To pardon: the Oxford English Dictionary has its definition as "the action of forgiving or being forgiven for an error or offence". A pardon can mean so much more than just forgiveness – for some people it can mean getting their life back. They have been used, in one form or another, in the world's legal systems since ancient times. Since the Criminal Records Act in 1970, criminal pardons have existed in Canada in a form unique from other nation's systems. All these systems started in a similar place, the modern form of which began with a word: pardon. Pardon, like many English words, is derived from French, which is derived from Latin – "per", meaning "through, thoroughly", and "donare", meaning "to give, present". In the Vulgar Latin, otherwise known as the common Latin most people spoke in Rome, "perdonare" means "to remit, to give wholeheartedly". Perdonare had morphed into "pardonner" in France by the late thirteenth century, its meaning changing slightly yet again to "grant, forgive". The noun form of this verb, "pardon", is where the modern English word is directly taken from.

Pardons had existed in some form or another before medieval Europe, of course; countries occasionally found it necessary to grant a blanket pardon – something closer to what we now call an "amnesty" – to their citizens, to keep their kingdoms running smoothly. One of the first known instances was in ancient Greece, when in 403 BCE the Athenian general Thrasybulus pardoned most of the thirty oligarchs, who had just been overthrown from enslaving Athens. This action protected them from reprisal from the Athenians, which would have turned into a cycling civil war. Pardons in France, and to a lesser extent, medieval Europe, began not as a function of the legal system (as they are today) but as a function of the religious order. Pardons were "papal indulgences" at first, a kind of blessing the pope of the Roman Catholic Church could bestow upon a person to cancel or remit any or all sins remaining after one had had an absolution through sacrament.

In early fourteenth century Europe, pardons grew from being only religious to being able to be used by the ruling parties as well. The Roman Catholic Church could in general grant pardons, but so could local rulers, as they now meant "to pass over an offense without punishment". Religious pardons grew commercialized after a while, and became available to whoever had the most money to pay for them, prompting Martin Luther's Protestant Reformation movement in the 1500s. Eventually, the most common pardon was one given to you by the ruler of a country or kingdom, not a religious pardon. This presented a problem, as it provided a way for monarchs to cut their allies and friends a break when they broke the rules. This potential for favoritism was viciously attacked in eighteenth century Europe, particularly in France during the years leading up to the French Revolution. As a result, many pardon systems in the world now have safeguards to prevent against any abuse of the system, such as committees which regulate the granting of pardons. Despite these safeguards, many modern systems still resemble the old monarchal ones.

Canada's pardon system, however, does not resemble the monarchal one at all. Although that one still exists in Canada, as the royal prerogative of mercy, the far more common one is the pardons granted by the Parole Board of Canada (PBC). The PBC has an application form, a fee for applying, and some necessary paperwork to send in and conditions to meet – if one meets all these conditions, one will receive a criminal pardon. The royal prerogative of mercy is not as guaranteed. One sends an application through several channels, first the PBC, then either the Solicitor General or the Governor General, then the government, where the royal prerogative is approved or denied. One must meet much more stringent standards, and the final decision is usually harsher, as it is based not only on fulfilling the requirements, but also on merit. This must be why there was a 98.3 percent success rate for the 2009-10 regular pardon applications, but only four out of twenty-one royal prerogatives of mercy were granted for the 2008-09 season.