The Supreme Court of Canada is scheduled to rule Friday morning on whether Quebec has the right to obtain records from the now-abolished federal long-gun registry or whether Ottawa can destroy the records.
The case is important for the future of gun control in Quebec. The province wants to create its own gun registry, after the Conservative government closed the federal one in 2012, and it wants to use the information collected from Quebec gun owners for the federal registry.
Under the registry, owners of rifles and other long guns were subject to criminal prosecution if they did not register them with a firearms agency run by the RCMP. The government argued that the registry was ineffective at preventing crime and violated the privacy rights of licensed gun owners. A Liberal government created the registry, driven partly by demands for tighter gun controls after the 1989 massacre of 14 female engineering students at Montreal's École Polytechnique.
"We're now in the field of symbolic politics," University of Montreal law professor Jean-François Gaudreault-DesBiens said. Because of the massacre, gun control has come to be seen as a "Quebec value," and if Quebec loses this fight with Ottawa, separatists "will say, 'You see, Quebec values are different from the rest of Canada, and the Supreme Court is a tool in the hands of the rest of Canada.' "
The case is also important for a principle known as "co-operative federalism," in which the federal government and the provinces work together on mutual objectives. Quebec argues that this notion, inherent in Canada's Constitution but not actually written anywhere, obliges Ottawa to turn over the registry's data. If the argument succeeds, it would create a powerful lever for other provinces to use in discussions with the federal government on other issues such as health care or securities.
"It's a big moment for co-operative federalism," said Paul Daly, who also teaches law at the University of Montreal. "The Supreme Court has said quite a lot about this idea in recent years, but so far it's been mainly bark. We're going to find out if it has any bite and if it actually imposes serious obligations on partners in Confederation."
University of Sherbrooke law professor Maxime St-Hilaire said he would be surprised if the court rules in Quebec's favour: "The Supreme Court has been wary of handing down judgments that would bear significant consequences in terms of public finances."
The ruling comes as Canada heads toward an election, expected in October, with the ruling Conservatives hoping to make gains in Quebec.
The trial judge who heard the case ruled in Quebec's favour, but the Quebec Court of Appeal said the federal government had the right both to create the registry and to destroy it. Quebec appealed that ruling to the Supreme Court.