Life imprisonment in Canada

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Life imprisonment in Canada is a criminal sentence for certain offences that has a length of 25 years with chance of parole and is the most severe punishment for any crime in the country. Criminal laws allowing for life imprisonment are enacted by the Parliament of Canada and apply uniformly across the country.

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. That option under the Criminal Code is still in effect.

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 will determine the parole ineligibility period based on the gravity of the offence. Contrary to common belief, public safety plays a lesser role[citation needed] given the fact that the offender will be subject to a life sentence and the Parole Board of Canada will presumably assess the present danger posed by the offender at the time of a parole application.

Multiple murders[edit]

An amendment to the Criminal Code passed in 2011 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).[1][2]

This provision has since been used in several cases of multiple murders, with parole ineligibility periods of 35 years (Benjamin Hudon-Barbeau[3]), 40 years (Travis Baumgartner[4]), 50 years (Edward Downey,[5] Emanuel Kahsai[6] and Mark Smich), 70 years (Basil Borutski[7]), and 75 years (Justin Bourque,[8] John Paul Ostamas,[9] Douglas Garland,[10] Derek Saretzky[11] and Dellen Millard, Mark Smich's accomplice (originally 50 years, extended to 75 after sentencing for the murder of his father).

In 2020, in the case of Alexandre Bissonnette, the Quebec Court of Appeals ruled that these consecutive sentences violated the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and lowed his parole ineligibility period from 40 years to the standard 25.[12]

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, even when the offender is found guilty for particularly grievous offences. One common exception is cases which involve terrorism-related conspiracies. [13][14] [15]

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.[16]

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.[17] 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, and are subject to electronic tagging for the remainder of their natural lives.

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.[18] 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.[19] This supervision lasts for the remainder of the offender's life.

See: Dangerous offender designation in Canada.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Harper government supports private bill that could bring minimum 40-year sentences for some violent crimes", 25 Apr 2013
  2. ^ G+M: "Five fundamental ways Harper has changed the justice system", 6 May 2014
  3. ^ "Here's a look at convictions that have led to consecutive murder sentences in Canada | CBC News".
  4. ^ "Travis Baumgartner gets 40 years without parole for killing co-workers". CBC News. 11 September 2013.
  5. ^ "Judge sentences Edward Downey minimum 50 years for double murder | Calgary Sun".
  6. ^ "No parole for 50 years for double murderer Emanuel Kahsai whose 'torture' of mother began a decade ago".
  7. ^ "Basil Borutski will die in prison for 'vicious, cold-blooded' murder of 3 women | CBC News".
  8. ^ MacDonald, Michael (31 October 2014). "Justin Bourque handed harshest sentence since Canada's last execution more than 50 years ago". National Post.
  9. ^ Brutal homeless killer gets 75 year minimum
  10. ^ Douglas Garland to serve at least 75 years for horrific triple killing
  11. ^ Saretzky sentenced to life, no parole for 75 years
  12. ^ Montpetit, Jonathan (Nov 26, 2020). "Quebec mosque shooter's sentence reduced as Appeal Court finds consecutive life sentences are unconstitutiona". CBC.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  13. ^[bare URL]
  14. ^[bare URL]
  15. ^[bare URL]
  16. ^
  17. ^ Criminal Code of Canada
  18. ^
  19. ^

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