Copyright © 2019 Senator Dennis Patterson.

Bill to Amend Certain Acts and Regulations in Relation to Firearms Second Reading—Debate Continued

1st Session, 42nd Parliament
Volume 150, Issue 246
Thursday, November 8, 2018
The Honourable George J. Furey, Speaker

Hon. Dennis Glen Patterson: I would also like to speak to Bill C-71 an act to amend certain acts and regulations in relation to firearms. I do so, perhaps, from a different perspective than Senator Omidvar. From the perspective of my region of Nunavut, from the viewpoint of the majority of our population, 85 per cent of which are Inuit and a high proportion of them, both men and women, are hunters.

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For them, this bill is not about sport or about transporting firearms to shooting ranges. Many Inuit residents — and, I think, increasingly these days — have firearms not only for hunting, but also to protect themselves from polar bears, which are increasingly showing up in communities. We have sadly had citizens killed by polar bears this year in Nunavut.

So for many Inuit in Nunavut, like for many Indigenous people who continue to have strong connections to their traditional roots, firearms are actually a way of life. Inuit are known to be close to the rich lands and wildlife resources in Nunavut and heavily reliant on healthy, country food as opposed to expensive imported store-bought food.

The Firearms Act, which is being amended in this bill, has existed since 1995, and since its introduction, Nunavut Tunngavik Incorporated, which is the organization representing the interests of Inuit beneficiaries in Nunavut, has resisted the general application of the registration system in Nunavut, arguing in a lawsuit that it impeded the right of Inuit to hunt as guaranteed under the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement.

The judge in that case, Justice Kilpatrick of the Nunavut Court of Justice, granted an interim stay in July of 2003, acknowledging that there is a significant public interest in Nunavut in ensuring that the constitutional rights of Inuit are respected at all stages of the adjudicative process. This is so particularly where questions of treaty interpretation engage “the honour of the Crown.”

I conclude on the basis of the limited evidence before me that the alleged infringement of a treaty right may cause collateral damage to important Inuit interests. It may interfere with Inuit harvesting, whether this is done full time as a livelihood or part-time as a means of supplementing diet. It may impact upon the quality of Inuit lifestyle in isolated settlements. It may disrupt Inuit food supply in remote communities. It may cause long-term damage to a defining or core social value of Inuit society. The potential for damage is both significant and immediate.

Section 112, the provision at the heart of NTI’s argument, which dealt with compulsory licensing and registration, has since been repealed by the former Conservative government in 2012 and a suite of Indigenous-specific regulations was put in place that addressed concerns of Indigenous peoples being prevented from owning firearms necessary to hunting, as guaranteed under the Constitution and various comprehensive land claim and self-government agreements in Nunavut and, really, throughout the country.

Article 5.1.2(b) of the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement, for instance, recognizes:

. . . the legal rights of Inuit to harvest wildlife . . . .

And 5.1.3(a)(iv) states that the article:

. . . provides for harvesting privileges and allows for continued access by persons other than Inuit, particularly long-term residents, and

(v) avoids unnecessary interference in the exercise of the rights, priorities and privileges to harvest; . . . .

So the regulations that followed the repeal of section 112 of the Firearms Act enable Indigenous persons who wish to acquire firearms a way of taking the tests on firearm safety — required in order to be licensed to carry a firearm — orally should language be a barrier. It also enables the Chief Firearms Officer to essentially vouch for individuals seeking to purchase a firearm but who lack the proper documentation.

I did take the opportunity recently to speak with Mr. Ed North, the Chief Firearms Officer for Nunavut. Mr. North is a retired, long-serving member of the RCMP in Nunavut who has lived in many communities and regions of Nunavut, and I think he is probably a model example of how a Chief Firearms Officer applying these regulations can do so in ways which do not interfere with Indigenous rights.

