The federal government's plan to destroy all data from its long-gun registry is unconstitutional, a judge has ruled, giving Ottawa 30 days to hand to Quebec records collected from the province's gun owners.
In a decision released Monday morning, Mr. Justice Marc-André Blanchard of the Quebec Superior Court said the data had been collected jointly by federal and provincial officials and could not be erased unilaterally.
"Quebec didn't embark in the project of setting up a registry knowing that it would later be deprived of the fruit of its co-operation," the judge wrote in a 42-page decision.
The Quebec government wants to preserve the information to start its own firearms registry.
The judgment only applies only to information collected from Quebec gun owners.
As has been the case until now because of an injunction, officials continue to keep collecting data from Quebec long-gun owners while the issue is hashed out before the courts.
"I am disappointed with today's ruling and will thoroughly review the decision," Public Safety Minister Vic Toews said in a statement.
"The will of Parliament and Canadians has been clear. We do not want any form of a wasteful and ineffective long-gun registry."
The NDP applauded the court ruling, saying it confirms the Quebec government's right to build its own registry.
"What does it change if the Quebec government keeps the data, how does it negatively affect the federal government?" asked NDP MP and justice critic Françoise Boivin.
Ms. Boivin said the gun registry has proven to be an effective tool for police investigators, saying that Ottawa should stop fighting with the Quebec government in order to honour its commitment to a "federalism of openness."
Quebec had gone to court to suspend the application of the article of the federal law that would have led to the destruction of the firearms registry data.
Quebec Justice Minister Jean-Marc Fournier said his government's decision was backed by local police forces, "a strong consensus within Quebec society" and a unanimous vote in the legislature.
"I am happy that Quebec has won this battle. The long gun registry's data and its use with respect to Quebec have been preserved," Mr. Fournier said in a statement.
Judge Blanchard acknowledge the federal government's expressed wish for more efficient or uniform gun regulations but said such considerations are not within Ottawa's jurisdiction over criminal law.
Destroying the records to thwart Quebec from running its own registry is therefore an unconstitutional breach of provincial jurisdiction, the judge said.
Judge Blanchad said lawyers for the Quebec government had tabled "unchallenged evidence" showing that, since the registry was set up, there had been drops in gun-related crime, homicides and suicides.
In his ruling, Judge Blanchard concluded that the registry records were not solely federal data because Ottawa had worked in partnership with Quebec to collect the information.
Judge Blanchard noted that what is known as the Canadian Firearms Registry On-Line (CFRO) system is made up of several databases that are updated by federal, provincial and municipal officials.
Also, he noted, in four provinces, including Quebec, the Chief Firearms Officer, the person who administers the application of gun regulations, is a provincial civil servant.
Privacy protocols and intergovernmental financial agreements describe the data as being shared and submitted to both federal and Quebec laws, the judge also said.
"The data in question cannot be solely qualified as being federal data," Judge Blanchard said.
"The court has to acknowledge a real, concrete impact to this will, clearly expressed by Canada and Quebec, to submit all the collected data to two jurisdictions on a concurrent fashion."
While the federal government has the right to abolish the registry, it cannot invoked its jurisdiction in criminal law to overstep provincial powers, the judge said.
"The court cannot conclude that registering long guns constitutes a reprehensible act or one that presents grave risks for morals or public security and safety," Judge Blanchard said.
"... We have here an abusive use of criminal-law jurisdiction to encroach onto a domain of provincial jurisdiction."
Fulfilling a long-standing promise, the government of Prime Minister Stephen Harper government enacted last April C-19, the bill to kill the registry.
However, Quebec which has long opposed the move, wants to run its own registry and sought an injunction to preserve the data after Ottawa refused to hand over records for the more than 1.5 million long guns registered by Quebeckers.
With a file from Daniel Leblanc