NDP caucus heads into heartland for fall strategy session

While it’s unlikely to be an OK Corral scene, the debate over the long gun registry should be lively as New Democrats gather in Regina to work on their parliamentary battle plans.

REGINA — While it’s unlikely to be an OK Corral scene, the debate over the long gun registry should be lively as New Democrats gather in Regina to work on their parliamentary battle plans.

“We’re not playing wedge politics with the registry. We’re trying to fix the registry so it can work for all Canadians,” said NDP Leader Jack Layton, who stressed the party is attempting to find a compromise on the gun issue.

Layton is in the province for the three-day strategy session, which started Sunday with a memorial for RCMP officers killed in the line of duty.

The Mounties, along with other police groups, want to keep the embattled gun registry.

Members of Parliament are expected to vote later this month on a Conservative MP’s private member’s bill to scrap the registry.

Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff is promising his entire caucus will vote against the bill, and he’s urging Layton to order his caucus to do the same.

But Layton shot back on Sunday, accusing Ignatieff and Prime Minister Stephen Harper of using the issue to divide rural and urban Canadians.

“Mr. Ignatieff is the expert in voting with the Conservatives, having had his entire caucus vote 100 times on confidence motions to keep Mr. Harper in power,” Layton said.

NDP votes will be needed to kill the bill, but some New Democrats from ridings where opposition to the registry is strong are vowing to support the bill.

The registry is a particularly hot issue in Saskatchewan where the party holds no federal seats, despite having a strong presence in provincial politics.

“I haven’t heard one person in favour of keeping the long gun registry,” said Lawrence Joseph, the NDP candidate for the Desnethe-Missinippi-Churchill River riding in northern Saskatchewan.

Joseph, a former chief of the Saskatchewan Federation of Indian Nations, carries the NDP banner in one of three ridings where the party has high hopes of winning a seat. He said having the ability to vote freely on certain issues was one of his conditions for accepting the party’s nomination.

He said he supports scrapping the registry because it interferes with aboriginal hunting and fishing rights. He said he also used to work in a federal penitentiary where an inmate was caught smuggling a .22 handgun into the jail, and he doesn’t believe a registry prevents gun crime.

“Criminals are not going to register their firearms,” Joseph said. “They will find a way to either steal or make them.”

Noah Evanchuk, the party’s candidate in another of the three hopeful ridings, said he meets a lot of people who support the registry, and he said people who oppose it are concerned about specific problems with the registry which he believes could be fixed.

“I’m pleased that Jack Layton has allowed a free vote. I think it shows a lot of courage in the face of a lot of pressure,” said Evanchuk, who lives in Moose Jaw and will be running in the Palliser riding.

Along with the gun registry, the New Democrats will also be talking about how to push health care, the environment and jobs to the top of the agenda when the House resumes later this month.

Evanchuk said it’s not uncommon for NDP members in Saskatchewan to disagree with party policy. He said when former Saskatchewan NDP premiers Lorne Calvert and Roy Romanow were in office, policy conventions were often the place of heated, public debate. He said the federal Conservatives run things much differently.

“The Conservative party is run out of the Prime Minister’s Office,” Evanchuk said.

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