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Assembly of First Nations National Chief, RoseAnne Archibald, speaks at a press conference during the Assembly of First Nations Special Chiefs Assembly in Ottawa, Thursday, Dec. 8, 2022.Spencer Colby/The Canadian Press

First Nations leaders voted Thursday to oppose the federal government’s marquee gun control legislation, adding to mounting pressure on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to back down from surprise changes introduced late to the proposed law.

Chiefs voted unanimously in favour of a resolution against the legislation, known as Bill C-21, on the final day of the Assembly of First Nations’ (AFN) annual winter meeting in Ottawa. The resolution expressed concern about the last-minute amendments, which would criminalize guns that First Nations people commonly use for hunting.

Through the amendments, the government introduced a permanent definition for all assault-style weapons that would be automatically prohibited and a 307-page list of guns that stipulates which firearms would be banned and where there would be exceptions. The resulting backlash – coming from the NDP, Liberal backbench, provincial and territorial premiers, and even Montreal Canadiens goalie Carey Price – caught the Liberals off guard.

Cat Lake First Nation Chief Russell Wesley, who brought forward the resolution at the AFN Special Chiefs Assembly, called the bill “just another demonstration of our First Nations constantly being attacked with respect to our rights.”

“We have treaty clauses that ensure we have hunting and fishing rights protected,” Mr. Wesley told the assembly on Thursday, stressing the importance of long guns for hunting in his Northern Ontario community.

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The resolution passed by the chiefs demands a series of changes to the legislation, including that the government remove the long guns commonly used by First Nations hunters from its list of prohibited weapons. It also calls on the federal government to consult with First Nations before enacting laws that affect the rights of First Nations people to hunt.

Liberal MP Paul Chiang introduced the amendments on Nov. 22 after the House public safety committee had already heard from witnesses on the original bill, which was introduced to enact the government’s handgun restrictions. The amendments vastly broaden the bill’s scope, and the prohibitions ended up targeting common hunting rifles that are used in rural and northern communities, in addition to assault-style weapons.

“Things have really gone off the rails for them,” said A.J. Somerset, a hunter and former soldier who wrote a book on gun culture called Arms: The Culture and Credo of the Gun. Mr. Somerset said there is a valid reason to ban assault-style weapons and Ottawa’s focus on how a gun functions, rather than its appearance, is the right way to go. But he said the law’s definition should be clarified to limit the number of hunting rifles that get caught under it.

“They’re banning assault style weapons as they say they are, but they’re simultaneously catching a bunch of hunting rifles as collateral damage,” he said.

Mr. Somerset also said the government’s list of prohibited guns includes some that don’t meet the proposed definition of an assault style weapon. For example, the Simonov SKS, a Second World War-era gun, is now commonly used for hunting.

The government had initially hoped to get the bill back to the floor of the House of Commons for third reading before the winter break but that timeline has been blown by the backlash. On Thursday, the Liberals instead agreed to extend the committee study of the new law, adding on two more meetings to hear from witnesses about the amendments.

The amendments from the Liberals are a “massive overreach” and a “huge mistake,” said NDP MP Charlie Angus, who represents a northern Ontario riding that includes many First Nation communities.

“They’re pitting rural and Indigenous people unnecessarily against urban public safety,” he told The Globe. So far, he said, he hasn’t seen any updated language that shows the amendment can be fixed. “You can’t sneak something like this past the Canadian people. People aren’t that dumb.”

On Thursday, Mr. Trudeau told reporters his government will not change the definition of assault-style weapons that it introduced through the late amendments, but is open to changing the list of prohibited weapons that it will legislate.

“The definition is something that we are very much committed to, but the actual list that goes with it, that’s something that we’re consulting on,” Mr. Trudeau said.

The Prime Minister said he understands hunters and farmers are concerned that the Liberals are “going after their shotguns and rifles.” He said the government is not going after those firearms and will fine-tune the legislation.

Ahead of the unanimous vote at the AFN assembly, half a dozen First Nations leaders lined up at microphones to share their frustration, emphasizing that hunting in their communities was not used for sport, but for sustenance, including to bolster against food insecurity.

Matachewan First Nation Chief Alex Batisse told the assembly that he was “pretty disgruntled” by Bill C-21, calling it an infringement on the rights of First Nations people. He said that being from a northern community, he accesses those rights on a regular basis, teaching his grandson their traditional ways, “including how to operate a gun.”

“Now, this government wants to take that away from our people,” Mr. Batisse added.

Asked about opposition from the AFN’s assembly, Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino told reporters it is not the intent of the government’s bill to target guns commonly used by hunters and Indigenous people.

The Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN), which represents 74 First Nations in Saskatchewan, has also raised concerns about the legislation’s potential impact.

“Our people can’t afford to have our guns taken away especially when we are trying to put food on the table during these unprecedented times,” said FSIN Vice-Chief Heather Bear in a statement earlier this week.

In a speech to the Special Chiefs Assembly on Thursday morning, NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh said that his party would not support any amendment to Bill C-21 that contravenes First Nations treaty rights.

With a report from Ian Bailey

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