Alberta’s Crown prosecutors will determine whether or not to pursue charges under the federal Firearms Act starting Jan. 1, 2023.
Justice Minister Tyler Shandro announced the changes during a news conference Thursday morning, saying the province has the constitutional authority to handle federal criminal law charges.
Anyone who obtained their firearm prior to May 2020 will not be prosecuted in Alberta, Shandro said. Anyone who had their firearm reclassified as prohibited on May 1, 2020 will also not be prosecuted, according to a news release on Thursday.
This does not apply to anyone who has been charged with any other offences related to the possession or use of that firearm.
He also sent a letter to federal Justice Minister and Attorney General David Lametti, which stated the province will be handling charges under the federal Firearms Act.
This comes after the federal government tabled the controversial Bill C-21 on May 30, which aims to enshrine a legal definition of “assault-style” weapons into law.
The bill has been criticized by hunters and chiefs at the Assembly of First Nations, who say the proposed gun-control legislation will affect treaty rights and affect law-abiding citizens.
“Their actions are targeting Western Canadians for a reason. This is about shoring up their own political support,” Shandro told reporters.
“To do so, they seek to divide us Western Canadians and Eastern Canadians, rural Canadians and urban Canadians… Albertans have had enough.
“This is very political. This is not about targeting and reducing gun crime. They are failing to do anything about the illegal smuggling of firearms across the border.”
Ottawa has prohibited more than 1,500 different models of assault-style firearms from being used or sold in Canada since May 2020. A grace period is in place until October next year, and any Albertans who still have these prohibited firearms could face criminal charges for owning guns they legally purchased at the time.
The federal government has committed to establishing a buyback program to remove those firearms from communities.
The Alberta government has resisted the firearms ban ever since, accusing the federal government of “fearmongering” by labelling guns as “assault-style.” Shandro previously said the move was made to scare Canadians unfamiliar with firearms.
Shandro also said the province will oppose any efforts by RCMP officers to confiscate firearms by invoking Article 23 of the provincial-federal agreement that governs policing. He said the proposed legislation will “pit” Canadians against each other.
The justice minister said the government has a good relationship with its Crown prosecutors, but did not elaborate on whether the prosecutors would be resourced to handle the additional workload.
“This is our constitutional jurisdiction. It’s not a negotiation with the federal government,” Shandro said.
“There’s a need for us to take over this jurisdiction, for us to be able to issue the protocols that could provide guidance on when it will and won’t be in the public interest.”
Alberta also plans to seek intervener status in six ongoing judicial review applications challenging the constitutionality of the legislation.
Federal Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino refuted Shandro’s statement, saying Bill C-21 aims to reduce gun violence with “common sense” policies like a national handgun freeze.
Additional laws will be passed to go after gun traffickers, he said.
“There’s a lot of good policy that has been informed by the advice and the consultation that we’ve had from law enforcement, from industry leaders and from leaders across the spectrum,” the federal minister said.
“It has been a resolved matter of Supreme Court jurisprudence that when it comes to the regulation of firearms it falls within the jurisdiction of the federal government.”
Lametti said he is trying to understand Shandro’s announcement because firearms charges are already being prosecuted by provincial prosecutors.
The Firearms Act, however, is federal jurisdiction and Ottawa has already delegated that responsibility to federal prosecutors.
“It would be extraordinary if they made a unilateral decision not to enforce the law. That would not only offend the constitution but would also offend the rule of law,” Lametti told reporters on Thursday.
Dwight Newman, professor of constitutional law at the University of Saskatchewan, said firearm charges used to be under provincial jurisdiction in previous iterations of the Firearms Act but many provinces did not want to prosecute firearm offences anymore.
“There’s nothing that stops them from saying that they’re going to largely carry out the prosecutions in this area. That’s actually the normal thing for provinces to do,” he told Ted Henley on 770 CHQR on Thursday.
“But the questions are going to be whether they can do this in this creative way that also says they’re not going to prosecute in certain situations and whether that will stand or if the federal government will try to get involved there.
Newman also said the federal government will most likely challenge Alberta’s policy but it’s a complicated process.
“If they were seen as somehow interfering with the core of the federal law by enunciating this policy, there might be ways the federal government could try to challenge that,” the law professor said.
“There are a few different ways things could unfold if the federal government tries to challenge this… This system within the province remains to be seen.”
Alberta justice critic Irfan Sabir slammed Shandro’s announcement and said the United Conservative government should not be politicizing the federal Firearms Act. He also said Shandro should not be interfering with the administration of justice.
However, Sabir said there should be a balance between law-abiding gun owners and Bill C-21.
“The federal government bans assault-style weapons, which should be taken off the streets. At the same time, the government should be consulting Albertans and Indigenous communities who use these assault-style weapons for hunting purposes,” Sabir told reporters on Thursday.
The Canadian Taxpayers Federation applauded Shandro’s announcement, saying the government made the “right move” and called the federal firearms ban a “wasteful gun grab.”
“Police say the massive seizure of rifles and shotguns from hunters and ranchers will not make Canadians safer and history shows us this gun grab will also be a huge waste of taxpayers’ money,” said Kris Sims, Alberta director for the Canadian Taxpayers Federation.
“Canada is more than $1 trillion in debt and the Trudeau government has a serious spending problem. The last thing we need is another seizure of people’s property that turns into an expensive boondoggle.”
Rod Giltaca, chief executive officer of the Canadian Coalition for Firearm Rights, said the group is pleased to see the Alberta government stand up to the federal government.
“We are extremely pleased that the Alberta government continues to respond to the Liberals’ repeated overreaches,” Giltaca said in an emailed statement to Global News. “More and more Canadians are rejecting the bad behaviour of the federal Liberals and their supporters, the NDP and the Bloc.”
770 CHQR has reached out to the Alberta Crown Prosecutors Association with a request for comment. This story will be updated if one is received.
–With files from The Canadian Press’ Dean Bennett and Global News’ Adam Toy.