Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Stephen Harper: The Debate over the Gun Registry



Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper is a man in a hurry. But the pace at which he’s pushing through controversial legislation and dismissing the views of the opposition parties has even surprised Tory supporters. And he’s not making any friends in the process.

Barely two months after the start of the September parliamentary session, Harper has managed to anger the province of Québec for vowing to destroy data compiled in the federal long-gun registry.

For years, the Conservatives have argued that the long-gun registry, which collects data on duck and big game hunters, was costly, ineffective and useless at preventing crime. Start-up costs ballooned to about $2 billion. Set up by the previous Liberal government in 1995, the registry was meant as a tool to help police officers check if there were guns in the house when responding to calls. The names of hunters and the types and number of hunting rifles and shotguns on their premises were compiled in a national databank.

Hunters objected furiously, saying it branded them as criminals. Gun owners had to register their guns for a fee and submit to a background check. (A registry for prohibited firearms and assault weapons remains in effect.)

Supporters of the gun registry argued it saved lives. In the province of Québec, the opposition to dismantling the registry was fierce. This is a result of the still-lingering emotional reaction to a killing spree at the Montréal Polytechnique School in 1989 that took the lives of 14 women—an event that prompted the establishment of the gun registry.

But it was clear from the start that Harper would not back down. He has vowed to get rid of the registry for the last five years and has promised to do so during the spring election campaign. The registry was saved from the abyss by a razor-thin majority of two votes in the House of Commons in 2010—before Harper won a majority government on May 2.

Québec was counting on the data it had collected and fed into the federal registry to set up its own registry. But that information will soon be obsolete.

The federal government objects to providing provinces with the data to prevent provinces from creating a registry through the back door. The Québec government, which wants to do just that, has threatened to challenge that decision in court.

Québec’s members of parliament (MP) from the New Democratic Party expressed dismay at the decision to wipe out information collected in the national gun registry during a lively debate last week in the House of Commons.

“The gun registry is useful,” said MP Philip Toone from the Gaspésie region in Québec. As of September 30, 2011, the gun registry was being used 17,000 times a day. In my riding of Gaspésie-Îles-de-la-Madeleine, police have confirmed they use it every day.”

But Harper is intent on delivering on his election promises. And after governing for nearly five years with his party in the minority, Harper now controls the House and the Senate. These measures appeal to his core supporters in the Western provinces and increasingly in Ontario where he made gains during the election this past May.

The Conservatives say they don’t know what the fuss is all about since it was obvious the data, which they claim is inaccurate and incomplete, would be destroyed when the registry ceased to exist. Observers say Harper wants to wipe the slate clean, get the tougher bills out of the way, and move on to Phase 2 of his agenda.

“We don’t know what that will look like; it will probably be more focused on trying to grow Conservative support and win the next election,” says Nik Nanos, president of Nanos Research, a polling firm based in Ottawa. “And that’s why the Conservatives are looking to deal as speedily as possible with these more ideological bills to deliver on them now, so they don’t drag to the midway point of the mandate.”

In just two months, the Harper government has moved to limit debate in the House on at least four bills: a 658-page budget implementation bill; the gun registry legislation; a reform of the Canadian Wheat Board, and a major 152-page omnibus bill that bundles together nine crime bills.

Some of these crime bills have been debated before in the House of Commons but never made it into law because they were voted down during the three minority Harper governments or they died on the order paper when elections were called.

The strategy, according to Nanos, seems to be to “deal with these issues as soon as possible so you can move to other issues and have as much distance for example between the gun registry being cancelled and the next election.”

For now at least, Harper has a head start. The left-leaning New Democratic Party, the Liberal Party and the Bloc Québécois—the latter advocating the independence of the province of Québec—are all involved in leadership races.

“The Prime Minister, for all intents and purposes, is shadow-boxing in the House of Commons with two interim leaders,” says Nanos.

Huguette Young is an AQ Online contributing blogger based in Ottawa, Canada.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Huguette Young is a veteran journalist and blogger in Ottawa, Canada.

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