PELLETIER, The Hon. Gérard, P.C., C.C., B.A.

Personal Data

Hochelaga (Quebec)
Birth Date
June 21, 1919
Deceased Date
June 22, 1997
author, broadcaster, diplomat, journalist, labour and social activist

Parliamentary Career

November 8, 1965 - April 23, 1968
  Hochelaga (Quebec)
  • Parliamentary Secretary to the Secretary of State for External Affairs (April 20, 1967 - April 20, 1968)
  • Minister Without Portfolio (April 20, 1968 - July 5, 1968)
June 25, 1968 - September 1, 1972
  Hochelaga (Quebec)
  • Minister Without Portfolio (April 20, 1968 - July 5, 1968)
  • Secretary of State of Canada (July 6, 1968 - November 26, 1972)
  • Minister of Communications (May 11, 1971 - August 11, 1971)
October 30, 1972 - May 9, 1974
  Hochelaga (Quebec)
  • Secretary of State of Canada (July 6, 1968 - November 26, 1972)
  • Minister of Communications (November 27, 1972 - August 28, 1975)
July 8, 1974 - March 26, 1979
  Hochelaga (Quebec)
  • Minister of Communications (November 27, 1972 - August 28, 1975)

Most Recent Speeches (Page 306 of 307)

May 9, 1966

Mr. Gerard Pelletier (Hochelaga) moved

that the fifth report of the standing committee on broadcasting, films and assistance to the arts, presented to the house on Thursday, May 5, 1966, be now concurred in.

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May 2, 1966

Mr. Gerard Pelletier (Hochelaga) moved

that the fourth report of the standing committee on broadcasting, films and assistance to the arts, presented to the house on Friday, April 29, 1966, be now concurred in.

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May 2, 1966

Mr. Pelletier:

Mr. Speaker, a brief remark to say that, unlike what was just advanced by the hon. member who spoke before me, it has always been implicit in the proceedings of the committee that it did not seek to settle any particular dispute, namely that submitted to mediation as a result of the good offices of the government, but rather to explore the much larger and much more important situation of which this particular dispute was only symptomatic.


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April 25, 1966

Mr. Gerard Pelletier (Hochelaga) moved

that the second report of the standing committee on broadcasting, films and assistance to the arts, presented to the house on the 22nd instant, be now concurred in.

He said:

Mr. Speaker, notice of this motion was given Friday.

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March 24, 1966

Mr. Gerard Pelletier (Hochelaga):

Mr. Speaker, I think that we are all fully conscious in this house of the exceptional importance and seriousness of the matter under consideration today.

That is why I would like to point out at the outset of my intervention the need to enter the debate in the right frame of mind. By that I mean that it is our duty to consider the question of the death penalty with all the coolness we can; we must avoid using too many emotional arguments; we must give up using alarmist pleas, building on the fear of the citizens to inspire to the latter thoughts of vengeance against murderers; we must also forgo any gruesome retelling of executions meant to exploit the sensibility of people in favour of those sentenced to die and against the death penalty.

What is most important in such a debate, and in the vote which will follow, is that the parliament of this country should prove up to the task, that each one of us should base his choice between abolition and retention, whatever that choice may be, not on prejudice, not on fear, not on hate, not on vengefulness, even less on easy emotionalism or on the taste for novelty, but rather on reason, on the teachings of history and on the data which science places at our disposal in this field.

Another mistake which could be very serious would be to approach that problem in a perspective which is too narrow, to treat it as if it were a simple police matter when it is in fact a problem of civilization.

Finally, just as parliament has understood the need to remove all party considerations from this debate, so each one of us must understand that emotivity cannot be a reliable guide in such a matter and that only the arguments based on reason have their place here if we want to reach a fair decision.

That is why, Mr. Speaker, I deplore the fact that some politicians outside this house felt it necessary, during the last months, to multiply the public interventions against the very idea of this debate, turning beforehand the citizens against the results of the work we had not yet undertaken. I also deplore the

March 24, 1S66

iact that those men chose to speak so loud and to inform so little. I finally deplore the fact that they worked to raise doubts about the authority of the federal parliament in this regard.

I feel it is important, Mr. Speaker, to stress the fact that, in matters of criminal law, the federal authority is beyond question and that only complete ignorance of the constitution could explain any doubt about that. I find it passing strange, therefore, to see a provincial minister who is jealous, and rightly so, of provincial prerogatives, take it upon himself to question publicly the power held by this house to amend the criminal code.

That power certainly entails one of the most awesome responsibilities we have to bear as members of the House of Commons. In my opinion, that responsibility is the second most important among all those that are handed to us, since I do not believe it is surpassed by any other except the even more awe-inspiring power to declare war and make peace. But it is obvious, even beyond question, that this is our responsibility and I find the time quite ill-chosen to question it just when the house is getting ready to assume all the risks of a difficult choice.

