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Mass murder and capital punishment

Recent mass shootings in the United States have tended to confirm Canadians’ sense that such events can’t happen here. Similar events in Canada are not numerous, but those that have occurred are not well known. In particular, the biggest mass murder in Canada before Air India is almost unknown outside Quebec, where it occurred in 1949. It also involved an attack involving an airplane, but the murderer was motivated by misguided love rather than politics.

Three people hanged as a result of the 23 deaths that ensued, and one might have thought that their crime would have legitimated the death penalty for a long time. Yet, less than a decade after the last of these three went to the gallows in 1953, Canada saw its last state executions. Why?

Joseph-Albert Guay had a jewelry business in Quebec City and he also serviced the north shore of the St. Lawrence as far as Baie-Comeau. His marriage to Rita Morel was unhappy, and he began an affair with a teenaged waitress, Marie-Ange Robitaille. Divorce being almost impossible in Quebec at the time, Guay resolved to murder his wife in order to marry Robitaille.

His plan combined elements of great cunning with extreme naiveté, such as his purchase of a $10,000 insurance policy on the very day of his wife’s murder. Guay arranged for his wife to fly to Baie-Comeau via Canadian Pacific Air Lines on Sept. 9, 1949, on a pretext connected to his business. He then persuaded a watchmaker friend, Généreux Ruest, to make a bomb out of dynamite, batteries and an alarm clock. Ruest’s sister, Marguerite Ruest-Pitre, who had helped facilitate Guay’s affair with Robitaille, purchased the dynamite. She then delivered the package with the bomb to the airport at the last minute, as a parcel needing delivery to Baie-Comeau.

Guay had planned for the bomb to go off when the plane was over the Saint Lawrence River. Given the river’s depth and the state of forensic science at the time, it would not have been possible to reconstruct the events leading up to the crash. A five-minute delay in departure ruined these calculations. The bomb went off as scheduled, killing the four crew members and all 19 passengers, including Guay’s wife, but while the plane was over land, not water. Investigators quickly determined the true cause of the crash. Guay’s attempt to cash in the insurance policy three days after the disaster naturally aroused suspicion and, within two weeks, he was arrested.  

There was little doubt that Guay would hang for the murders, and he was executed in January 1951. Ruest and Pitre were charged as accomplices; both protested that they had been misled by Guay, but juries did not believe them. Ruest was hanged in July 1952 and his sister in January 1953. Pitre had the distinction of being the last woman hanged in Canada.

Prime Minister Louis St-Laurent and his cabinet could commute death sentences to life imprisonment, but they did not do so frequently. On average, only 36 per cent of all death sentences were commuted while St-Laurent was in office, leaving some 80 persons to die on the gallows between 1948 and 1957. The big change came with Prime Minister John Diefenbaker, a criminal defence lawyer who had seen the capital punishment process up close and did not like it. Commutations shot up to 79 per cent while he was prime minister. Only 14 persons were hanged on his watch (1957-63), including the last two people executed in Canada.

Why did Guay’s crime have so little impact on the fate of capital punishment? The notorious Coffin case provides part of the answer. In July 1953, the bodies of three American hunters were found in the woods of the Gaspé. Local resident Wilbert Coffin was found to have some items of theirs in his possession. His murder conviction, based on circumstantial evidence, was upheld on appeal, and the Supreme Court denied special leave to appeal. Amid public suspicion that Coffin had been railroaded due to American pressure to find a culprit, the cabinet reluctantly agreed to refer the matter to the Supreme Court. Five judges said they would have confirmed the conviction, while two would have ordered a new trial. St-Laurent’s cabinet did not interfere and Coffin was hanged in February 1956.

Concerns about Coffin’s possible innocence re-energized the abolition movement in Canada, pushing the recent Guay murders into the background, as did the death sentence given to 14-year-old Steven Truscott after his controversial conviction for the murder of Lynne Harper in 1959, even though it was commuted in 1960. Guay’s final words, accurate at the time, turned out not to be prophetic — “Au moins, je meurs célèbre,” translated to “At least, I die famous.”

Philip Girard is a legal historian and professor at Osgoode Hall Law School. He is also associate editor at the Osgoode Society for Canadian Legal History. His email address is pgirard@osgoode.yorku.ca.


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