How Canada exports death
Gas masks made by Canadian-owned firm used for U.S. capital punishment
Prior to confederation, in what is now Canada, hundreds of criminal offences were punishable via capital punishment – otherwise known as the death penalty. Over time laws began to shift away from capital punishment and by 1865 only select offenses including murder and treason were considered capital offenses.
The driving force behind limiting or abolishing capital punishment in Canada began in 1914 when Member of Parliament Robert Bickerdike presented a private member’s bill calling for the abolition of capital punishment. Despite frequent submissions to parliament, it wasn’t until 1998 that the federal government completely abolished state executions.
Despite the absence of capital punishment and its contribution to the characteristics that set our country apart from the neighbouring United States, the abolition of capital punishment in Canada is still relatively new.
While in place, capital punishment was used as an extension of state control, often to secure waves of settler immigration and ‘manage’ Indigenous populations. Notably, after receiving petitions on behalf of the Métis Nation led by Louis Riel, the federal government sent 500 soldiers to Batoche where the North-West Resistance continued for two months. The Canadian government eventually overtook the Métis and Cree soldiers who assisted Riel throughout the Resistance.
On July 6, 1885, Riel was charged with treason against the State of Canada. Through the trial Riel was declared guilty and he was publicly executed in Regina on November 16, 1885. The charge of high treason that Riel was dealt has been contested in academic circles. The charge makes a claim: Riel was a citizen of Canada rather than a citizen of the Métis Nation.
Despite this, Canada has somehow managed to maintain its so-called status of benevolence, namely with the abolition of the death penalty. However, prisons continue to act as a means of removing Indigenous peoples from their lands and kin. Renowned abolitionist Angela Davis writes: “[Prison] relieves us of the responsibility of seriously engaging with the problems of our society, especially those produced by racism and, increasingly, global capitalism.”
Recently, headlines in the news pointed to the irony of Canada’s so-called benevolence when it broke that gas masks made by a Canadian-owned firm are exported to be used in U.S. executions. Justice advocacy groups across the country raised flags about masks made by Allegro Industries, a subsidiary of Quebec-based Walter Surface Technologies, which is partly owned by Toronto private equity firm Onex Corp, and their use in the U.S. prison system. Allegro Industries, Walter Surface Technologies, and Onex Corp have not commented on the matter.
This news comes as pharmaceutical companies in the United States are banning the use of their products for executions, in turn making it difficult for states that still use capital punishment to source chemicals needed for lethal injections. States like Alabama, Oklahoma, and Mississippi are now turning to alternative methods and have permitted the use of nitrogen hypoxia as a method for execution.
This is an untested method and differs from past methods involving gas. In the past, small cells were filled with poisonous chemicals that eventually destroyed the internal organs of the trapped prisoners. Now, this new method uses direct contact with gases and poisonous chemicals via the use of masks.
On January 25, 58-year-old Kenneth Eugene Smith was one of the first to be executed via this method in the southern state of Alabama. United Nations (UN) officials have condemned his death, claiming “The use, for the first time in humans and on an experimental basis, of a method of execution that has been shown to cause suffering in animals is simply outrageous.”
In a recent statement, the UN continued: “The gruesome execution of Kenneth Eugene Smith is a stark reminder of the barbaric nature of the death penalty and a powerful moment to intensify calls for its abolition in the United States of America and the rest of the world.”
This comes after the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Turk had previously called for a stay of execution, noting that nitrogen gas inhalation causes a painful and especially humiliating death. Experimental executions by gas asphyxiation are against international law. The UN is now calling for a ban on this method of execution – reminding the United States of its international obligations to the International Covenant on Civil and Political rights (ICCPR) and the Convention against Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT).
The ICCPR explicitly states that no one should be subjected to medical or scientific experimentation without their free consent. This includes prisoners.
Canada also has an especially dark role through its continued investments in American Prisons. In 2018, the Guardian reported that the Canadian Pension Plan Investment Board (CPPIB), which is responsible for managing $366.6 billion in pension funds on behalf of approximately 20 million Canadian retirees, holds stock in Geo Group. Geo Group is a company known to operate private prisons in the United States. After coming under fire, the board later divested the investment, but at one point it had totaled $6.1 million.
Although Canada has abolished capital punishment, the country continues to have a hand in the death penalty behind the scenes.
Alarmingly, the sentiment surrounding capital punishment in Canada seems to be changing. In 2023, results from a poll conducted by Research CO found that most of the respondents support reinstating the death penalty for murder. According to the results, 54 per cent of respondents support the reliance on capital punishment for murder convictions.
This increased three points since a prior study conducted by the group in 2022. Results also showed that support for the death penalty is highest among the prairie provinces. Highest is Alberta where 62 per cent of respondents agreed, followed by Saskatchewan and Manitoba.
It seems now more than ever is a critical time to remain vigilant around shifting attitudes toward capital punishment in Canada. We must ask ourselves why we continue to involve ourselves in this “simply outrageous” method of punishment.
Though the situation seems bleak, Angela Davis’ words encourages us to remember that “sometimes we have to do the work even though we don’t yet see a glimmer on the horizon that it’s actually going to be possible.”