Posts Tagged ‘capital punishment’

“November 27th marks a dark day in the history of the Battlefords. It is the anniversary of the executions which took place at Battleford in 1885, which were also the largest mass execution in Canadian history.

Six nêhiyawak (Plains Cree) and two Assiniboine men were hung at Battleford and their bodies dumped into an unmarked grave that remained undiscovered until the 1970s when erosion on the riverbank exposed some of the remains.

The men were named:

Kah – Paypamahchukways (Wandering Spirit)
Pah Pah-Me-Kee-Sick (Walking the Sky)
Manchoose (Bad Arrow)
Kit-Ahwah-Ke-Ni (Miserable Man)
Nahpase (Iron Body)
A-Pis-Chas-Koos (Little Bear)
Itka (Crooked Leg)
Waywahnitch (Man Without Blood)

Some facts about the hangings at Battleford:

1. Judge Rouleau, the man who sentenced the eight men to die at Battleford, had his house in Battleford burned during the Resistance: The local newspaper at the time reported that Judge Rouleau: “is reported to have threatened that every Indian and Half-breed and rebel brought before him after the insurrection was suppressed, would be sent to the gallows if possible. In view of all the circumstances, and particularly as Judge Rouleau was a heavy loser pecuniarily by the Indian outbreak at Battleford, it is contended that he should not have been allowed to preside at the trial of the prisoners. A memorial has been received by the Department of Justice asking that the matter be investigated.”

2. Although the men spoke Cree – not English, none were provided with a translator at their trials.

3. Almost all of the historical writings about the hangings were written from the perspective of settlers. Blood Red the Sun and other narrative accounts paint the men as criminals. Barry Degenstein, local author of In Pursuit of Riel, as one relatively recent example, has continued to assert the men were “cold blooded murderers of innocent civilians.” (See: https://www.newsoptimist.ca/…/grave-not-that-of-heroes-and-…) It is important to remember that the North West Mounted Police (now Royal Canadian Mounted Police) played a major role in colonizing the region around the Battlefords and committed serious violent acts against Indigenous people here. The history of the Battle of Cut Knife Hill and other major events are primarily told in history books and other accounts from the perspective of the colonizers and settlers. (See also: Views from Fort Battleford: Constructed Visions of an Anglo-Canadian West https://archive.org/details/ViewsFromFtBattleford)

4. Hayter Reed, the Assistant Indian Commissioner in 1885, wanted a public execution. He asked the Lieutenant Governor to send any Indians who were sentenced to death during the second series of Regina trials so they could be executed with those sentenced to die in Battleford. He insisted that “the punishment be public as I am desirous of having the Indians witness it – no sound thrashing having been given them, I think a sight of this sort will cause them to meditate for many a day and besides have ocular demonstration of the fact.” This was echoed in the local newspaper. The Saskatchewan Herald’s P.G. Laurie understood the importance to the government of making the hangings a public spectacle. “We are not in favor of public executions as a rule,” wrote Laurie, “but we believe that in this instance it would have a wholesome influence on the Indians at large to have the extreme penalty of the law so carried out on those whom the court may find guilty.” Laurie viewed the hangings as a type of deterrence to further violence, arguing that the calm administration of punishment would impress the Native population more than further battlefield bloodshed. Laurie also agreed with the government that the executions should happen at the place of the capital trials, in Battleford. Laurie argued, “[I]f the Department of Justice will.. .permit the executions to be public, the sight will have such an effect upon the native beholders as will make them think twice before they again take up arms.” (See “A Lesson They Would Not Soon Forget” Chapter 3: https://drive.google.com/…/1yvqkd4LfbfO4YC5mWcQS0QfCPVEWNo_k)

5. The biography of Senator John Tootoosis notes at page 77 that among the witnesses at the hangings were “the Indian children from the Battleford Industrial School who had also been brought to see the eight men die. It was a part of their education that none of them would soon forget!”

6. One week prior to the hangings, Prime Minister John A. MacDonald wrote in a confidential letter to the Indian Commissioner: “The executions… ought to convince the Red Man that the White Man governs.”

