Life imprisonment in Canada

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Life imprisonment in Canada is a criminal sentence for certain offences that lasts for the offender’s life. Parole is possible, but even if paroled, the offender remains under the supervision of Corrections Canada for their lifetime, and can be returned to prison for parole violations.

A person serving a life sentence must serve for a certain length of time before becoming eligible for parole. First degree murder and high treason carry the longest period of parole ineligibility in the Criminal Code, at 25 years. A statutory amendment to allow periods of parole ineligibility greater than 25 years was held to be unconstitutional by the Supreme Court of Canada in R v Bissonnette, as contrary to section 12 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, which prohibits cruel and unusual punishment. Parole eligibility for second degree murder typically varies between 10 and 25 years, and is set by the sentencing judge.

A life sentence is the most severe punishment for any crime in Canada. Criminal laws are enacted by the Parliament of Canada and apply uniformly across the country.[1]

Mandatory life sentence[edit]

High treason and first degree murder carry a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment with a full parole ineligibility period of 25 years. Previously, in the case of high treason or first-degree murder (where the offender had been convicted of a single murder) offenders could have their parole ineligibility period reduced to no less than 15 years under the Faint hope clause. However, that option was abolished by Parliament for offences committed after December 2, 2011, though it remains if the offence was committed before that date.[2]

Second degree murder also carries a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment but with a parole ineligibility period of between 10 years and 25 years. Courts determine the parole ineligibility period based on the gravity of the offence.

Multiple murders[edit]

An amendment to the Criminal Code passed in 2014 granted courts the authority to issue consecutive life sentences, in effect allowing for multiple periods of parole ineligibility to be stacked and lead to a total parole ineligibility period of greater than 25 years. In the most extreme cases, it authorized a de facto term of life imprisonment without parole (i.e. when the total parole ineligibility period extends beyond the offender's life expectancy).[3][4]

This provision was used in several cases of multiple murders, with parole ineligibility periods of 35 years (Benjamin Hudon-Barbeau[5]), 40 years (Travis Baumgartner[6]), 50 years (Edward Downey,[7] Emanuel Kahsai[8] and Mark Smich), 70 years (Basil Borutski[9]), and 75 years (Justin Bourque,[10] John Paul Ostamas,[11] Douglas Garland,[12] Derek Saretzky[13] and Dellen Millard, Mark Smich's accomplice (originally 50 years, extended to 75 after sentencing for the murder of his father).

The provision permitting multiple murderers to receive consecutive parole ineligibility periods for the individual murders they committed was struck down by the Supreme Court in R v Bissonette, which held that it authorized cruel and unusual punishment. The Supreme Court ruled that Alexandre Bissonnette, who attacked the Islamic Cultural Centre in Quebec City in 2017 and murdered six worshippers, must nevertheless be permitted the option of applying for full parole after 25 years despite the gravity of the crime in question. The ruling meant that Bissonnette would now be eligible for day parole as early as 2039. All other multiple murderers in Canada were now entitled to similar reductions in sentences.[14][15]

Other offences[edit]

Offences under the Criminal Code that carry a maximum penalty of life imprisonment in Canada (with a parole ineligibility period of between 7 years and 25 years) include treason, piracy, mutiny, aircraft hijacking, endangering the safety of an aircraft or an airport, endangering the safety of a ship or fixed platform, refusing to disperse after a riot proclamation, arson (disregard for human life), robbery, kidnapping, break and enter with intent, attempted murder, accessory after the fact to murder, conspiracy to commit murder, manslaughter, causing death by street racing, impaired driving causing death, causing death by criminal negligence, killing an unborn child in the act of birth, and aggravated sexual assault.

Under the Controlled Drugs and Substances Act, trafficking, exporting or production of schedule I or II substances also carries a maximum penalty of life imprisonment with a parole ineligibility period of between 7 years and 25 years.

Current sentencing practices ensure that, except in the case of murder, a life sentence is rarely imposed. One common exception is cases which involve terrorism-related conspiracies.[16][17] [18]

As of 2013, 4,800 offenders were serving life sentences in Canada, though only 2,880 (around 60%) were incarcerated (the remainder being on parole). The vast majority of these offenders (about 96%) were serving their sentences for murder. "Lifers" constituted 23% of the federal offender population.[19]

There is no guarantee that parole will be granted to an offender. If the Parole Board of Canada determines that an offender still poses a risk to society, that person may be detained in prison past the parole eligibility period.[20] Any person released on parole from a term of life imprisonment or an indeterminate term of imprisonment must remain on parole, with conditions by the Parole Board, for the rest of the person's life. Violation of parole terms can result in the Parole Board imposing stricter conditions, or revoking the parole entirely, resulting in the person going back to prison.

