion after his meeting with the Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, the first UN High Commissioner for Human Rights to visit Canada in a decade.

In a joint statement with Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould, Dion affirmed Canada's commitment to opposing "the use of the death penalty in all cases, everywhere," putting a stop to the selective, and controversial, approach of seeking clemency on a case-by-case basis that was introduced by former prime minister Stephen Harper.


Canadian officials will now be focused on "how and when to undertake clemency intervention, and not whether clemency intervention should be undertaken," said the statement.

"If the Government of Canada does not ask for clemency for every Canadian facing the death penalty, how can we be credible when we ask for clemency in selective cases or countries?" Dion, who also called the old policy an "incoherent double standard," was quoted as saying.

Canada abolished the death penalty from the Criminal Code in 1976 and from the National Defense Act in 1998. The government has also refused extradition requests to countries with the death penalty unless there are assurances that the penalty won't be imposed.

But in 2007, the Harper government, known for its tough on crime approach, changed course by announcing that it would not seek clemency in democratic countries, like the United States, where there had been a fair trial.

In an interview with the National Post, Dion, who is known for being a fierce opponent of capital punishment, said the Conservative government's policy made it harder to fight for clemency in general and sent a message that "Canada was not sure we were against the death penalty."

He said the death penalty "is not something that should be done in a civilized society, because a civilized society is looking for justice and not vengeance" and added that "many Americans will agree with me." The death penalty is legal in 31 states, but moratoriums are in place in 20.


Min Dion met with — Foreign Policy CAN (@CanadaFP)February 15, 2016

Globally, very few Canadian detainees are sentenced to death, Global Affairs spokesperson John Babcock told VICE News.

Babcock could not disclose the total number of Canadians facing the death penalty in other countries, or the countries in which they're detained, citing privacy and other considerations.

While it's unclear what the immediate impact of the policy reversal will be, two men who might benefit from it are 57-year-old Ronald Smith and 52-year-old Robert Bolden, both facing execution in the US.

In 1983, Smith asked for and received a death sentenced after he admitted to shooting and killing Harvey Madman Jr. and Thomas Running Rabbit while drunk and high on drugs in Montana. He has since changed his mind, and has been trying to fight the execution.

The Canadian government had been backing Smith for two decades, when Harper decided in 2007 to stop diplomatic efforts to seek clemency for him.

At that time, Dion and late New Democratic Party Leader Jack Layton wrote letters on his behalf to the governor of Montana.

Canadians are "morally opposed to the practice of executing a human being," wrote Layton in his letter, asking the governor to commute Smith's sentence to life in prison.

Then in 2009, a Federal Court judge ruled that in the absence of a new clemency policy, the government had breached the duty of procedural fairness. They couldn't just arbitrarily withdraw support from Smith and would have to resume their efforts, ruled Justice Robert Barnes.


Related: Nebraska Republicans Are Fighting Their Own Governor Over Reinstating the Death Penalty

Barnes also condemned public statements by officials — like Stephen Harper calling Smith a "double murderer" — that implied Smith "was personally undeserving of further support," arguing that it was problematic for the government to "make specific unfavorable comments about an individual's case for relief which might jeopardize his legal status."

Newfoundland native Bolden, whose Canadian citizenship wasn't known to his lawyers until 2010, faces the death penalty in Indiana for the 2002 killing security guard Nathan Ley in a botched bank robbery in St. Louis.

Bolden's defense team discovered that he was born north of the Canada-US border — a fact they said the US government knew and failed to pass along to Canada, violating Bolden's rights under the Vienna Convention.

Amnesty International spokesperson Aubrey Harris welcomed the resumption of Canada's "principled policy on human rights with regards to the death penalty."

Harris believes the change will be helpful to both Smith and Bolden.

"If we were to apply for clemency under the older system, it would've implied to the United States that we didn't believe them to be a democratic country that respected the rule of law, under the language of the previous government, and that would not be taken well when you're asking them to do you the favor of showing clemency for one of your citizens," he said.

Dion also announced Monday that Canada will contribute $15 million over the next three years to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights and that he will travel to Geneva at the end of February to address the Human Rights Council.

Follow Tamara Khandaker on Twitter: @anima_tk