OTTAWA – A divided Supreme Court of Canada says the federal government has the right to order the destruction of Quebec’s federal gun registry data – but all three Quebec judges on the court disagreed.
Quebec has said it will not accept the high court’s decision.
By a 5-4 margin, the Supreme Court upheld an earlier Quebec Court of Appeal ruling that sided with the government on its controversial decision to abolish the federal registry for long guns in 2011.
The ruling is a win for the Conservative government, and it also exposes a legal divide over the powers of the provinces versus those of the federal government on the country’s highest court.
In a dramatic show of solidarity, all three Quebec judges on the Supreme Court – Clement Gascon, Richard Wagner and Louis LeBel – put their names on a dissenting opinion.
With Ontario’s Rosalie Abella concurring, the minority of four upheld the legal right of the provinces to make laws in relation to property and civil rights.
READ MORE: Interactive: Quebec’s long gun registry
They lost to the majority, which ruled that the order to destroy the data was a lawful exercise of Parliament’s legislative power to make criminal law under the Constitution.
“In our view, the decision to dismantle the long-gun registry and destroy the data that it contains is a policy choice that Parliament was constitutionally entitled to make,” wrote Thomas Cromwell and Andromache Karakastanis for the majority, a group that included Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin.
But Quebec has signaled it will not be guided by the Supreme Court decision.
Quebec vows to proceed with own registry
Quebec says it will proceed with its own gun registry after a Supreme Court decision that paves the way for Ottawa to destroy data coveted by the province.
Public Security Minister Lise Theriault told a news conference in Quebec City this morning the Quebec government cannot accept the high court ruling.
Theriault says the fact the three Quebec justices were in the minority reflects the views of people in the province.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper says there is enough registration of weapons in Canada and that the doomed gun registry was too expensive and ineffective.
Harper says there is already registration of all gun owners, handguns and restricted weapons.
The high court upheld an earlier Quebec Court of Appeal ruling that sided with the federal government on its controversial decision to abolish the federal registry for long guns in 2011.
The ruling is a win for the Conservative government and it also exposes a legal divide over the powers of the provinces versus those of the federal government on the country’s highest court.
Conservatives welcome the decision
Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney’s office welcomed the decision.
“We are pleased the Supreme Court upheld the decision of the Quebec Court of Appeal in this matter,” spokesman Jeremy Laurin said in a statement.
“We have a strong system of gun control in Canada, and our government has toughened laws and penalties for those who commit crimes with guns.”
The Harper government and the Supreme Court have clashed recently, notably over the high court’s decision to reject the government’s nomination of Quebec judge Marc Nadon to its ranks.
Supreme court had rebuked government policies but not this time
The Supreme Court also rebuked some core government policy, saying Parliament does not have the power to reform the Senate, or prevent a Vancouver safe-injection drug site from staying open to treat addicts over the objection of the tough-on-crime Conservatives.
But in this case, the high court – notwithstanding the objections of its Quebec jurists – sided firmly with the government in its long-standing policy of wanting to kill the gun registry.
READ MORE: Firearms in Canada: How do you get a gun?
It firmly upheld the notion that as long as the government operates within the law, it is free to enact whatever policies it deems appropriate.
The Harper government abolished the registry for long guns in 2011 as part of a long-standing campaign promise – a controversial political move that also emphasized Canada’s rural-urban divide.
The federal government ordered the provinces to destroy all the data they collected for the registry, something the Quebec government challenged in the courts.
Liberal MP Stephane Dion, the party’s intergovernmental affairs critic, chastised the Conservatives for not allowing Quebec to keep its gun-registry data.
“The court spoke, so we’ll respect the decision,” he said.
“From a political perspective, I would agree that it’s very bad federalist to not co-operate with the province in giving the data. It would not have been difficult for the Conservative government to do so.”
The issue of firearm registration is a political hot potato for the Harper Conservatives, who see rural long-gun gun owners as a core political base.
Harper recently created a stir when he said guns provide “a certain level of security” to rural residents who live far from police stations.
Gun registry created in wake of Montreal Massacre
The Liberal government created the gun registry in 1998 in response to the murder of 14 women at Montreal’s Ecole Polytechnique in 1989. They were targeted by a gunman because of their gender.
The gun-control lobby pushed for greater regulation.
Alberta opposed the federal government’s right to create a gun registry, but the Supreme Court dismissed that argument in a 2000 ruling.
The Conservative government has maintained that the registry was wasteful and intrusive.
On the legal issue at play in this case, it justified the destruction of its data, saying it was no longer useful and would be harmful to public safety.
The Supreme Court said it was not its job to weigh in on such debates.
“We add this; to some, Parliament’s choice to destroy this data will undermine public safety and waste enormous amounts of public money. To others, it will seem to be the dismantling of an ill-advised regime and the overdue restoration of the privacy rights of law-abiding gun owners,” the majority ruling stated.
“As has been said many times, the courts are not to question the wisdom of legislation but only to rule on its legality.”
The court also rejected the Quebec’s argument that the destruction of the data amounted a violation of the principle of “co-operative federalism” – a concept that describes the network of federal, provincial and regional government co-operation on a myriad of issues.
Quebec’s argument was based on the fact that the registry was a co-operative effort between the federal government and the provinces.
The dissenting judges said a “co-operative scheme” between the provinces and Ottawa can’t be “dismantled unilaterally” by one of the parties.
“To conclude otherwise would be to accept a one?way form of co?operative federalism,” the minority wrote.
“The regulation of long guns and the use of information about them fall primarily within the provinces’ power to make laws in relation to property and civil rights.”