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A Matter of Contempt: The Government’s Information on Bill C-71

Friday, November 2, 2018

A Matter of Contempt: The Government’s Information on Bill C-71

A few days ago, the House of Commons’ Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs began its investigation of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and “contempt of parliament.” The hearing arises out of information the RCMP – the government agency responsible for firearm licensing, registration, and classification – had posted online at its Canadian Firearms Program (CFP) website regarding Bill C-71. Bill C-71, a gun control measure, was introduced on March 30 and includes a proposed reclassification of certain guns, CZ 858 and Swiss Arms (SA) rifles, from “non-restricted” or “restricted” to “prohibited” firearms. This change would affect thousands of Canadian gun owners who currently lawfully possess such guns. As of early November, Bill C-71 has not been passed. 

Information published by the RCMP and posted at the RCMP’s CFP website on May 8, however, used language that was unconditional (e.g., “If your SA firearm was listed in Bill C-71, it will be classified as a prohibited firearm.”), and gave a June 30, 2018 registration deadline for the grandfathering provision in the bill (“If you have not done so, the registration must be completed by June 30, 2018, in order for your firearm to be eligible for grandfathering…”). The implication for many, unfortunately, was that the enactment of C-71 was a foregone conclusion, or the bill was already the law and that a failure to comply could result in significant criminal sanctions.

Gun rights groups and others immediately questioned this language, pointing out that Bill C-71 was still in committee, meaning the RCMP lacked the authority to implement or enforce any firearm reclassification, registration deadline, or other restriction that depended on the bill. In late May, Glen Motz (M.P., Medicine Hat-Cardston-Warner), the Conservative Deputy Shadow Minister for Public Safety (and, incidentally, a former law enforcement official with 35 years of service), raised the question of executive overreach in the House of Commons in the context of “contempt of parliament” (the open disrespect of the authority of the House of Commons or Senate or of their lawful commands). 

Although the RCMP responded by editing the website on May 30 and again on July 3, the Speaker of the House, Geoff Regan, investigated and concluded that the RCMP’s actions were “a prima facie matter of contempt of the House.” The “vast majority of the information was presented as though the provisions will definitively be coming into effect or are already the law of the land. Nowhere did I find any indication the bill was still in committee and was not yet enacted law.” He explained that “Parliament’s authority in scrutinizing and adopting legislative proposals remains unquestionable … The Chair is troubled by the careless manner in which the RCMP chose to ignore this vital fact and, for more than three weeks, allowed citizens and retailers to draw improper conclusions as to their obligations under the law. Changing the website after the fact does little to alleviate these concerns.”

The matter was referred to the House Standing Committee on Procedure and House Affairs. The hearing, which began on October 30, involved testimony from Mr. Motz, representatives of the RCMP, and Ralph Goodale, the Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness, responsible for oversight of the RCMP and the sponsor of Bill C-71. Mr. Motz opened the proceeding by summarizing the central issue: “The RCMP began implementing a proposed law, Bill C-71, before Parliament had deliberated and voted on the bill” despite the “highly contentious nature” of the bill and in the context of previous “factually inaccurate statements” made by the government leadership regarding the implications of Bill C-71.   

The minister, for his part, confirmed his commitment to ensuring public confidence in the integrity of government agencies, which extends to the “accurate use of departmental platforms to communicate information” about pending legislation. While characterizing the RCMP’s actions as an honest mistake, he admitted that the website’s “original postings did not sufficiently convey the fact that parliament was still considering Bill C-71 and that changes could be made to it,” and failed to “advise [Canadians] that Parliament had yet to pass those changes.”

What makes this matter more troubling is that Bill C-71 itself would entrust the RCMP with the authority to make certain critical determinations. Under existing law, the three classes of firearms are defined by Parliament (non-restricted, restricted, and prohibited); legislation enacted in 2015 gave the Governor in Council the ability to de-restrict and de-prohibit classifications of specific guns. Bill C-71 proposes to repeal this “override” and leave determinations on which firearms fall within each classification to what the Minister of Public Safety described as the “impartial” and “consistent” “technical expertise” of the RCMP.

The Canadian firearms public continues to raise legitimate concerns with this and the other provisions of Bill C-71. An online petition to scrap Bill C-71, petition E-1608, initiated by teenager Ryan Slingerland of Coalhurst, Alberta, and presented to the House of Commons on September 19, 2018, became the second most-signed Canadian e-petition ever.

Although the Committee proceedings are at an early stage, it is clear that at the very least, the government’s communications on Bill C-71 lacked clarity and accuracy and served to mislead the Canadian public. NRA-ILA is following the developments in Canada and will keep Grassroots Alert readers apprised of this developing situation.

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Established in 1975, the Institute for Legislative Action (ILA) is the "lobbying" arm of the National Rifle Association of America. ILA is responsible for preserving the right of all law-abiding individuals in the legislative, political, and legal arenas, to purchase, possess and use firearms for legitimate purposes as guaranteed by the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.