More than 100 people, including Archbishop Fred Hiltz, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, braved a cold, rainy night in Toronto to make the city a "City for Life," one of eight in Canada and more than 900 worldwide.
On November 30 each year, people in cities around the world speak out against and call for the abolition of the death penalty during events organized by the World Coalition Against the Death Penalty, which Amnesty International helped found.
Toronto's event began at city hall, where protestors with placards and banners gathered. They marched through downtown streets chanting calls for an end to the executions. Then they were welcomed into St. James Cathedral by rector, the Rev. Douglas Stoute, to listen to speakers, including Alex Neve, secretary general of the Canadian chapter of Amnesty International. He brought a message from Louise Arbour, the former U.N. high commissioner on human rights, who said that those working to end the death penalty should be encouraged by the fact that about two-thirds of countries in the world have stopped the practice. She described the Cities for Life event as a "gesture of hope." But Neve reminded the crowd of the reasons to increase their efforts when he spoke of Aisha Ibrahim Duhulow, a 13-year-old girl, who was stoned to death in October in Somalia by a group of 50 men with a crowd of 1,000 looking on. She was accused of adultery after she reported that she had been raped.
Neve also noted that, although Canada has been a leader in the work to abolish the death penalty, the government has stepped back from that leadership role in the last year. When Resolution 62/149, calling for a worldwide moratorium on executions, was put before the United Nations late last year, Canada voted for it but refused to co-sponsor it. The final vote on the resolution will be in mid-December, and Neve urged the crowd to push the government to join the 89 countries that have co-sponsored it.
Inside the cathedral, Hiltz asked the audience to reflect on Jesus's words in the Gospel of Matthew: "I was in prison and you visited me."
Hiltz said that God takes no pleasure in the deaths of the innocent, but neither does he take pleasure in the deaths of those who have committed wicked acts. "We gather here tonight to affirm the sacredness of human life," he said. And he added that any justice based on vengeance sets society on a dangerous course.
Iranian human rights activist Furugh Arghavan spoke briefly of her own torture when she was imprisoned by the Iranian regime as a young woman 25 years ago, but she said she is now primarily motivated to be "a voice for the voiceless"; those who don't survive. Capital punishment, she said, is often used as a weapon to terrorize and stifle political opposition.
Bringing the subject closer to home, James Lockyer, director of the Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted, said that over the past 50 years, Canadians have had 10 prime ministers; all but the current prime minister have opposed capital punishment. Lockyer has described the Harper government's decision to reverse a long-standing policy of seeking clemency for Canadians sentenced to death in other democracies, such as the U.S., as showing "an extraordinary indifference to life." Speaking as someone who has seen many instances when court verdicts were wrong and destroyed lives, Lockyer said, "We must all fight the death penalty to the death."
Aubrey Harris, coordinator of the Amnesty International Canada's campaign to abolish the death penalty, described the plight of two young Canadians, Mohamed Kohail and his brother Sultan Kohail of Montreal, who are in imminent danger of being executed in Saudi Arabia. He said there is an urgent need for Canadians to write letters to the Saudi government, asking it to show mercy.
Linden MacIntyre of CBC's The Fifth Estate, who talked passionately of stories he has covered about people who have been wrongfully convicted and others who have faced the death penalty, hosted the event, which was also graced by two performances by mezzo soprano Joanne Chapin, singing Pie Jesu from Requiem by Gabriel Fauré, and jazz singer Sophia Perlman singing a moving and unaccompanied rendition of Abel Meeropol's classic and tragic song Strange Fruit, about black people who suffered lynching in the American South.
Cities for Life day is often observed by illuminating a prominent building or monument and, in Toronto, St. James Cathedral was lit against the rainy, night sky while the Bells of Old York rang out. Other "Cities for Life" in Canada this year were St. John's Newfoundland; Montreal and St. Jerome in Quebec; Ottawa, Niagara Falls, and Clarington in Ontario; and Grande Prairie, Alberta.