Dangerous offender[edit]

While life sentences are rare in non-murder cases, the courts may apply a dangerous offender designation in cases involving serious violent or sexual offences. Such a designation may result in an indeterminate sentence with no maximum limit, but a parole review occurs after 7 years and every 2 years after that.

Despite formal parole eligibility after seven years, full parole is rare in cases where a dangerous offender is serving an indeterminate sentence as this provision is reserved for individuals assessed as likely to commit further serious violent offences. In violent non-murder cases involving repeat offenders, it is more likely to be used than a sentence of life imprisonment. As of 2012, nearly 500 inmates had a "Dangerous Offender" designation constituting about 3% of the federal offender population.[21] Three years later, in 2015, 622 federal offenders had a Dangerous Offender designation. Of these, 586 (or some 94%) were incarcerated (representing 3.9% of the In-Custody Population) and 36 were in the community under supervision.[22] This supervision lasts for the remainder of the offender's life.

See: Dangerous offender designation in Canada.

Youth sentencing[edit]

A young person (12 to 17) does not face a life sentence unless they are sentenced as an adult, since the maximum sentence under the Youth Criminal Justice Act is 10 years (for first-degree murder). A person can be sentenced as an adult if they were at least 14 years old at the time of the offence.[23] The crown carries the burden of proving an adult sentence is appropriate and a presumption in favour of a youth sentence always exists, irrespective of the offenders age or the type of offence.[24] Even if the crown does discharge its burden of proving an adult sentence is justified, the period of parole ineligibility for murder is nonetheless different for youths.

Parole ineligibility periods for youth sentenced as adults for murder[25]
Offence Circumstances Parole ineligibility period
First Degree murder Where the offender was 16 or 17 years old at the time of the offence 10 years
Where the offender was 14 or 15 years old at the time of the offence 5–7 years
Second degree murder Where the offender was 16 or 17 years old at the time of the offence 7 years
Where the offender was 14 or 15 years old at the time of the offence 5–7 years

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Government of Canada, Department of Justice (23 July 2015). "How sentences are imposed - Canadian Victims Bill of Rights".
  2. ^ "The "Faint Hope Clause"". The Canadian Criminal Justice Association. Retrieved 30 December 2023.
  3. ^ "Harper government supports private bill that could bring minimum 40-year sentences for some violent crimes", 25 Apr 2013
  4. ^ G+M: "Five fundamental ways Harper has changed the justice system", 6 May 2014
  5. ^ "Here's a look at convictions that have led to consecutive murder sentences in Canada | CBC News".
  6. ^ "Travis Baumgartner gets 40 years without parole for killing co-workers". CBC News. 11 September 2013.
  7. ^ "Judge sentences Edward Downey minimum 50 years for double murder | Calgary Sun".
  8. ^ "No parole for 50 years for double murderer Emanuel Kahsai whose 'torture' of mother began a decade ago".
  9. ^ "Basil Borutski will die in prison for 'vicious, cold-blooded' murder of 3 women | CBC News".
  10. ^ MacDonald, Michael (31 October 2014). "Justin Bourque handed harshest sentence since Canada's last execution more than 50 years ago". National Post.
  11. ^ Brutal homeless killer gets 75 year minimum
  12. ^ "Douglas Garland to spend life in jail in Calgary triple-murder case". The Globe and Mail. 2017-02-17. Archived from the original on 2023-04-06.
  13. ^ Saretzky sentenced to life, no parole for 75 years
  14. ^ "Canadian Supreme Court rules all killers must have chance at parole". Washington Post. ISSN 0190-8286. Retrieved 2022-05-28.
  15. ^ "Supreme Court of Canada strikes down life without parole ruling".
  16. ^ "2 Via Rail terror plotters sentenced to life in prison". CBC News. September 23, 2015. Retrieved February 9, 2023.
  17. ^ Perreaux, Les (17 February 2010). "Canadian terrorist handed life sentence". The Globe and Mail.
  18. ^ Makin, Kirk (14 December 2012). "Supreme Court upholds anti-terrorism laws". The Globe and Mail.
  19. ^ "By the numbers: 'Lifers' in Canada's prisons |".
  20. ^ Criminal Code of Canada
  21. ^ "Frequently asked questions about the release of offenders". Archived from the original on 2013-07-31.
  22. ^ "2015 Corrections and Conditional Release Statistical Overview". 21 December 2018.
  23. ^ Government of Canada, Department of Justice (2013-04-11). "Sentencing of Young Persons - Youth Justice". Retrieved 2022-05-12.
  24. ^ "R v DB [presumption of youth sentence, onus on Crown for adult sentence] | Justice for Children and Youth". Retrieved 2022-05-12.
  25. ^ Branch, Legislative Services (2022-01-16). "Section 745.1 of the Criminal Code". Retrieved 2022-05-12.

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