MONTREAL — A battle over the federal gun registry appears headed for the justice system, with experts wondering whether the issue will ultimately be decided by the Supreme Court of Canada.
Quebec announced Tuesday that it is preparing for a legal fight with the federal government should the latter pass legislation to abolish the long-gun registry.
The province said it would use the courts to save the registry data, which it wants to continue using.
“I find it unfair for Quebecers, who helped pay for this registry, that data that concerns them is being destroyed without it being offered to the Quebec government,” said Public Security Minister Robert Dutil.
“Therefore, as soon as C-19 is passed, the Quebec government will go to court to obtain the data in the registry that concerns Quebecers.”
Ottawa has thus far refused to save any registry records, citing a variety of reasons. It has mentioned privacy-law concerns, fear that the data is out of date, and concern that a future federal government would use the old info to revive a national registry.
One well-known lawyer in Quebec, Jean-Claude Hebert, said the province will have to act quickly.
He said the first step would be getting an injunction to delay the destruction of the registry data, gathered over 16 years. That step is necessary to protect the records during a longer case, he said.
“If they don’t do that, it’ll be too late because there won’t be any reason to go before the courts because there won’t be a matter to discuss,” said Hebert, a frequently commenter on legal affairs who specializes in criminal law.
He said a longer-term case would likely be made on constitutional grounds.
“I think that the main argument … will be for Quebec to plead that C-19 will infringe the basic right of every Canadian to have security for his person,” Hebert said in an interview.
But a prominent constitutional lawyer expressed doubt the provincial gambit would be successful. The province hasn’t yet offered any details about the case it plans to launch. However, Montreal lawyer Julius Grey said he can’t quite see how Quebec could force the feds’ hand.
“I’m convinced that Quebec has a right to maintain a gun registry as well,” Grey said.
“I haven’t seen the procedure they’re intending to take — but in strict constitutional law it seems to me that they can’t force the federal government to do something.”
Since the 1950s, Grey said the courts have been very unwilling to say that either provincial or federal governments do not have power where they actually have jurisdiction.
“Each of them is free to act, but the federal (government) prevails if they both decide to act,” Grey said.
Ottawa has balked at handing over the data.
But some of that federal rationale has been called into question by two officers of Parliament — the watchdogs responsible for both public information and for privacy.
Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault has said destroying the data would violate the letter and spirit of the Library and Archives of Canada Act.
The Conservatives have been working for years to end the registry, which they call wasteful and ineffective.
“The Quebec government is stepping in to protect Canadians where the federal government is failing,” said Wendy Cukier, head of the Coalition for Gun Control.
“Now that the money has been spent, destroying the data makes no sense whatsoever, and is simply punitive. This information on 7.1 million registered long-guns can be useful as an investigative tool for police officers for firearm tracing purposes.”