Quebec is facing the first signs of revolt over its planned long-gun registry, an unexpected breach in a province regarded as the staunchest defender of gun-control measures in Canada.
The government of Philippe Couillard tabled legislation for a made-in-Quebec registry last month. The move was expected to get broad support in a province touched by a string of mass school shootings. But some provincial MNAs have started expressing reservations about the registry, and an anti-registry petition has gathered more than 20,300 names online.
"The [registry] is an error. It's a mirage," says Sylvie Roy, an independent MNA who represents a semi-rural Quebec riding. "I have defended victims all my life, but this won't help victims, and it's a useless expense. We should invest in mental health instead."
Quebec's Firearms Registration Act, the bill setting a database to track shotguns and rifles, has also mobilized what has been a virtually invisible gun lobby in the province. A group called Tous contre un registre québécois des armes à feu (All against a Quebec firearms registry) formally incorporated last week and is opening a bank account to collect funds. It has begun touring hunting and gun shows to garner support, and is placing petitions in rural convenience stores. It also plans to sell bumper stickers and has a protest planned in Quebec City this Sunday.
"This registry is a waste of money and will not save a single life," says the group's president, François Picard. "Even if this is an ideological cause, it takes money. Our goal is to lead the battle against the registry."
The movement has an ally with symbolic weight in Quebec, Claude Colgan. His sister, Hélène, was one of the 14 women killed in the 1989 shooting rampage at the Polytechnique engineering school in Montreal, a catalyst for the creation of Ottawa's now-defunct gun registry. Mr. Colgan has surfaced as an outspoken opponent of its new incarnation in his home province, whose cost is pegged by the government at up to $20-million.
Mr. Colgan says his sister would have been "enraged" that gun owners such as himself would "pay for the crimes" of mass killers such as Marc Lépine, the Polytechnique shooter. Mr. Colgan told a group of gun enthusiasts in 2013 that he would never let his sister's death "turn honest gun owners of Quebec and Canada into potential criminals."
"It's not a firearm that killed Hélène Colgan and the others; it was Marc Lépine. He's the only one responsible," Mr. Colgan said in a recent interview. He said gun owners are already screened, and criminals will always find a way to get their hands on guns. "A firearms registry is a monument to the victims of the Polytechnique. That is the only reason to create it."
The appearance of even a few dissenting voices marks a surprising departure for a province where the need for a long-arm registry is taken as an article of faith. Quebec fought the federal government in court for years to try to recover its share of records from the scrapped federal registry, and Mr. Couillard has said Quebec's willingness to adopt its own database of weapons stems from a "large consensus."
Yet polls show Quebeckers are no less divided on the matter than other Canadians. A Léger poll last year showed that outside Montreal, a majority of respondents opposes a Quebec-made registry.
Some MNAs are feeling pressure from their rural constituents. Pascal Bérubé, the Parti Québécois public security critic, told Le Devoir that hunters in his riding are "mobilized" against the registry, and, as their MNA, he wants to be as "faithful as possible" to his constituents' views. Mr. Bérubé did not respond to a request for comment on Tuesday.
The Couillard government appears to be facing possible dissension within its Liberal ranks. MNA Véronyque Tremblay described the long-gun registry as a "waste of time and money" when she was a newspaper columnist last year – just before she ran and got elected as a Liberal in a by-election. Ms. Tremblay's political attaché, Thomas Marchand, said last week Ms. Tremblay hasn't changed her views. Another Liberal, Guy Bourgeois, is quoted by Radio-Canada as saying he is facing "virulent" anti-registry sentiment in his largely rural riding and he will wait before taking a position on the subject.
Ms. Roy said in an interview she believes other legislators from various parties oppose the gun-tracking system, but fear of appearing uncaring toward the victims of gun violence stops them from speaking up. "Quebec isn't just Montreal. There's grumbling in outlying regions," Ms. Roy said.
Heidi Rathjen, a long-time gun-control advocate who speaks for the group PolyRemembers, says the new critics of Quebec's registry are the voices "of a loud minority – and they're getting organized in Quebec."
"It is very discouraging that, at this point, gun control and particularly registration [of firearms] is being questioned once again – and in Quebec, by Quebec politicians," she said.
The rumblings in Quebec mark the first cracks in what has always been perceived as a unanimous front on the question of a gun registry. Quebec fought the former Harper government in the courts for years to block it from destroying Quebec's data from the federal registry. Last year it pressed ahead to launch its own system from scratch. The bill would require owners to register their weapons online for free; fines for non-compliance reach up to $5,000 for a first offence. Opponents are seeking to have hearings on the bill when the National Assembly resumes sitting in February.
A spokesperson for Acting Public Security Minister Pierre Moreau, who introduced the registry bill, says the government will hear input into the bill and is open to improving the legislation, but the principle of a registry has all-party support. The provincial database had been a campaign promise by Mr. Couillard, himself a small-game hunter who reportedly keeps a registered firearm in his home.