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A victim is wheeled away from Montreal's Ecole Polytechnique after gunman Marc Lepine opened fire on Dec. 6, 1989 (SHANEY KOMULAINEN/Shaney Komulainen/The Canadian Press)
A victim is wheeled away from Montreal's Ecole Polytechnique after gunman Marc Lepine opened fire on Dec. 6, 1989 (SHANEY KOMULAINEN/Shaney Komulainen/The Canadian Press)

History of tragic shootings drives Quebec's gun-registry battle Add to ...

Next month will mark the twenty-second anniversary of the École polytechnique massacre. It will also mark an important setback for gun control in Canada.

On December 6, 1989 Marc Lépine entered the University of Montreal’s engineering school armed with a semi-automatic rifle and shot 28 people. He targeted female students and killed 14 women before taking his own life.

The horrific shooting mobilized public opinion towards violence against women. But it also set in motion a nation-wide campaign for tougher gun control measures which lead to the adoption in 1995 of the Firearms Act under which the controversial gun registry was later created.

So it comes as no surprise that in the wake of the Montreal massacre followed by the shootings at Concordia University in 1992 and Dawson College in 2006 that support for the gun registry remained highest in Quebec.

And it is with the backing of a majority of Quebeckers as well as unanimous support of the Quebec National Assembly, that the province’s Public Security Minister Robert Dutil will appear Thursday before the Commons public safety committee to plead with the Conservative government to hand over all the data held on long guns in the registry.

The painful images of the shootings in Quebec and the distraught caused to the victims’ families still carry a powerful message that Mr. Dutil will attempt to deliver to committee members.

Premier Jean Charest argued recently in the National Assembly that his government owed it to the families of the victims of the Montreal massacre to lead the fight to maintain the gun registry. And while Mr. Dutil reiterated on Wednesday that he will pursue the battle, Quebec understands all too well that the national gun registry was on the way out. The only issue that mattered now was to protect the data on Quebec gun owners so that the province could use it to set-up its own registry.

“We know they (the Conservative government) want to get rid of the registry. It was part of their election platform. But now they want to destroy the data and refuse to hand it over to the provinces who want it. That’s the main battle we have to fight right now,” Mr. Dutil said on Wednesday after the weekly cabinet meeting. “If they adopt the Bill, I will tell them we helped pay for the data and that we want it.”

However his federal counterpart Vic Toews has turned a deaf ear to Quebec’s plea to safeguard the data. During the Commons committee hearings this week Mr. Toews reiterated his government’s decision to destroy all records on long guns in the registry.

“The data is the registry,” Mr. Toews said in defending his government’s commitment to scrap the records.

On issues relating to crime and justice, Quebec has locked horns with the right-wing conservative ideology adopted by the Harper government. In fact it will be the second time this month that a Quebec minister was taking the unusual step of appearing before a Commons committee in Ottawa to convince the Conservative government to amend a bill.

Justice Minister Jean-Marc Fournier appeared before a Commons committee two weeks ago in a bid to convince the Harper government to amend provisions of the omnibus crime bill that included tougher treatment of young offenders.

Armed with studies and recent statistics, Mr. Fournier made a strong case in support of maintaining rehabilitation programs for young criminals. He argued that measured adopted by Quebec helped reduce youth crimes and repeat offenders and was at the heart of the province’s successful efforts at reintegrating young offenders back into society.

But unlike Mr. Fournier, Mr. Dutil will have no studies or statistics to prove his case. There can be no way of measuring whether the gun registry helped prevent shootings similar to the ones witnessed in Quebec in the past. As there can be no scientific way of measuring how many lives were saved.

What Mr. Dutil has however are the comments made by the province’s police forces who argued that preventive measures such as the gun registry are useful and that it can continue to be an effective tool in the fight against crime. The police’s comments have been backed by numerous public officials and several groups in Quebec who oppose the federal government’s Bill.

More recently the National Firearms Association uncovered an internal federal memo that warned scrapping the registry would weaken efforts at controlling the import of weapons since border officials would no longer be required to verify firearms entering the country. “Such a loophole could facilitate unregistered prohibited and restricted firearm trafficking into and through Canada,” a Public Safety official said in the memo, according to a Canadian Press report this week. Mr. Toews denied that the Bill will pave the way for the trafficking of guns across the border.

If the federal government refuses to back down on its plan to destroy the records, Mr. Dutil said Quebec may have no choice but to seek a court injunction to protect the data for as long as it takes to fight a legal battle in hope of forcing Ottawa to hand over the records to the province.

“We may succeed in convincing them. We don’t exclude that...You know my father was a Conservative,” Mr. Dutil said jokingly uncertain whether his appearance before the Commons committee will help tip the balance in Quebec’s favour.

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story misattributed a quote from an internal Public Safety Department memo - "Such a loophole could facilitate unregistered prohibited and restricted firearm trafficking into and through Canada - to the National Firearms Association. This version has been corrected.

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