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Hill Dispatches: Rhetoric on guns; urgency on First Nations

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Justifying scrapping the long gun registry brings out the non sequitors

Can we offer a prize to anyone who can say what Small Business and Tourism Minister Maxime Bernier meant when he told a Radio Canada interviewer that despite its abolition and destruction the long-gun registry would still be available for police to consult?

He said that on Radio-Canada's all-news television network Réseau de l'Information (RDI) and it seemed to confuse a lot of folks.

Denis Coté, President of the Fédération des polices and policières municipaux de Québec (the organization representing municipal police officers in Quebec), was nonplussed. His response (unfortunately, after Bernier had left the room) was simply: "Consult what?"

The registry made women safer

Then Coté pointed out that it was not for nothing that Canadian police forces consulted the registry over a thousand times per day. It is because it has been a useful tool, he said.

For instance, before there was a registry, when perpetrators of conjugal violence were released, police forces made a practice of demanding that those offenders yield their guns. But the police had to trust that violent or potentially violent people would do that voluntarily. The registry made women safer by allowing police to be much more certain that they had truly disarmed actual or potential abusers.

Coté also referred to the 2005 murder of four RCMP officers in Mayerthorpe, Alberta. The long-gun registry, he said, was a key tool in apprehending and convicting the murderers in that case.

Of kitchen knives and drugs

When confronted with the statistic that 71 per cent of conjugal murders are committed by weapons covered by the registry, Bernier's response was that even if killers did not have access to long guns they could always use whatever was at hand, such as kitchen knives!

Bernier also said his government was getting tough on crime in other ways, such as by increasing sentences. That's acting after the fact, RDI's Anne-Marie Dussault pointed out; the long-gun registry is a tool for prevention.

Well, Bernier tried to argue, the registry has not been effective at preventing crime; to which Mme Dussault reminded him that crime rate had, in fact, gone down.

Yes, Bernier rejoined, but certain crimes, such as drug crimes have gone up.

At that point Dussault had to interrupt the minister and remind him that they were discussing guns, not drugs.

A society united in memory and enduring grief

It is instructive to listen to the almost agonized conversation in Quebec on the new legislation to destroy the long-gun registry.

No society is unanimous on anything, but in Quebec the memories of the Montreal Massacre are profound and powerful and, as a society, Quebec is nearly united in support of the long-gun registry.

The heartfelt comments of victims' family members and surviving Montreal Massacre victims are hard to negate. And what really galls Quebeckers is that the Conservative government will not only stop registering long guns; it will destroy all the information gathered over the past decade and a half. That is seen as a hard slap in the face of the Quebec government that has expressed an interest in starting its own registry.

Hard sell in Quebec, and in rural Canada. . .?

M. Bernier does not have an easy task as the point person on this issue in his home province. It would be a lot easier to be Manitoba MP Candace Hoeppner and be able to wax poetic about those stolid, law-abiding and gun-owning rural folk of the west.

Farmers and sport hunters and aboriginal people may, indeed, generally be in favour of   scrapping the registry.

But are they of one mind?

Some of us know law-abiding hunters who happily register their weapons, and just as happily go out each year to get their moose or caribou or waterfowl. They do not feel criminalized by the registry. In fact, they consider that it helps protect them along with everyone else in their communities.

Parliament's turn, again. . . and memories of "Bye-bye Charlie Brown!"

Parliament is now seized with this issue again, for the third time in less than two decades.

There will be debate; there will be committee hearings; some witnesses will have their say; and there will be a fair amount of rhetoric on all sides.

In the end, we have a majority government so it can pass any legislation it wants. Or can it?

After all, majority prime ministers do not always get their way.

Remember Brian Mulroney?

He had the biggest parliamentary majority in Canadian history and yet did not succeed in his plan to de-index old age pensions. Public opposition to that idea was crystallized by a woman by the name of Solange Denis, who confronted Mulroney and said, famously: "Bye-bye, Charlie Brown!"

Oh, and by the way, the Canadian Association of Emergency Physicians says the long-gun registry is not really a crime issue. It is a suicide prevention issue.

                    *                                                *                                      *

A committee and its witnesses continue to grapple with the crisis in First Nations communities

At part two of the Public Accounts Committee's hearings on the Auditor General's condemnation of the government's provision of services to First Nations it was a case of "what a difference four days makes!"

The sense of the previous week's meeting that the issues the AG raised were significant, but could be resolved in due course once we got the proper processes in place, was replaced by a much harder-edged sense of urgency.