7. Little Bear continued to assert that he was innocent until his death.

8. Loyal Til Death (a thoughtful account of the true history of this period by Blair Stonechild and Bill Waiser – https://www.amazon.ca/Loyal-Till-Death-North-West-Rebell…/…/) discusses the terrorizing effect the hangings had on Indigenous people in the region: “As for the Indians assembled in front of the gallows, they watched in quiet horror as the men dropped to their doom and then silently moved off once the bodies had been placed in the coffins. Nothing was said or done. They simply returned to their reserves, trying to put behind them the shock of the executions. But to this day, the executions have remained a numbing event, comparable to an old scar on the soul of a people. Elder Paul Chicken of the Sweetgrass reserve recalled how the Indians of the area lived in morbid fear of being picked up and tried before "Hanging Judge Rouleau.” Dressyman’s grandson, meanwhile, related how his reprieved grandfather and several other men were forced to watch the executions and threatened with a similar fate if there was any more trouble. “My grandfather was there, he saw them hung, he watched it all,” he recounted. “They didn’t like the hanging… the law overdone it.” Don Chastis, a descendent of one of the Cut Knife warriors, said that he often heard the Elders speak of the bravery of the condemned men, how they all sang on the platform in the face of death. He also speculated that the police refused to release the bodies for a traditional burial because the government did not want the men glorified as braves. “So they were forbidden to have anything to do with them. That’s why they buried them right there in a mass grave,” Chastis said. “It would have defeated the whole purpose of the hanging if they let these people [bodies] go.” The Battleford trials and executions accelerated the exodus of Indians to the relative safety of the United States.“ (At page 226-227 of Loyal Til Death.)

9. There are almost no artistic works or photographs that depict the hangings other than the attached illustration from "Loyal Til Death” by Blair Stonechild and Bill Waiser – https://www.amazon.ca/Loyal-Till-Death-North-West-Rebell…/…/

We remember the eight men who were executed at Battleford, and encourage people to consider the perspective of the historical accounts and begin working to decolonize the accounts of this history.

Is it time to consider exonerating or posthumously pardoning the eight warriors executed at Battleford?

(See: https://www.cbc.ca/…/pm-trudeau-exonerate-tsilhqotin-chiefs…)”

– from the Battleford Residential School Facebook page

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“492 Prisoners in Penitentiary,” Kingston Daily Standard. September 5, 1912. Page 02.

Largest Number Since Year 1839.

Sixty Lifers Also Mark Record – Fewer Women Convicts – Parole Release Nearly 600.

Portsmouth Penitentiary now boasts a population of four hundred and nine-two, the largest since 1839, when six hundred and twenty names were on the roll call. Of these, sixty are life prisoners, also a record number. Despite these figures there has been a slight decrease in the number of convictions especially those of a serious nature. This is because of the changed attitude of the judges in regard to capital punishment. Of the 442 souls only eleven are women. This much smaller than usual, the record being 30.

The parole system has been in effect since 1900 and since that time 580 convicts have been released upon the conditions of the act. This, of course, must be taken into consideration when one looks at the figures in total.

Upon the whole the conditions among criminals are better than they were even a few years ago. The parole system is one feature which has been instrumental in reducing that criminal type of convict, who disheartened and desperate, has been truly a menace to society. The realms of insanity and crime have also been more clearly defined, with encouraging results

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“Maximum Insecurity,” The Globe and Mail. September 5, 1980. Editorial. Page 06.

The recent hostage-taking at the Laval Penitentiary in Quebec has left behind it a chorus of voices offering quick and easy answers to an extremely irksome question: why are there disorder, violence and despair in Canada’s large maximum-security penal institutions? The culprits, if we are to believe these voices, are long prison sentences, especially the mandatory 25-year term for first-degree murder. According to the protesters, these sentences breed hopelessness and frustration; they produce desperate deeds by desperate men. The solution? Reduce the mandatory sentence by 10 or even 15 years. The result? We shudder to think.

