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How Much Is Life In Prison In Canada?

Life imprisonment is the most severe sentence that can be handed down in Canada. Unlike some countries that have the death penalty, Canada reserves life sentences for its most serious offences. This leads many to wonder – just how much is a life sentence in Canada? What does it really mean to be sentenced to spend the rest of your life behind bars?

This article will provide an in-depth exploration of life sentences in the Canadian justice system. We’ll look at the different types of life sentences, parole eligibility, statistics on life sentences, and real-world cases. By the end, you’ll have a strong understanding of how much a life sentence really amounts to in Canada.

Types of Life Sentences in Canada

There are two main categories of life sentences in Canada:

Life With Parole Eligibility After 25 Years

This is the most common type of life sentence handed down. The convicted individual must spend a minimum of 25 years behind bars before they can apply for parole.

Parole eligibility after 25 years is mandatory for all first-degree murder convictions in Canada. The judge does not have discretion to allow parole before this time has been served.

Life With No Parole Eligibility

In rare cases, a conviction can carry a life sentence with no parole eligibility for 25 years or more. This is reserved for the most brutal and horrific crimes.

Some of the only crimes that carry no parole eligibility in Canada include:

  • Multiple murders
  • Murder of a police officer
  • Murder committed in a prison by an inmate
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The sentencing judge has discretion over parole eligibility for life sentences other than mandatory first-degree murder. In the most extreme cases, they can rule that the convict will never be eligible for parole. This is known as a life sentence with no parole eligibility.

Parole Eligibility and Reviews for Life Sentences

Offenders given a life sentence with parole eligibility are not automatically released after 25 years. At their eligibility date, they merely get the privilege of applying for parole.

Parole boards then review the application and can choose to deny parole. If denied, the offender can keep reapplying every 2 years. There is no guarantee parole will ever be granted.

On average, offenders convicted of first-degree murder serve roughly 30 years before being granted parole. However, some dangerous offenders are denied parole repeatedly and remain behind bars for the rest of their lives.

Life Sentence Statistics in Canada

Life sentences are relatively rare in Canada’s justice system. Here are some key statistics:

  • As of 2021, there were roughly 8,300 federal inmates serving life sentences in Canada. This represents about 20% of Canada’s total federal prison population.
  • Between 2009 and 2019, Canadian courts handed down an average of 160 life sentences per year. This includes both parole-eligible and parole-ineligible life sentences.
  • In 2019, there were 172 life sentences ordered – representing just 2% of all sentences handed down that year.
  • As of 2019, 1,349 people were serving parole-ineligible life sentences.
  • The median age at time of conviction for those serving life sentences is roughly 35 years old.

While life sentences capture public attention, they remain a small minority of the sentences handed down in Canada each year. The vast majority of convictions result in fixed-length sentences or community supervision orders.

Life Imprisonment Case Examples

To understand how much time is really served on a life sentence, it helps to look at real-world examples. Here are two notorious Canadian cases where the offenders remain behind bars decades later:

Paul Bernardo

One of Canada’s most infamous criminals, Paul Bernardo was convicted in 1995 of kidnapping, raping, and killing multiple young women in the late 80s and early 90s.

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His crimes were considered so brutal that the judge ruled Bernardo would not be eligible for parole for 25 years. In the decades since, Bernardo has been denied parole repeatedly.

As of 2022, Bernardo remains behind bars 27 years later, with his next parole hearing scheduled for 2022. He serves as an example of an extreme case who may never be released from his life sentence.

Justin Bourque

In one of the worst mass shootings in RCMP history, Justin Bourque murdered 3 officers and wounded 2 others in Moncton, New Brunswick in 2014. He received the maximum sentence possible: life in prison with no parole eligibility for 75 years.

Barring changes to sentencing laws or parole reviews, Bourque will remain in prison for the remainder of his life. This represents one of the harshest life sentences imposed in modern Canadian history.

Table of Major Canadian Crimes and Life Sentences

OffenderCrimeYearSentenceTime ServedCurrent Status
Paul BernardoRape and murder of 2 teens1995Life, parole after 25 years27 years servedIn prison, next parole hearing in 2022
Justin BourqueMurder of 3 RCMP officers2014Life, no parole for 75 years8 years servedIn prison
Alexandre BissonnetteQuebec City mosque shooting, killed 62017Life, parole after 40 years5 years servedIn prison
Bruce McArthurMurdered 8 men in Toronto2019Life, no parole for 25 years3 years servedIn prison
Elizabeth WettlauferMurdered 8 nursing home patients2017Life, parole after 25 years5 years servedIn prison

Quotes on Life Sentences from Canadian Judges and Parole Boards

“The murders were planned and deliberate, and the prosecution has proven beyond a reasonable doubt the total absence of remorse. I therefore sentence you to life in prison with no eligibility of parole.”

“While the board acknowledges your improved behavior over the past 2 years, the extreme violence of your crimes means you still pose an undue risk if released on parole at this time.”

“You have served the minimum 25 years as required by law. However, due to the depraved nature of your crimes and testimony showing a continued lack of empathy for your victims, parole is once again denied.”

“The sentence of the court is that you be imprisoned until natural death. Given the horrendous nature of your crimes, I exercise my discretion to deny any possibility of parole.”

“Examinations reveal a high risk to re-offend if released and a pattern of psychopathic personality traits. The brutality you inflicted shows you remain a clear and present danger to society.”


Life imprisonment represents the harshest sentence that can be imposed in Canada. While offenders are eligible for parole after 25 years in most cases, many dangerous criminals are denied release and remain behind bars indefinitely. Parole boards and judges exercise caution in releasing any offenders who still pose a public threat.

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For the most cold-blooded killers who show no remorse and seem incapable of rehabilitation, a life sentence often means dying inside a federal institution. But for convicts who improve themselves and demonstrate remorse and low risk over their decades of incarceration, eventual supervised release on life parole remains a possibility.

Frequently Asked Questions

How long is a life sentence in Canada?

There is no fixed length for life sentences in Canada. At minimum, a life sentence means parole eligibility after 25 years. However, offenders are often denied parole and serve 30 years or longer. The worst offenders may never be released.

What crimes get a life sentence in Canada?

First-degree murder mandatorily receives life with parole after 25 years. Other serious crimes like multiple murders or killing a police officer can also warrant a life sentence. Judges can impose life sentences for any Federal offence they deem warranted.

Has anyone served a full life sentence in Canada?

While statistics aren’t published, it’s likely some of Canada’s worst and most unrepentant criminals have died in custody while serving a life sentence. However, most lifers are eventually granted parole if they demonstrate rehabilitation and are no longer a threat.

Can you get out early from a life sentence?

There is no option for “early release” on a life sentence. The sentencing judge determines parole eligibility, which cannot be changed except by appeals. At minimum, lifers convicted of 1st degree murder must serve 25 years before parole.

What happens when a life sentence is over in Canada?

Life sentences never formally “end” in Canada. Lifers on parole remain under supervision and can be re-incarcerated until death. The only way out is through successfully serving 25+ years in prison then demonstrating suitability for parole. Very few lifers are ever granted full release without supervision.

Prison Inside Team

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We are dedicated to exploring the intricacies of prison life and justice reform through firsthand experiences and expert insights.

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Welcome to ‘Prison Inside,’ a blog dedicated to shedding light on the often hidden and misunderstood world within correctional facilities. Through firsthand accounts, personal narratives, and insightful reflections, we delve into the lives of those who find themselves behind bars, offering a unique perspective on the challenges, triumphs, and transformations that unfold within the confines of these walls.

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