Court stalls demise of long gun registry

Federal Conservatives have had a dream for a long time — and on Thursday they finally celebrated the demise of the long-gun registry.

Federal Conservatives have had a dream for a long time — and on Thursday they finally celebrated the demise of the long-gun registry.

One even quoted the famous speech by Martin Luther King, to the cheers of Tory colleagues in the House of Commons.

“Free at last, free at last,” said New Brunswick MP John Williamson, paraphrasing the U.S. civil-rights leader, who was killed 44 years ago this week by a bullet from a long gun.

“Law-abiding Canadians are finally free at last.”

But those cheers in Parliament were muted by a legal setback.

While the bill to end the federal long-gun registry received royal assent in Ottawa after sailing through the Senate, things played out differently in a Montreal courtroom.

Quebec Superior Court agreed to order a delay in the deletion of registry data from that province, following a request by the provincial government.

The court has granted the reprieve until further motions for an injunction can be argued next week, when the Quebec-Ottawa registry legal fight moves to its next phase. The province wants to keep the data for Quebec so that it can set up its own provincial registry.

In the rest of the country, the bill to scrap the long-gun registry and destroy all its records was to become law at midnight but federal lawyers said the actual destruction of the paper and computer files that make up the registry is still months away.

Meanwhile, the registry will continue to function in Quebec — long arms will still be registered and the information will be kept for now.

The Quebec government has argued that the data is vital in the province, where about 94 per cent of firearms registered are of the long-gun variety.

“For the moment, it’s the status quo that is maintained. The information will continue to be registered,” said Quebec government lawyer Eric Dufour. “The information will continue to be amassed for an eventual provincial database.”

Next Thursday and Friday, another judge will hear arguments regarding the request for a permanent injunction. The case has the potential to drag on for some time.

Thursday’s granting of an interim order protecting the data was not automatic, and depended on the legal arguments that persuaded the judge.

Ironically, it was some remarks by Public Safety Minister Vic Toews — a committed registry foe — that may have convinced the Quebec judge to grant the temporary reprieve.

Toews’s remarks helped persuade the judge that the situation was urgent and warranted a safeguard order until a case for a permanent injunction and a constitutional challenge could be heard next week.

“As soon as the legislation is passed there is a requirement to destroy the data,” Toews told a news conference earlier Thursday.

Quebec lawyers rushed to share that news with Justice Jean-Francois de Grandpre. Upon being informed of Toews’ comments, de Grandpre said in his ruling that it was necessary to issue an order.

A spokesman for Prime Minister Stephen Harper says the government will respect the judicial process, but has no plans to help Quebec create a new registry.

“The federal government is acting within its jurisdiction by abolishing its own registry — we promised to eliminate the gun registry once and for all, and we will deliver,” said Carl Vallee.

“The provinces are free to do as they wish in their jurisdictions, but our government will not help to create a new registry by the back door.”

A federal lawyer had been stressing in court Thursday that the deletion process won’t be easy, and repeatedly mentioned that it might actually take months to complete across the country.

That federal lawyer had been trying to persuade the judge that there was no urgency to accept Quebec’s request, because the registry data would not be destroyed for some time.

Lawyer Claude Joyal said the earliest the registry documentation would be deleted is in August; he continued to maintain that position in court, even after being informed of Toews’ comments.

Quebec will argue next week that it’s unconstitutional for the federal government to destroy the information if it means thwarting the public policy of another level of government.

The registry battle has been particularly emotional in Quebec, which was the epicentre of the national gun-control movement after the Polytechnique massacre of 1989. Polytechnique survivor and gun-control advocate Heidi Rathjen applauded Thursday’s court ruling, calling it a great first step.

The provincial justice minister said Quebec had no choice but to use the courts, because the federal government wouldn’t listen.

Justice Minister Jean-Marc Fournier expressed satisfaction with Thursday’s legal developments, while warning that the contest is far from won.

“It’s clear that when the first inning goes well, it’s better than when it goes badly,” he told reporters in Quebec City.

“We’re obviously happy with the decision. That being said, this decision is good for one week and there’s still a battle ahead.”

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