In response to one MP's question, Interim Auditor General John Wiersema came close to pounding the table. He called the situation urgent and insisted that fundamental change is absolutely necessary.

Wiersema evoked the "timebomb" of an aboriginal population explosion. At least one MP had contrasted two possibe futures: a population "timebomb"  versus a great "opportunity." Depending on what we do about aboriginal education, training, social services, and employment, the booming First Nations population could be a great economic boon to Canada - or a great economic burden.

"Sheila Fraser visited these communities herself! She knew what she was talking about!"

Wiersema almost pleaded with the Committee to draw a road map to effective change, based on Ms. Fraser's report. And he got quite personal when he said of Sheila Fraser and her colleagues on the aboriginal file:

"She and Ronnie and Frank saw what it was like out there, and it is not pleasant! We need clarity and urgent action in all the ways the report identifies, including" -- and here Wieresema had the elected government in his sites -- "legislation!"

The Aboriginal Affairs Deputy Minister, Michael Wernick, also pushed the envelope somewhat, perhaps as far as a senior civil servant can.

Although the legislative agenda is entirely within Parliament's purview, Wernick offered that he fully expected that the current government would reintroduce a First Nations' water quality bill that died with the past Parliament.

Such a bill would establish clear standards and expectations of performance and would, one hopes, also be backed up by adequate resources.

A hint of a promise of more legislation to come -  in response to repeated AG recommendations

When pressed by MPs, Wernick went even further and predicted that there would be other legislative initiatives to establish a legal and defined basis for basic services to First Nations communities. He cited education as the most likely area where we could expect to see such action, in the near term.

All of this talk about the need for legislation arises from the Auditor General's oft-repeated observation that there are few rules, principles, or promises of performance or results when it comes to aboriginal health, education, family services, housing and other basic services. It is, for the most part, a messy, ad hoc system, in which neither the Canadian government nor aboriginal governments (as weak and lacking in true autonomy as they may be) can be held accountable.

That is why laws are necessary to give clarity to roles and responsibilities and to provide for accountability for results.

Rampant mould as a tangible example of all that is wrong

This lack of a chain of clear responsibility became clear when NDP MP Guy Caron returned to the question of mould in First Nations communities. He seemed almost incredulous at a Health Canada official's response at the previous meeting to the effect that the government's main action had been to provide information leaflets to disparate, scattered and poor First Nations communities where mould is endemic.

Anyone who has dealt with mould problems knows how difficult they can be - even in cities and towns where all kinds of resources are available and where there are well-stocked hardware stores in every neighbourhood.

Imagine the challenge for a 400 person fly-in community in northern Ontario, where the only store is hardly better stocked than a Mac's Milk!

Caron wanted the Deputy Minister to address the issue but got shunted back to the Health Canada official who had nothing new to add, except to admit that, despite the Auditor General's specific recommendation, no new money had been allocated to the mould crisis.

"We have been able to find money within existing envelopes," the official said; presumably, to print leaflets.

Aboriginal Affairs has to fight to get the attention of the rest of government

Deputy Minister Wernick repeatedly came back to the question of the need to involve all of government, because just about all of government touches, in various ways, on the situation of aboriginal Canadians.

He told the MPs that his department has made great efforts to mentor and train officials in other department with regard to their obligations where land claims agreements with First Nations have been signed, for instance.

But it is an uphill battle.

After all, the average public servant changes jobs every three years. The day you've finally got one "trained" on aboriginal issues you've got a new one to deal with!

A positive First Nations initiative stuck between federal and provincial chairs

As he did during the previous meeting, Conservative MP Daryl Kramp cut to the chase most effectively.

He brought up the challenges that a post secondary institution in his riding - the First Nations Technical Institute - faces in getting adequate funding. The institute was set up in the mid-1980s and is owned and run by the Tyendinaga-Mohawk Band (in south-eastern Ontario).

It is, in Kramp's words, "a wonderful educational organization."

But it has found itself short of funding over the years because neither the federal nor Ontario government wants to take responsibility for it.

Wernick was candid that entities such as this successful institute can be federal-provincial political footballs, and emphasized that, when it comes to post-secondary education, the federal government sees its role as helping to support individual students, not funding colleges or other institutions.

The solution for the First Nations Technical Institute, apparently, is to get itself provincially accredited and look for funding from Ontario.

Of course, Wernick quite openly acknowledges that when any aboriginal funding issue comes up provinces tend to turn to the federal government and say: "Isn't this your responsibility?"

And so it goes...

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