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Conservatives exploit urban/rural divide over long-gun registry

Prime Minister Stephen Harper leaves Whitehorse, Yukon on the final day of his five day northern tour to Canada's Arctic on Friday Aug. 27, 2010.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

The North is a great place to be reminded of the dust-up coming next month over the long-gun registry.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper rarely got through a speech here during his five-day tour of northern Manitoba and the territories without mentioning the crucial vote over whether to abolish the registry scheduled for when Parliament resumes in September.

In Whitehorse on Friday, he was at it again, reminding Conservative partisans of the excruciating choice that Yukon MP Larry Bagnell faces when that vote arrives on Sept. 22.

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Mr. Bagnell was one of eight Liberal and 12 New Democratic MPs who, in a previous vote, supported a private member's bill to kill the registry, which is cordially loathed by most voters in rural ridings across Canada, not least in the North.

But Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff, under pressure from MPs in urban ridings where the registry is popular, has ordered his MPs to fall into line or face the consequences.

The Conservatives are making sport of this.

The people of Yukon want "someone who will stand up for the people of this region, people of this territory, respect his word and vote to abolish the long-gun registry," Mr. Harper declared at a media availability.

Mr. Bagnell, who has opposed the long-gun registry every time he was allowed to vote his conscience, faces an impossible choice. If he breaks with his party, he will humiliate his leader, who will punish him accordingly.

If he respects the whip, the Conservatives will launch an electoral jihad against him in Yukon, where forcing gun owners to register their shotguns and rifles is seen as tantamount to creating a police state.

Ironically, the police are among the most vociferous supporters of the registry, which they use, for example, when they need to know if there are guns in a house to which they have been called for a domestic dispute.

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But Mr. Harper knows he has the law-and-order vote locked up, whatever the police might say on this particular issue. He knows also that voters in urban ridings - where fears of gun violence are higher - may support keeping the registry, but don't consider it a ballot question, worrying more about the economy, health care and the environment.

The motion to save the registry is most likely to die at the hands of the NDP. Leader Jack Layton refuses to whip the vote. MPs should always vote their conscience on a private member's bill, he argues. More pointedly, he can't guarantee that his 12 anti-registry MPs would listen to him.

NDP justice critic Joe Comartin is working feverishly to bring the wayward MPs into line. But as of last week, he was still three votes shy, and that assumes Mr. Bagnell and other Liberal MPs stand by their leader.

Manitoba Conservative MP Candice Hoeppner, who sponsored the bill to get rid of the registry, has been touring opposition ridings to persuade (or torment) wavering Liberal and NDP MPs. The Conservatives are running ads in the ridings, urging voters to help stiffen their MPs' spines.

The gun registry reflects a seemingly unbridgeable divide between rural and urban English Canada. (Support for the registry is higher in Quebec, where all 48 Bloc Québécois MPs support it.) Most urban Canadians can't understand why hunters and farmers can't make the effort to register a potentially dangerous weapon. Rural voters, the vast majority of whom are white, don't understand why people in cities want further restrictions on their way of life and a culture that is under threat as Canada becomes ever more urban and multicultural.

The Conservatives happily exploit that divide, in the North and elsewhere. The Liberals and NDP can only suffer.

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About the Author

John Ibbitson started at The Globe in 1999 and has been Queen's Park columnist and Ottawa political affairs correspondent.Most recently, he was a correspondent and columnist in Washington, where he wrote Open and Shut: Why America has Barack Obama and Canada has Stephen Harper. He returned to Ottawa as bureau chief in 2009. More

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