Far be it from me, Mr. Speaker, to question anyone's right to voice his opinion on capital punishment. In passing, I wish to thank all those who took the trouble to inform me of their position during the weeks preceding this debate.

But I consider it improper for a provincial minister to forget the limitations of the duties assigned to him and state publicly his own opinions without making the necessary distinctions. Indeed, in this field as in any other, we are doing a disservice to the citizens of this country each time one of us, whether he be a private member or a minister, at the provincial or at the federal level, goes beyond his jurisdiction to encroach upon that of another authority.

Having said that, Mr. Speaker, I would now like to examine two aspects of the question: first of all, and briefly, I would like to review some of the most widespread opinions on the problem of capital punishment; then, and mainly, I would like to develop what I feel is a fundamental argument in favour of abolition, that is social progress.

I will admit right now, Mr. Speaker, that most of the traditional arguments in favour of capital punishment seem obsolete to me

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today. The exemplary value of that punishment and its alleged effectiveness as a deterrent for the eventual murderers are reasons- and other speakers will prove this better than I can-which do not bear up under scrutiny. In fact, if statistics prove anything, they prove precisely that maintaining or abolishing the death penalty has very little influence on the number of murders, so little in fact that it cannot be clearly established whether it increases or decreases the frequency of such crimes.

And it will take more than the statistics given by the hon. member for Swift Current-Maple Creek (Mr. McIntosh) to change my mind, because I think that covering such a short period of the world's history, they cannot lead to any valid conclusion.

It is not a matter of believing or disbelieving the effectiveness of the punishment; it is not a matter of faith or impressions. If the deterrent effect existed, it could be measured and proved, which is something no one has succeeded in doing satisfactorily so far. Claiming that one believes in the deterrent effect of the rope does not make sense, unless one can prove with figures what one is saying.

I also find it strange that some are still trying hard today to convince us that the victims' blood is crying for vengeance and that society, by putting the murderer to death, is doing its duty with regard to the survivors of the victim.

We know very well, Mr. Speaker, that such revenge is useless, that the wrong committed by a murderer is irreparable and that the execution of the murderer will never bring the victim back to life. Recently, a Quebec labourer whose young daughter was the victim, several years ago, of the most odious crime we have ever witnessed, said simply in reply to some newspapermen who, after the trial, asked him if he wanted his child's murderer to hang: "That will not bring my little girl back." And this comment, to me, is more eloquent than all the speeches in the world.

Finally, Mr. Speaker, I am amazed that even today the Christian doctrine is called upon in the defence of capital punishment. Yet, it is common knowledge that most religious authorities have expressed views favouring abolition, while the rest were satisfied to say that the matter was a political problem about which Christians remained

March 24, 1966

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free to take the stand they deemed most reasonable.

Furthermore, it is not true that the church, as is so often claimed, has always favoured capital punishment, nor that this punishment was an integral part of the Christian tradition. St. Augustine stated, as early as the 5th century, when addressing the imperial commissary: I appeal to your faith in Jesus Christ; in the name of his divine mercy, we do not want the sufferings of God's servants to be avenged by the lex talionis-On the contrary, we want the men, without losing their life, to be brought back to their senses.

Of course, it is not enough to show the weakness of arguments brought forward to favour retention. I favour abolition of the death penalty for positive reasons, of which the most outstanding is related to the notion of social progress.

[DOT] (4:00 p.m.)

To my mind, it is beyond dispute, Mr. Speaker-and I see few members in this house prepared to question it-that abolition of the death penalty constitutes in itself social progress. Indeed, the way of civilization has always been marked by a progressive abandonment of killing one's fellow-man.

Most primitive men, living as wandering tribes, killed without any distinction unproductive aged, madmen and violent criminals alike.

There was no alternative as long as the old people were jeopardizing the precarious economy of the tribe by consuming without producing; the mentally ill as well as the criminals were a constant menace to everyone, since the tribes' continuous treks made it impossible to incarcerate them. Of necessity, these people had to be gotten rid of; their elimination was required for the common safety.

But there is no doubt that giving up killing has always been considered a progress by the majority of men, since every society generally developed along these lines as it gradually emerged from its savage state.

Once it settled down on richer land, the tribe stopped killing the aged. Then, as the means became available, what would be called today the required social capital, the society abandoned the killing of the mentally ill, even the most dangerous of them. Originally, they were put away in asylums where they died a slow death; later, much later, they were taken care of and cured.

As for the death penalty, society gave it up by degree. We all know that barely 150 years ago, hanging was the penalty for shop-lifting, for the slightest burglary, for things we consider today as minor crimes or simple misdemeanours. This, Mr. Speaker, is nothing new. The evolution toward final abolition was initiated centuries ago. We are not being asked, today, to break new ground, but quite the opposite, only to terminate what our fathers, our grandfathers and our greatgrandfathers started a long, long time ago.

