A Liberal senator wants Inuit people to be exempt from Canada's controversial gun-control laws and said he will refuse to "rubber-stamp" a new firearms bill.
"Our right to life is not being recognized," Senator Charlie Watt, an aboriginal from northern Quebec, said in an interview. "It's a different world where we are."
Mr. Watt, who was a hunter before he was appointed to the Senate in 1984, is among a group of senators opposing Bill C-10 (a), amending the Firearms Act.
Mr. Watt said the Liberal government "wanted us basically to rubber-stamp [the legislation]and send it back to the House of Commons."
Among other things, the amendments would create an Office of the Firearms Commissioner to administer the national gun registry and would also stagger firearm licence renewals.
Mr. Watt says aboriginal people cannot afford the cost of registering all their guns.
The issue has touched off debate since the Senate took the unusual procedural step last week of splitting legislation passed by the House of Commons as Bill C-10 into two: a section on the Firearms Act, Bill C-10 (a); and a section to stiffen penalties in the Criminal Code for animal cruelty, which is now C-10 (b).
Mr. Watt accused the Liberal government of trying to sneak the controversial Firearms Act through with the animal cruelty legislation, which is widely supported. The law would increase jail sentences for animal abuse under the Criminal Code to a maximum penalty of five years. The longest penalty now is six months.
The proposed Firearms Act revisits the government's contentious gun-control laws, among the most strict in the world. Bill C-68, passed in 1995, requires all firearms in Canada to be registered in a national database by Jan. 1, 2003.
Opposition to the new bill in the Senate could dash the government's hopes of passing the legislation before the end of the year.
A spokesman for Justice Minister Martin Cauchon said an exemption for natives is unlikely. "As far as the minister is concerned, the act applies to everybody, including aboriginal peoples," Mike Murphy said.
The gun law, however, makes some exceptions for aboriginal firearm owners. Natives seeking firearm licences can apply orally and with the help of a translator. There is also no minimum age for native minors seeking licences for traditional hunting practices.
"The Inuit people are making a living from hunting," Mr. Watt said. "That's the only way for them to put bread and butter on the table. The people up here in the North have 10 or more rifles. It costs money they don't have for them to register their firearms."
He is joined in his opposition to Bill C-10 (b) by Liberal Senator Willie Adams, of Nunavut territory, and Liberal Senator Anne Cools of Toronto.
"Bill C-68 has shown itself to be catastrophic," Ms. Cools said. "There's a host of unanswered questions. Senators want answers and senators are not going to accept being dismissed."
Progressive Conservative Senator Terrance Stratton, of Red River, Manitoba, has also voiced his opposition to Bill C-10 (a).
Opponents have questioned the ballooning costs of implementing the national registry, which critics say will cost hundreds of millions more than expected.