There can be no denying the gravity of the problems that exist in such prisons as Laval in Quebec or Millhaven in Ontario; nor can there be any doubt that solutions are urgently required, before more hostages are seized or more lives taken. But the problems lie not with the prisons themselves. Huge, fortress-like institutions, containing hundreds of inmates, these compounds have always been and always will be plagued by disorder. It makes little difference whether a man is sentenced to five years or 25 years: imprison him in subhuman condition and he will respond accordingly.

There is nothing radical in this observation, and there is certainly nothing new. In 1938, the Archambault Royal Commission of Inquiry into Canada’s penal system recommended the establishment of much smaller, more manageable prisons. So did the Fauteux Report in 1956. So did a penal study commissioned by former Justice Minister Guy Favreau in the mix-Sixties. So did a 1971 federal task force headed by J. W. Mohr. But no heed was taken. The current ailments, and their recurrent eruptions, are nothing if not predictable; they are natural thread in the Canadian penal fabric – a fabric that fundamentally has remained unchanged for decades.

There are many who argue that the establishment of a 25-year mandatory sentence for first-degree murder was little more than a sop to those who opposed the abolition of capital punishment, that its purpose was exclusively political, and that it has no penal value. But consider the matter in another light. First-degree murder – the deliberate, calculated taking of human life – is a crime of the utmost horror and must be met by the severest punishment. If this is not to take the form of capital punishment (and we firmly believe that it must not), then what punishment will answer? Society in general and potential murderers in particular must be left in no doubt that this crime, above all crimes, a repudiated utterly. There is neither justice nor safety in the proposal that convicted first-degree murderers be returned to the streets before they have shaken off their murderous intent. Common humanity and civil order both demand that the punishment be long.

And, so, the punishment must be long. But it must also be humane. So long as we continue to dump huge numbers of men into the great, unwieldy cauldrons that in Canada pass as penal institutions, we must shoulder the blame for the bloody consequences. The present federal Solicitor-General, Robert Kaplan, can and must change that – by breaking Canada’s hulking prisons into smaller units, by locating them near large urban areas where they will have access to extensive rehabilitative resources, by giving them a human face. The shame is not that there is no solution; the shame is that the solution has so long been apparent, and so long been ignored.

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The “Gallows” fire prevention sign in Manning Park, British Columbia. 1947 From Vancouver archives. A prop cigarette shown being hung in attempt to prevent forest fires.

via reddit

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Barry Philp, “[Parade of pickets carrying signs protesting capital punishments walked for four hours outside the Don jail in 22-degree cold. Mostly of university age; they dispersed; some crying; moments after the notices of the hangings were posted on the jail door. About 100 pickets took part in the demonstration.]” 

Toronto Star archives, 1962. Toronto Reference LibraryBaldwin Collection. Call Number: tspa_0119750f

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law-preserving violence
is a threatening violence. And its threat is not intended as the
deterrent that uninformed liberal theorists interpret it to be. A
deterrent in the exact sense would require a certainty that
contradicts the nature of a threat and is not attained by any law,
since there is always hope of eluding its arm. This makes it all the
more threatening, like fate, on which depends whether the criminal is
apprehended. The deepest purpose of the uncertainty of the legal
threat will emerge from the later consideration of the sphere of fate
in which it originates. There is a useful pointer to it in the sphere
of punishments. Among them, since the validity of positive law has
been called into question, capital punishment has provoked more
criticism than all others. However superficial the arguments may in
most cases have been, their motives were and are rooted in principle.
The opponents of these critics felt, perhaps without knowing why and
probably involuntarily, that
an attack on capital punishment assails, not legal measure, not laws,
but law itself in its origin. For if violence, violence crowned by
fate, is the origin of law, then it may be readily supposed that
where the highest violence, that over life and death, occurs in the
legal system, the origins of law jut manifestly and fearsomely into
existence. In agreement with this is the fact that the death penalty
in primitive legal systems is imposed even for such crimes as
offenses against property, to which it seems quite out of
“proportion.” Its purpose is not to punish the infringement
of law but to establish new law. For in the exercise of violence over
life and death more than in any other legal act, law reaffirms
itself. But in this very violence something rotten in law is
revealed, above all toa finer sensibility, because the latter knows
itself to be infinitely remote from conditions in which fate might
imperiously have shown itself in such a sentence.” 

