May 12, 2015 1:02 pm

Bill casts veil of secrecy over long gun registry’s destruction

Several media organizatiions, including Global News, obtained redacted copies of the national firearms registry under access-to-information laws. La Presse has made their copy available for download.

LESLIE YOUNG/GLOBAL NEWS
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A clause buried deep in a bill tabled in Parliament last week blocks access to any information about how the long gun registry was destroyed. It is also designed to block further release of a redacted copy of the registry itself, federal officials confirmed yesterday.

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The long gun data was destroyed in two phases: in October, 2014 for records of guns outside Quebec, and in a second phase after Quebec lost a Supreme Court decision in March of this year.

“The government is giving all of these records a blanket exemption,” says Ottawa lawyer Michel Drapeau, an expert on access-to-information law. “I haven’t ever seen this before. To do that is quite extraordinary. If, 20 years from now, I try to get access to these records, you can’t have them.”

Before the long gun registry data was deleted, several Canadian media outlets, including Global News, obtained heavily redacted copies under access-to-information laws.

The file had extensive information about individual firearms, but no data about their owners other than a two-character postal code. Two-character postal codes can contain hundreds of thousands of people, so there’s little risk of a particular gun owner being traced.

Ironies abound.

If the measure becomes law, it will be impossible for the federal government itself to release the remaining registry data. But it’s been freely available for years from the RCMP, and La Presse makes its copy available for anyone to download. You can read the RCMP’s technical explanation of how the deletion was carried out, in documents obtained under access-to-information laws, at globalnews.ca.

“It was still possible to access outdated copies of the long-gun registry through Access to Information legislation,” Jeremy Laurin, a spokesperson in Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney’s office, said in an e-mailed statement.

“The will of Parliament has been made clear, and all copies of the registry were to be destroyed. This technical amendment will address this.”

Although the long gun registry no longer exists, the redacted data is still useful. A successful provincially-run Quebec long gun registry, for example, would look roughly like the Quebec part of the former federal long gun registry, which had records of about 1.6 million guns.

The bill’s exemption of information about the deletion itself puzzles Ottawa lawyer Solomon Friedman, who opposed the long gun registry.

“My first question is: What data exists? I thought it was all destroyed.”

“I am suspicious of the premise that all the records have been deleted,” he says. “If the government could be compelled to release information with respect to the destruction of the records, well, maybe it could somehow be undone.”

If the method of disposal was public, would there be a way to recreate it?

“It’s kind of mysterious. From my perspective, I want to know as much as possible about the destruction of the data, to determine that it’s truly dead and gone.”

Global News asked Laurin why information about the registry’s destruction was blocked from release, and did not get a response.

For Drapeau, the amendments raise deeper questions about civic memory about how government decisions were made and carried out.

“I frankly don’t know why we’re doing this. It’s a terrible precedent – if successive governments were to do that, we would have a very checkered past, because there will be things that we can’t talk about. This is not East Germany – this is Canada.”

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