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Tory MP who shot holes through Liberal long-gun registry reloads

Conservative MP Candice Hoeppner photograph on Parliament Hill in Ottawa.

Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail/Dave Chan/The Globe and Mail

Candice Hoeppner slays Liberal politicians for a living.

The second-term MP from Manitoba is the unlikely face of the Harper Conservatives' efforts to kill the long-gun registry – and in her own small way she has helped deal a near-fatal blow to the Liberal Party of Canada.

For that she was rewarded by Prime Minister Stephen Harper when he appointed her parliamentary secretary to the Public Safety Minister just after the May election.

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It means she's not finished with the registry yet. The government bill to scrap it is expected to be introduced soon in the Commons, fulfilling a long-held Conservative promise to repeal the law if and when the party won a majority government.

It will be Ms. Hoeppner's job now to see it through to its death.

She can hardly wait.

"It's going to be something else to see the bill introduced and to know we're finally going to be able to pass it," she said in an interview.

Two years ago, as a rookie MP, she made a name for herself by bringing in a private member's bill to scrap the registry. Although, she didn't own a gun or shoot one, she represented a rural riding and embraced the concerns of her constituents that it was bad policy.

Her bill almost got through.

And so the death of the registry, expected later this year, will be a defining moment for the Conservatives, who for more than a decade railed against the Liberal law they argued was wildly expensive and made criminals out of law-abiding farmers and hunters.

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For the Liberals, it will be equally defining.

Drafted in the aftermath of the 1989 massacre of women at Montreal's École Polytechnique and introduced by the Chrétien government in 1995, it became a powerful symbol for the Liberals. It was their tough-on-crime stance and a law that attempted to give voice to the victims.

But it came at a cost: divisive and emotional, it pitted rural members against their urban colleagues and had already cost some Liberals their seats in previous elections.

Last September, however, Liberals thought they had it licked when MPs voted by the narrowest of margins to continue the registry.

But what they didn't expect was the Hoeppner factor: She doesn't give up.

"My theory was, okay, we lost this battle, but I'm going to make sure, and we're going to do everything we can, so that we don't lose the war on it," she said. "I guess, make something positive out of what was at that point a negative, which was losing the vote."

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She wrote letters, she made speeches, she went to rallies across the country, attracting more than 350 hunters and fishermen at one in Nova Scotia.

The Tories knew how difficult a battle it had been for the Liberals – and that they were vulnerable. Then Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff had forced his caucus, including eight of his members in rural ridings who had first supported her bill, to vote against it in the next stage, thus supporting the registry's survival.

Although it meant a win at the time for Mr. Ignatieff, it also meant potential death at the polls for several of his MPs.

For Ms. Hoeppner, however, it led to her redoubling efforts to kill the registry.

During the spring election campaign she went into some of those Liberal ridings, where the MPs had switched their vote. She campaigned against North Bay Liberal MP Anthony Rota, making a swing through northern Ontario . She went up to the Yukon to target Larry Bagnell, who had also switched his vote.

Her rallying cry was simple: "Once we lost the vote ... then the focus became ... how do we win our majority? And that was always my message: If you want the long-gun registry ended you need to elect a Conservative member of Parliament. They are the only ones you can count on."

Her plan worked. Mr. Rota, Mr. Bagnell, Todd Russell, a Newfoundland and Labrador Liberal MP, who had also switched his vote, and even the Liberal face of the registry's survival, the Public Safety critic, Mark Holland, went down to defeat.

"It played a role. It did," she argues. Both Mr. Bagnell and Mr. Rota admit that it contributed to their loss – that, and the NDP surge.

The Liberals lost 43 seats in the election and their official opposition status.

Ms. Hoeppner believes the registry debate became more than just a discussion about registering long guns. It was about the credibility of politicians.

"This wasn't just some ambiguous issue that maybe these people had never spoken on before. This was a very important issue ... they had a lot at stake," she said.

"So winning the majority and seeing us win those seats was very gratifying."

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