Walter Benjamin, “Critique of Violence,” in Reflections:
Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings
Edited by Peter Demetz. Translated by Edmund Jephcott. New York:
Schoken Books, 1986. pp. 285-286

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“By the time the Joint Committee met, it had been close to a century since
the federal government had determined that public executions were to be
prohibited. Consequently, official concern shifted from monitoring crowd
behavior to considering the feelings of institutional witnesses, namely the
condemned person’s fellow prisoners and the men who carried out the
procedure. Committee members were disturbed to discover that these were
not the only observers, however. In some provinces, notably Ontario, Quebec,
and the Maritimes, executions were carried out in local jails that were
typically located in city centers. In smaller locales, where executions were
infrequent, scaffolds had to be built from scratch, and the sawing of wood
and hammering of nails provided a percussive prelude to the ceremonies.
In towns like Woodstock, buildings surrounding the local jail supplied rooftop
vantage points, and towering trees provided perches for impromptu
observers eager to peer inside jail yards. Even at larger city jails, like
Montreal’s Bordeaux Prison and Toronto’s Don Jail, both of which had
permanent, enclosed execution chambers, knowledge of an impending
hanging could draw hundreds of spectators whose only visual reward was
a death notice pinned to the jail door. None of these unofficial participants
was interviewed, but criminal justice personnel uniformly depicted onlookers
not simply as “curious” but always as “morbidly” interested in proceedings. Unruly crowds-uncivilized witnesses who scandalously derived
pleasure from death-presented a considerable problem for witnesses and
committee members.

Both supporters and opponents of the death penalty were embarrassed

to admit that executions frequently inspired undignified behavior. Representatives
of the Welfare Council argued that “the brutalising presence of
the death penalty… [produced] an atmosphere fouled by the morbidity,
melodrama and horror associated with executions.” The carnivalesque
crowd was hardly a thing of the past, according to newspaper writers who
covered hangings. For instance, while the committee was deliberating in
1954, a man was executed in the town of Cornwall, Ontario. The Toronto
reported that a crowd of approximately five hundred could see the top
of the scaffold from the street. The reporter dismissed any hope that they
registered the deterrent message: “‘The crowd, most of them teenagers,
including many young girls, was in a holiday mood, shooting off firecrackers,
joking and laughing for more than two hours before the execution took
place.”’ The emotional impact of executions on other prisoners was no
less worrisome. Warden Christie of British Columbia’s Oakalla Prison, a
man who had officiated at three executions, observed the death penalty’s
decivilizing effects on other prisoners. When a hanging was conducted, he
commented, prisoners “tend more to identify with the person being hanged,
and feel an increased welling-up of a morbid and repressive hatred against
authority and society and all it stands for." 

And finally there were the feelings of prison workers to consider. A longserving
jail surgeon, Dr. Maclean, told the 1954 committee members that
the pronouncement of a death sentence "converts the county jail from a
reform institution to a house of death. A pall of depression from that moment
falls over staff and inmates alike. .. .” Morbid crowds gathered voluntarily
to satisfy their curiosity but officials were forced to witness the
proceedings. To illustrate his point, he told the committee about his experience
of having attended a double execution, after which he had to “pick
his way around the evidences of physical revolt left by the small audience
of police[men]…. This spectacle was too much for them-for me also it
was four or five days before I felt able to resume my work.” The jail
surgeon’s stomach-churning story graphically illustrated that retaining old style
punishment in a supposedly modem country was literally revolting
to those with refined sensibilities.”

–  Carolyn Strange, “The Undercurrents of Penal Culture: Punishment of the Body in Mid-Twentieth-Century Canada.” Law and History Review, Vol. 19, No. 2 (Summer, 2001), pp. 378-379. 

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