Canada's Information Commissioner says the federal Conservative government contravened the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and the rule of law by retroactively changing legislation to deny a Quebec man the long-gun registry documents he should have received though an Access to Information request.
In documents filed this week with the Ontario Superior Court of Justice, Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault also says the government's "retroactive interference" with her ability to take the matter to Federal Court "is egregious, outrageous and violates the constitutional principles of the rule of law and judicial independence."
She is asking the court to find that the government infringed the Charter by denying Bill Clennett, the requester of the long-gun registry documents, his right to freedom of expression, which she says includes the right to gather information held by government institutions.
And she is asking the court to strike down provisions the government inserted into a budget bill that retroactively excluded all long-gun registry data from the Access to Information Act. Those provisions, she says, denied Mr. Clennett the information to which he was legally entitled, and immunized against civil or criminal action the government and police officials who destroyed the documents – despite knowing they were legally required to preserve them.
The case has been transferred to a three-judge panel of the Divisional Court, which may not begin hearings for several months.
Mr. Clennett's request for access to all the records in the Canadian Firearms Registry was filed in March, 2012, 10 days before the law ending the registry came into effect. Scrapping the registry had long been a promise of the Conservative government, which argued that it was wasteful and intruded on the privacy of law-abiding gun owners.
In April, 2012, Ms. Legault sought and received assurances from former public safety minister Vic Toews that the documents would be preserved to meet the government's obligations under the Access to Information Act. But even as those assurances were being offered, she says in her court application, "the minister was also aware of (but did not disclose to the Information Commissioner) the implementation plans to destroy long-gun registry information."
That November, the government announced that all the records had been destroyed except those from Quebec, which were then the subject of a court challenge.
Ms. Legault tabled a report this year alleging that the RCMP knowingly destroyed firearms registry records, in violation of the Access to Information Act, and said she was preparing to turn the matter over to the Attorney-General, which could have resulted in criminal charges.
The government responded by using the budget bill to retroactively change the law to prevent Mr. Clennett, a social activist who was once famously grabbed by the throat by former prime minister Jean Chrétien, from obtaining the records and absolving the RCMP and anyone else within government who encouraged the destruction of the records of wrongdoing.
Ms. Legault has said the government's actions establish a dangerous template for governments to retroactively absolve themselves of all kinds of wrongdoing.
In her court application, she says preventing Mr. Clennett from obtaining the documents precludes him from "engaging in meaningful commentary about gun control, gun violence, firearms registries, violence against women and other matters of public importance."
The government refused to comment on the specifics of the case Wednesday, saying only that it is still intent on ensuring the destruction of the documents.
But Liberal MP Stéphane Dion said the rewriting of the law marks a new low for the Conservative government's respect for the rule of law and democracy. "I don't know what is the most outrageous," he said. "Is it the doubletalk, is it the illegal destruction of documents or is it the retroactive law by which the government wants to protect itself?"
And Françoise Boivin, the NDP justice critic, asked what right the government has to slip provisions "to kind of give a legal pardon to possible illegal actions" into a budget bill.