I submit that we are all ready for this last stage, psychologically as well as from a material viewpoint.

Let us admit first of all that, consciously or not, we are all ashamed of putting such a responsibility into the hands of some of our fellow-countrymen who are thereby compelled to kill their neighbour, this time not in the heat of battle or moved by passion, but deliberately and in cold blood. It is not by accident that we now hide from all eyes this capital punishment that we used to display on the public square. Better still, we hide the name of the executioner. We keep it as an official secret, and no wonder. Indeed, which one of us would like his son to take on that job? Which one of us would even be willing to admit that his father or brother performed that task? Is there but one member in this house who would be proud to have a hangman among his relatives? And when, to justify it, we compare the death penalty to war, we generally forget to note that military feats of valour inspire the greatest of pride, not to mention the most intolerable boasting, whereas the occupation of executioner is as shameful as a vice.

Therefore, Mr. Speaker, the point is this: have we reached that degree of civilization which enables a community to protect itself against murderers by other means than the death penalty? Is capital punishment really the one and only possible method of prevention? For it is obvious that the community must defend itself against criminals, just like it must protect itself against mentally ill persons that are dangerous. Nobody is suggesting that either of them should be left free when they threaten people's lives. But once revenge is discarded, once the scant effectiveness of capital punishment as a deterrent to potential murderers is understood, one realizes that capital punishment is no longer an indispensible protection against murderers, no more than it is against dangerous psychopaths.

March 24, 1966

Is it not possible to take the last step in this direction and, just as we do not kill madmen in spite of the equal danger which they represent, likewise stop sentencing murderers to death? I am not, you will note, speaking of sparing criminals; I am only speaking of sparing ourselves an action which we are all ashamed of and which, moreover, contradicts all our convictions and all our feelings about the sanctity of human life. I am simply speaking of completing this last stage on the road to progress in a field which can truly be called vital.

Do we have the means to do it? I say yes, Mr. Speaker. If we can protect ourselves from the mentally ill without doing away with them, we can also, through modern penitentiaries, protect ourselves from all criminals. If we are rich enough to feed and care for dangerous psychopaths, we are also rich enough to respect the life of murderers and try to rehabilitate them.


Some might say that we could not abolish capital punishment without running a risk. But what progress, social or otherwise, what evolution or advancement has ever been achieved without any risk involved? In 1810-this fact was mentioned in the house yesterday-when it was proposed that the death penalty be abolished for shoplifting to the value of five shillings, the Lord Chief Justice of England expressed the view that such an experiment was pregnant with danger to the security of property. He went on in these words:

Such will be the consequences of the repeal of this statute that I am certain that depredations to an unlimited extent would immediately be committed.

Such was the view of that enlightened gentleman on that matter, and the abolition of the death penalty is no exception in this regard. Social progress under all forms has always met with that kind of resistance.

When European parliaments were faced with the problem of child labour, for instance, toward the middle of the nineteenth century, and legislation was debated in order to bar children under 12 from the coal mines, many a noble lord and many a French bourgeois politician of the time fought the measure to the end, deeply convinced that such an initiative would inevitably bring about the collapse of the coal industry.

When the right to strike was being discussed, hundreds of politicians voted against

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it because in their view, and their most sincere view, I should think, it meant the very end of law and order, and the reign of chaos in modern societies.

Again, when universal suffrage or schooling for the working class came up for debate, innumerable politicians were frightened to death. And it was quite normal for them to be afraid because those measures, which to us after more than a century appear as harmless as bread and butter, were incomparably more consequential and far reaching than the one we are considering today. Of course there is a risk involved, Mr. Speaker, but I suggest that it is a normal and calculated risk, the kind of risk which can only be avoided by doing nothing at all.

Finally, although I am not a lawyer or a jurist by any means, I should like to put forward one argument dealing with the juridical aspect of capital punishment, an argument which I borrow from Professor Andre Richard, former dean of the free law faculty in Paris, who had this to say in concluding a lecture delivered in Toulouse a year ago:

[DOT] (4:10 p.m.)

We can define as follows the positive aspect of abolition: do away with capital punishment and you strengthen justice in its war on crime.

A judicial system without the death penalty does not mean that there no longer exists a form of capita] punishment. It only means that a penal system is established based on a gradual scale of sanctions leading up to a maximum penalty. But the latter no longer differs in nature from the other sanctions; it only differs in degree of intensity and duration.

The immeasurable abyss which presently separates penalties imposed on the living from that extreme punishment of destroying a man's life, would no longer be there to create anguish in jurors and judges. They could therefore make their decisions more calmly in the light of their conscience and reason.

He concludes:

The death penalty is the neurosis of our judicial system.

The case now is whether we want to cure it.

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