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Niki Ashton, the NDP MP for Churchill, speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on Oct. 9, 2009. (Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
Niki Ashton, the NDP MP for Churchill, speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on Oct. 9, 2009. (Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Rookie rural MP casts her toughest vote yet on gun registry Add to ...

A rookie Manitoba MP will cast one of the most challenging votes of her young political career when the fate of the long-gun registry is decided Wednesday.

Niki Ashton is the sole New Democrat who has not publicly declared whether she's going to maintain her stand in favour of scrapping the registry. There appear to be enough opposition votes in favour of keeping the registry so even if she votes to scrap it, the bill itself will likely fail.

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But that isn't stopping a group of women's advocates and politicians on both sides of the issue from imploring the 28-year-old MP, who has long been an advocate on rural women's issues, to think hard about her decision.

The women's groups say the registry is crucial to preventing violence and that women will die if the registry is abolished.

Ms. Ashton's predecessor in her Churchill riding used to keep a picture in her head of a woman running down the road with someone pointing a long gun at her, recounted long-time Winnipeg Liberal MP Anita Neville.

"I would say to Niki Ashton, if you haven't seen it, imagine it, because it's real," Ms. Neville told reporters Tuesday. "Represent the diversity of your riding."

Ms. Ashton used to sit on the board of a women's crisis centre in Thompson, Man. Her former colleagues there are beseeching her to vote to maintain the registry.

"There is no rural-urban divide on the long gun registry among violence against women services providers," said Ann Decter, director of advocacy and policy for YWCA Canada.

She said shelter operators across the country, particularly where long guns are part of local culture, say guns are used to intimidate and control women.

Ms. Decter read from a letter from the executive director of the YWCA in Yellowknife who said women there report long guns and rifles predominantly used for hunting in the north also are used to subdue and terrify women.

"Women do not want these guns to be unregistered but do not feel safe expressing this opinion other than in whispers to people who may be able to voice these unpopular opinions and who may be heard," read the message from Lyda Fuller.

According to a Harris Decima survey conducted for the Canadian Press and released Tuesday, only 34 per cent of women across Canada support scrapping the registry.

Nationally, 48 per cent of Canadians are of the view that the gun registry has not helped reduce crime in Canada, though the same percentage also believe it would be a bad idea to abolish the program.

The survey, part of an omnibus telephone poll, was conducted between Sept. 16 and Sept. 19 and is considered accurate to within plus or minus 3.1 percentage points, 19 times out of 20.

Tory MP Candice Hoeppner, who is sponsoring the private member's bill to scrap the registry, bristled at the idea that keeping it was a women's issue.

She appeared Tuesday at an event in rural Ontario flanked by other women who support abolishing the program.

"Women are smart. Women are tired of their tax dollars being wasted. Women are tired of bad policy being defended by governments and political parties," she said in an interview.

One of Canada's youngest MPs, Ms. Ashton was elected in 2008 with 47 per cent of the vote.

Only weeks after she was elected, she stood up in the House of Commons asking the government to do more to prevent violence against women.

"When we talk about the status of women, we need to address the inequality between women and men being faced in my region and across Canada," she said in November of 2008.

"As the former chair of the Thompson Crisis Centre, we need to act and support the efforts being done in the area of domestic violence."

She abstained from a vote in 2009 to end an amnesty on non-compliance with portions of the registry and was one of 12 New Democrats who supported Ms. Hoeppner's private member's bill to scrap the registry altogether.

Some of the six other New Democrats who have changed their vote on the bill have said the way the Conservatives campaigned on the issue forced their hand. They accused the Conservatives of playing wedge politics and poisoning what could otherwise have been a healthy debate.

Ms. Ashton herself felt that way when the bill came up for its first vote back in 2009.

Then, as she is now, she was the target of Conservative ad campaigns designed to get voters to pressure her to vote in favour of the bill.

She told the Winnipeg Free Press she wasn't impressed."I'm really tired of the political games the Conservatives are playing," she said in October of 2009.

But she voted for the bill. "A lot of people in northern Manitoba feel the gun registry does not work for us," she said then.

Ms. Ashton was supposed to hold a news conference last Friday to declare how she'd vote on the registry, but cancelled it with no explanation.

Her office referred all calls Tuesday to the New Democrat press office, which would only say they expect Ms. Ashton to be in Ottawa in time for Wednesday's vote.

Eight Liberal MPs also initially sided with scrapping the registry, but Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff is compelling his entire caucus to vote to save the program instead.

After the vote, said Liberal MP Mark Holland, everyone needs to move on.

"We can't keep having this battle," he said.

"When we have this vote, let's move forward. Let's make sure the registry works and then let's focus on the other issues affecting this country."

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