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Human Rights in Canada: An Historical Perspective

The Wilbert Coffin Case

Bordeaux Jail
Montreal, Québec
February 10, 1956

February 10th, 1956 was a cold day in Montreal. At the Bordeau Jail, a death flag flew and a chime sounded seven times announcing that a man was about to die. That man was Wilbert Coffin.

Wilbert Coffin was a mining prospector and experienced woodsman from York Centre, in the County of Gaspé, Québec. The unspoiled wilderness of the Gaspé region made it a popular spot for American outdoorsmen. Three such outdoorsmen arrived from Pennsylvania in 1953. They never returned home. Their bodies were found in a forest. They had been murdered. The last person to have seen any of them alive was Wilbert Coffin.

Wilbert Coffin, had been seen with the youngest of the three Americans at a gas station. He had purchased a pump to repair the pickup truck the Americans were driving. The case proved to be complicated without an eye witness, the prosecution had to rely heavily on circumstantial evidence. After much deliberation, the jury found Wilbert Coffin guilty of murdering one of the hunters. The mandatory sentence was death by hanging. The sentence was appealed all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada. There, a majority of justices affirmed the judgments of the lower courts. Wilbert Coffin was again found guilty, and returned to Bordeaux Jail in Montreal to await his execution.

Many were upset by the ruling. They believed Wilbert Coffin to be innocent that his conviction relied solely on circumstantial evidence. (Senator Jacques Hébert, a journalist at the time, was cited for contempt of court for his subsequent articles on the case.) Increasingly, Canadians questioned the death penalty. One of the best arguments against the death penalty has always been the possibility of error. (For example, Canadians such as Donald Marshall, David Milgaard, Guy Paul Morin were all found guilty of charges whose penalties were death. They were all later proven innocent and released.) The argument against the death penalty eventually won Canadians over and the practise was abolished in 1976. Sadly, this came to late for Wilbert Coffin.

Despite his appeals for clemency and his claims of innocence, Wilbert Coffin was executed on February 10, 1956.

If Wilbert Coffin was innocent, it is a mistake that can never be corrected.

Did you know?

By 1859, the offences punishable by death in Upper and Lower Canada were, "murder, rape, treason, administering poison or wounding with intent to commit unlawfully abusing a girl under ten, buggery with man or beast, robbery with wounding, burglary with assault arson, casting away a ship and, exhibiting a false signal endangering a ship."

By 1869, the statutes covering capital punishment were revised such that only three crimes carried the death penalty: murder treason and, rape.
In 1961, new legislation reclassified murder into capital and non capital offences. Capital murder was defined as follows:
"Murder that is planned or deliberate murder that is committed in the course of certain crimes of violence, by the direct intervention, or upon counselling of the accused or the murder of a police officer or prison guard or warden, acting in the course of duty, resulting from such direct intervention or counselling."

Such a murder was punishable by mandatory hanging, unless the accused was 18 years of age, in which case he was, if tried as an adult, to be sentenced to life imprisonment.


When was the last execution in Canada?

On December 11, 1962, the following persons were hanged at the Don Jail in Toronto: Arthur Lucas, aged 54, for the premeditated murder of an informer and a witness, with the motive of racket discipline and Robert Turpin, aged 29, for the unpremeditated murder of a policeman to avoid arrest.

Have any women ever been executed?

Yes, 13 women have been executed in Canada since Confederation. The first woman to be executed was Phoebe Campbell in 1872 after having been convicted of murder. The last woman to be hanged in Canada was Marguerite Pitre. She was executed in 1953 after being convicted as a co-conspirator in Canada's largest mass murder.

Did you know?

  • The total number of death penalties between 1867 and 1971 is 1481. The total number of executions is 710 (697 men and 13 women).
  • Ethan Allen, Joseph Ruel, and Thomas Jones, all convicted of murder, were among the first to be executed after Confederation.
  • At the Bordeaux Jail, a chime sounds 7 times to announce a man's execution and 10 times to announce a woman's.
  • Death by hanging was the only legal method of execution ever used in Canada.
  • The death penalty was abolished under the Criminal Code in 1976.
  • Its reinstatement was debated and rejected by Parliament in 1987.
  • In 1997, in response to a resolution of the Canadian Police Association calling for the return of the death penalty in certain cases, Justice Minister Anne McLellan issued a press release stating: "It is not the intention of the Government of Canada to reinstate the death penalty."
  • The National Defence Act was amended in 1998 to abolish the death penalty in Canadian military law, bringing it in line with Canadian criminal law. Life imprisonment without eligibility for parole for 25 years replaced the death penalty for the most serious offences.

In 1997, in response to a resolution of the Canadian Police Association calling for the return of the death penalty in certain cases, Justice Minister Anne McLellan issued a press release (http://canada.justice.gc.ca/en/news/nr/1997/deathp.html ) stating: "It is not the intention of the Government of Canada to reinstate the death penalty."