In movie treason trials, a person facing a cruel, usually male, judge and screaming prosecutors is accused of betraying their country while they plead innocence and national loyalty. Sometimes the trial will end in a hanging, other times it will end by firing squad, and still others end with electrocution. Rarely is the accused set free.
In real life, treason cases are a lot more complex.
Despite the enhanced vigilance of Canadian and American law enforcement in the face of terrorism, people are rarely prosecuted for treason.
Since Canadian and American criminal laws have their roots in the British legal tradition, it’s time to look at how we and our southern neighbors define the crime and how it should be prosecuted.
In Canada, treason is defined in our Criminal Code.
There are two types of treason: regular, called simply treason and high treason.
High treason is defined as committing one or all of the following acts if you are a Canadian citizen:
- Killing or attempting to kill the Queen (Canada’s de jure head of State) or causing bodily harm leading to her “death or destruction”
- Maiming, wounding, imprisoning, or restraining the Queen
- Making or Preparing for War Against Canada
- Assisting an enemy at war with Canada or assisting any armed forces Canadian forces are fighting regardless of whether those armed forces are at war with Canada
Treason is defined by one or all of the following acts:
- Using force or violence to overthrow the Canadian government or the government of a province
- Communicating “without lawful authority” scientific or military information or sketches, plans, or documents of a scientific or military character that you knew or ought to have known could be used by an agent of another state against Canada
- Conspiring to commit the above and manifesting an intention to go through with it via an overt act
- Conspiring to commit high treason and manifesting an intention to commit it by an overt act. Conspiring with a person to commit treason is considered an overt act.
The law not only defines the crime itself and the penalties, but also who can be convicted of either kind treason and under what circumstances.
According to the Criminal Code, the rules on treason apply to Canadian citizens.
A crime of high treason can be committed while in or outside of Canada, as can acts of regular treason.
A conviction for high treason carries the penalty of life in prison.
The penalty for regular treason is a bit more complex.
If you’re convicted of using force or violence against Canadian government or province with the intent to overthrow it, it’s life in prison. The penalty is the same for communicating military or scientific information, documents etc. knowing or having ought to know that they could be used by another country or even conspiring to do so and manifesting intention to carry it out by an overt act while Canada is at war with that country. If you communicate or conspire to communicate this stuff when Canada is not at war, the penalty becomes a maximum of fourteen years in jail.
The penalties for treason are heavy in Canada as in most countries, so the rules of evidence and procedure are extremely strict in these cases.
Proceedings against people accused of violent attempts to overthrow the government have to take place three years or less after the alleged crime was committed. For overt acts of treason, the words of information expressing the overt act have to be laid under oath before a justice within six days of the alleged overt act, and a warrant for the person’s arrest has to be issued within ten days of that.
There can be no conviction for treason on the evidence of only one witness unless that witness’ testimony is corroborated my material evidence.
Only two people in Canadian history have been tried and convicted of treason.
The first is the Métis leader Louis Riel, who was hanged in eighteen eighty five.
The lesser known, Kanao Inouye aka the Kamloops Kid, was responsible for interrogating and torturing Canadian Prisoners of War in Japanese occupied Hong Kong during the Second World War. He was convicted of war crimes and sentenced to death by a British war crimes court, but his lawyer successfully appealed on the grounds that Inouye was a Canadian citizen and therefore could not be considered a war criminal. Inouye was instead tried for treason and hanged by the British Hong Kong Supreme Court in 1947.
In the United States, the laws regarding treason are similar. As the nation was born in defiance of the British Monarchy which had been known to charge people of the crime willy nilly, the crime of treason is clearly and strictly defined in the US Constitution.
Article III, section 3 of the constitution defines treason as:
“…levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort.”
As in Canada, the rules for a conviction on the charge of treason in the US are strict. American law requires the testimony of two witnesses to the crime or a confession in open court to convict someone of treason.
As in Canada, convictions for treason are rare. Most civil war veterans, for example, were granted amnesty by the US government instead of facing treason charges. In some cases, such as that of Iva Toguri D’Aquino, the trials and investigations were corrupt and ultimately resulted in presidential pardons and apologies.
The penalty for treason in the US can be imprisonment or death.
With the implications of treason so heavy, it’s no wonder people are rarely charged with the crime. However, with the revelations of the Orange Administration’s willful conspiring with the Russian government to corrupt their elections and push an agenda hurting the American people, the only question left is whether law enforcement in the south will grow a pair and prosecute those clearly guilty of the crime.