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Gun registry debate showcases Canada's democratic deficit

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I grew up in a big Canadian city. There was no need for guns. Only the police had guns. There was even talk about adopting the approach used by London England's Bobbies (police), most of whom didn't carry guns. As a child and a teen, I never knew anyone who got shot, nor did I know anyone who went hunting or even owned a gun. I associated guns with gangsters, western movies and wars.

Like many of my generation, peace was viewed as a precondition to making this a better world and guns were seen as an obstacle. As an adult, events like the massacre at L'École Polytechnique and a couple of handgun shootings in which my son was acqainted with the victims did little to enamor me to guns.

So, my understanding of guns was a bit one-sided, naive and negative. I did not fully appreciate the importance of hunting in Canada - for sustenance, for subsistence and for sport. Not just for First Nations peoples whose sovereignty and culture must be respected, but for others as well. I didn't appreciate the hard work and difficulties faced by family farmers and the importance of the work they did in feeding us. I didn't understand the multitude of challenges they faced in bringing us the bounties of the land including the need for long guns to control predators and pests in certain areas.

While I've done a fair amount of travelling in parts of Canada, it wasn't until I went up to Thunder Bay on vacation last year that I really began to understand how fishing and hunting, the change of the seasons and an overall love of nature in general, were an integral part of many people's lives in Northern Ontario.

As the gun registry debate heated up, it was very clear that this was an extremely emotional issue for many people on both sides of the great divide. It was obvious that there's likely not one solution that will satisfy everyone.

The Catch 22 campaign is focused on Canada's democratic deficit and the Harper Conservatives' abuses of power. While we don't not have a position or policy on the merits of the long gun registry, we think we can add some value to the registry debate (which we can expect to return in the coming months) by looking at it through our democracy lens in order to expose the Harper government's autocratic and anti-democratic tendencies.

Here are several characteristics of the debate which caused our democracy antennae to go up.

1) Supremacy of Parliament - The PM refuses to respect and accept that in the Westminister tradition, it is Parliament, and not the Prime Minister's office, which is the final arbiter of law making in Canada. The role of opposition MPs and the legitimacy of their decisions has been debased by Stephen Harper time and again. Opposition MPs have been painted as mere nuisances who can be ignored at will by the PM and the government.

2) Private members bills - If Harper is so intent on killing the registry, why didn't the government bring forward its own bill? Instead, he hid behind Candice Hoeppner (a long time Con operative) to bring forward a bill by stealth. Rather than stand on principle, he used legitimate differences of opinion within the opposition to try and gain tactical advantage. Was he afraid of triggering an election? Was he trying to get around his own proclivity to prorogue?

3) Whipped votes - It's a Parliamentary tradition that MPs are free to vote on private member bills to reflect the views of their constituents (or their own consciences). Why didn't that apply to Con MPs who represent urban voters and who may themselves support the registry? How can Harper criticize Michael Ignatieff for whipping the Liberal caucus while doing the same thing himself? Hypocritical double standards does not a democracy make.

4) Compromise and cooperation - The PM has shown absolutely no interest in making positive changes to the registry through compromise. It's "abolition or bust". He won't even acknowledge that there are compromises on the table. The ability of a minority government to seek middle ground is critical to the democratic functioning of Parliament. Harper fails again.

5) Politicizing Parliament - Job #1 for Parliament is to enact legislation, not to run a perpetual election machine. While everything is political in the House, Harper has blurred the lines between Parliament and Party. Long term public policy is being developed by a minority government with only short term electoral interests. It didn't take five seconds for the Cons to declare their intention to defeat "rogue" opposition MPs who changed their minds on the registry. Their "win/win" strategy is another cynical move that debases democracy. Running Parliament a la an election campaign is wrong.

6) Tone - Pouring gasoline on the flames of division wracking the country over this hot button issue in order to win a vote was irresponsible and lowered the level of debate to that of a barroom brawl. Canadians who support the registry do so in good faith for the most part. So do many opposed to the registry. Positioning the issue as "us versus them" debases people on both sides of the debate. Some of the rhetoric bordered on hateful. There was no nuance. Just right and wrong. Patriots and enemies. City versus country. "Elites" versus the common folk. Harper and his gang did nothing to put a leash on the most strident gun control opponents.

7) The National Rifle Association - The NRA, while a foreign based organization, should not be prohibited from chiming in on Canadian issues. However, Harper has not been honest about the backroom role that the NRA has played in shaping the debate. Hiding that fact is dishonest and begs the question - what other foreign organizations or governments are playing backroom roles in shaping government policy? Transparency is the air that democracy needs to breathe.

8) Dumbing down the debate - If transparency is the "air", solid information is the "food" that Parliament (and democracy) need to develop sound public policy. The lies and distortions peddled by Harper and his cronies in order to "win" their case were further proof of a government that spurns science, statistics and sensibility. Dumbing down democracy is very dangerous. Sure, everyone expects politicians to say anything to get elected during an election. However, Parliament must be held to a higher standard. Whether it's the gun registry, the long form census, climate change or women's maternal health, facts have become inconvenient obstacles to the Harper Conservatives' agenda.

In conclusion, whether one supports or opposes the registry, the process must be one informed by honesty, integrity and transparency. We saw none of that in this debate.

Cross-posted from Catch 22 Harper Conservatives.

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