Skip to main content

Editorial cartoon by Brian Gable/The Globe and Mail

Brian Gable

One of the smartest backbench MLAs in the Romanow government once elegantly summarized what the debate over long guns (hunting rifles and shotguns) in Canada was about. When people in cities think about them, she said, they think "gangs." When people in rural communities think about them, they think "ducks." They think about the times they went hunting with Grandpa.

Which is not to say that gun violence isn't an issue in rural communities. Far from it.

But it does explain why our Saskatchewan NDP government opposed the long-gun registry when it was introduced. It looked to us like what it then was: an extremely expensive, typically liberal and Liberal gesture, deeply resented by many rural Canadians, designed to create the illusion of action without addressing the core issues, and designed to push the Conservative Party in its various forms back into its rural and Prairie base. And they wanted us to enforce it.

Story continues below advertisement

That was then.

For good or ill, the billion-plus was spent. Canada's police forces, once divided on this issue, now speak in one voice in saying that the long-gun registry has become a useful police tool that saves lives and protects communities.

On the substance of the matter, when every police force in the country now says you should, it is time to put this matter behind us. Time to reform the rules to make them less onerous, but to accept that the registry is here to stay.

What of the politics of the matter?

Let's say it is not all beer and Skittles for the New Democrats, this issue.

Unlike voice-of-upper-class-Toronto Michael Ignatieff or voice-of-Alberta Stephen Harper, NDP Leader Jack Layton leads a balanced national caucus with both urban and rural communities well-represented. He is therefore well-motivated to find a compromise, as he moved to do last week after many months of internal discussion.

Mr. Layton is navigating a number of tricky balances.

Story continues below advertisement

In the cause of democratic reform, the NDP takes the view that it will not "whip" its MPs on a private-member's bill. But the Prime Minister's team exploited this slowly growing tradition in the House of Commons by introducing a government bill in the guise of a private-member's bill, and now invites New Democrats to join it in a national round of police-bashing. Another example of how the Harper government is the enemy of parliamentary reform.

The NDP's vote is tilted toward women and much of its opportunity for growth is in urban and suburban ridings. But its caucus includes rural MPs who made commitments to aboriginal and rural communities.

Most activists in the NDP universe take a decisively pro-registry position. But the more thoughtful among them know that if their party misplays its cards, they could hand enough rural seats to Mr. Harper to give him his majority - ensuring the outcome they want to prevent.

Mr. Layton is seeking to navigate these shoals while doing minimum damage to his team. Despite all the noise from opponents, he has made encouraging progress (consider NDP MP Charlie Angus's position, for example). Hopefully he'll succeed. If the numbers aren't there for his thoughtful and constructive proposals, in my - as always strictly personal - view, he would have to consider accepting higher costs in order to ensure New Democrats don't provide Mr. Harper with the margin he needs.

Although they clearly don't know it yet, this issue doesn't work any better for the Tories. In addition to demonstrating its contempt for democratic reform, the gun-registry issue demonstrates this government's increasing tendency to make mistakes that ensure it cannot grow outside of its core vote.

Why are they doing this? Why did the Conservatives decide to bring the gun-registry issue back into the centre of Canadian politics? Mr. Harper's team believes that the public understands this issue to be about "waste": The registry costs in excess of a billion dollars; criminals aren't registering their guns; so get rid of the registry and everyone will thank Mr. Harper.

Story continues below advertisement

The unanimous voice of Canada's police chiefs has destroyed any chance that this will occur.

That being so, the real harvest of the government's stealth registry bill will be to remind Canadians of why they don't like the Conservative Party. In other words, the registry is still capable of doing the same political work it was designed to do when it was introduced.

It is a neat trick, making Mr. Ignatieff look good. You'd think the Conservatives would focus on other priorities as they get closer to an election.


Many thanks to readers for their kind words and support flowing from my previous post. We are a warm people in our quiet way, Canadians.

Report an error
Comments are closed

We have closed comments on this story for legal reasons. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.