OTTAWA—A prime minister making an election vow to take tough action on firearms in the wake of gun violence in Canada’s biggest city.
That was the scene in late 2005 when Paul Martin made a campaign stop in Rexdale to pledge that a Liberal government would severely restrict handgun ownership and beef up efforts to control the illegal flow of weapons.
That is shaping up to be the scene again as gun control appears poised be an issue in the coming fall election with possible Liberal proposals to crack down on assault-style weapons, perhaps even handguns, which are already tightly restricted.
“Handguns kill people,” Martin said in 2005. “That’s why they exist. …And they are taking too many Canadian lives.”
Martin unveiled a five-point strategy that included funding for additional border and police personnel to stem the flow of smuggled weapons, tougher penalties on violent gun crime and a Criminal Code amendment to ban handguns. But he lost that election and never got the chance to act on those promises.
Sadly, Toronto’s gun violence is again fodder for election politics. Advocates are hoping that the “divisive” debate to come doesn’t get in the way, once again, of the controls they’ve long fought for.
With renewed concerns about gun violence, federal Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said this week that the Liberals were close to releasing a “very strong and effective package” and that could include further restrictions on assault-style weapons.
The Liberal government has been studying the issue for the last year and is promising to unveil its proposed changes in the coming weeks, coming either before the federal election campaign or once it gets underway, sometime after Labour Day.
“Canadians will have an opportunity to listen to the competing views of all the political parties but they’ll see a very strong presentation from the government and Canadians will be able to decide,” Goodale told reporters in Ottawa Tuesday.
Nathalie Provost, herself a survivor of a mass shooting, is hoping that weekend shootings in the United States that left 31 dead and 53 injured and the recent spate of gun violence in Toronto, will spur the Liberals to take stronger action on assault weapons.
“It’s very sad but I think (current events) are on our side. It’s so sad. I don’t want it to happen but it makes people react,” said Provost, who was shot multiple times during the 1989 shooting at Montreal’s Ecole Polytechnique that left 14 women dead.
It was the government’s failure to act on that very issue that prompted Provost in July to resign her position on the federal firearms advisory committee. “For me, resigning was the last chance to do something before the election. I was amazed by the support I received,” she said.
“People want better gun control,” she said.
“Traditionally for the last 20 years, people vote to maintain their privilege to use guns but people don’t vote to protect, to have better gun control,” Provost said in an interview Wednesday.
“I wish Canadians would understand is that they can vote for safety. They can vote for security,” she said.
She said that the Liberals — elected with a majority mandate in 2015 — should have acted earlier “but sadly they didn’t.”
Andrew Cash, the former NDP MP who is trying to win back his former Toronto seat in Davenport, also questions why the Liberals didn’t act to implement the restrictions now under consideration instead of letting the proposals slip into an election period.
“They had every opportunity in the last session of Parliament to introduce handgun ban legislation,” Cash said in a telephone interview Wednesday.
“The fact that they want to play partisan politics with this issue, I think for people in Toronto that should just make folks livid,” he said. “They could have brought something in and instead they punted.”
He voiced support for a handgun ban in Toronto and said that many municipalities in the Greater Toronto Area felt the same way. “Those municipalities need a federal partner on this,” Cash said.
Bill Blair, the former Toronto police chief who is now the federal minister in charge of border security and organized crime, was asked by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau a year ago to examine a total ban on certain weapons.
“You should lead an examination of a full ban on handguns and assault weapons in Canada, while not impeding the lawful use of firearms by Canadians,” Trudeau wrote in his mandate letter to Blair, who took on his current cabinet role last summer.
Trudeau’s request came in the wake of deadly gun violence, including the July, 2018 shooting on Danforth Ave.n Toronto that killed two and injured 12.
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Blair launched formal consultations in October. Goodale said that Blair has given his report to Trudeau and that Canadians would be seeing the policy proposals in the “weeks immediately ahead.”
Blair told the Star’s Tonda MacCharles in June that the Liberals would propose banning “assault style” firearms but stop short of an outright ban on handguns, saying such a move would not significantly enhance public safety and would be too expensive for questionable benefit.
A spokesperson for Blair said Tuesday that whatever policies the government may present, it will be up to Canadians to decide in the coming election.
“In order to ensure the protection of our communities there is no option that we will not consider, though if we are to take additional measures we will need a mandate to do so,” Kevin Lemkay said in an email.
“Our government will not bypass the will of Canadians the way Stephen Harper did in the final days of his government by making certain semi-automatic assault weapons more accessible, without even a debate in the House,” he said in an email.
He was referring to a 2015 decision by the previous Conservative government to overrule RCMP classification of Swiss- and Czech-made firearms.
The Liberals campaigned on the tougher gun measures in the 2015 election, declaring in the campaign platform that the previous Conservative government had “steadily weakened” gun laws and made Canadians “more vulnerable and communities more dangerous.”
The Liberals seem keen to have the issue emerge in this election too, already charging that Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer would roll back gun measures.
Scheer has publicly vowed that a Conservative government would repeal Bill C-71, the Liberal bill that acted on many of the 2015 campaign vows. The legislation introduced expanded background checks for potential gun owners, new record-keeping requirements for retailers and tougher rules for the transport of some classes of firearms.
Last fall, Scheer unveiled his party’s own proposals on gun measures that included tougher sentences for gang members, for possessing a smuggled firearm and measures to curb the transfer of legal handguns into the possession of criminals.
Conservative MP Pierre Paul-Hus this week charged that it was the Liberals that had fallen down on gun crime.
“Their policies senselessly target law-abiding gun owners. Now Justin Trudeau is trying to import the American firearms debate right before an election,” Paul-Hus said in a statement.
“Criminals do not register their firearms, and they will not comply with arbitrary bans. Conservatives will always stand up for the rights of law-abiding firearms owners, and will also take practical steps to keep Canadians safe,” he said.
Bruce Campion-Smith is an Ottawa-based reporter covering national politics. Follow him on Twitter: @yowflier