During our meeting he described instances where a firearms store in the South would call him, telling him that an individual in a certain community had ordered a firearm without having a firearms possession and acquisition certificate. More often than not, he would be familiar with the applicant and could either vouch for the individual then and there, or make inquiries to confirm that the individual is a long-time and respected local hunter and issue the permit over the phone. Alternatively, he could phone the individual and conduct the firearms safety test that way.

So his work is to be commended, and I would respectfully suggest that Mr. North be someone that the committee that studies this bill could consider as a potential witness. I do hope that every Chief Firearms Officer in every region who is dealing with Aboriginal hunters is able to effectively apply the regulations as they are being applied in Nunavut.

While my meeting with Mr. North did assure me that the system is working in Nunavut to protect the rights of Inuit, it did cause me to worry that the level of service to Indigenous people throughout the country may not be consistent. I hope that the committee studying this bill will be able to study the effectiveness of the application of the Indigenous-specific regulations throughout the country, specifically in remote regions with significant Aboriginal populations.

I would also like to mention the issues raised by the Assembly of First Nations during committee consideration of the bill in the other place. They need to be adequately addressed by the Senate committee.

Vice-Chief Heather Bear raised two issues. One was in regard to new requirements to obtain authorizations to transport a firearm for purposes other than from the place of purchase or to a firing range; and two was the new provision that would enable the Chief Firearms Officer to look at the history of an individual beyond the current five-year limitation.

Vice-Chief Bear stated:

The proposed amendments to the Firearms Act raise serious constitutional concerns to first nations. Our first concern is that this bill does not incorporate or safeguard our aboriginal and treaty rights that might be impinged, such as our treaty right to hunt. Nowhere in this draft legislation does it state how the provisions of the bill will be implemented for first nations or on our reserves. It should be made clear that the first nations’ hunting rights will be respected and that we won’t need a transport certificate for any kind of hunting rifle, even those classified as restricted. . . .

Concerning background checks, under the new rules, the entire life of a person who applies for a firearm licence will be examined, instead of just the past five years. First nations’ people are more likely to have criminal records due to systemic discrimination and other reasons I won’t get into right now, but is it fair that a person could be denied a licence on the basis of a criminal offence committed 20 or 30 years ago? Does that really predict how likely he or she is to misuse a firearm today? Obviously we need to keep firearms out of the hands of dangerous criminals and people with serious mental illnesses, but why punish a person who made a mistake decades ago?

Honourable senators, I can tell you that more often than I would like to acknowledge there are incidents involving Inuit, firearms and standoffs with the RCMP. We know there are a high number of Inuit facing mental health issues for a variety of reasons, including remoteness, lack of jobs, intergenerational trauma or a lack of support or access to treatment.

I have spoken about my concerns about Bill C-45, and so on.

At its worst, in 2004, suicide in Nunavut was 11 times the national average, at 121 per 100,000 people. Last year, that rate was 106 per 100,000 people.

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Unfortunately, these statistics are reality for many Indigenous populations throughout the country.

Great efforts are being made with the leadership of the Chief Firearms Officer in Nunavut to enforce safe storage of firearms and the use of trigger locks, but the practice is still not widespread. Keeping this in mind, I share the concern of Vice-Chief Bear that extending the period of review of a person’s history could potentially prevent a disproportionately large number of Indigenous persons from accessing firearms necessary for hunting.

I also have outstanding concerns that the requirement in this bill for persons not to gift or sell a firearm to an individual not holding a Possession and Acquisition Licence could impede the traditional rights of individuals to pass on firearms to family members. In Nunavut, I can tell you that children as young as six years old have been given firearms as part of the beginning of their journey as hunters. It will be important for the committee studying the bill to find out what proportion of Aboriginal hunters are holding Possession and Acquisition Licences and how many opportunities there are to take the courses and tests in remote communities.

I believe the majority of Inuit hunters in Nunavut do not hold Possession and Acquisition Licences, so they are carrying on their traditional hunting activities outside the existing law. Should we not be concerned about that?

In closing, I look forward to the committee’s study of the bill. I’ve raised some issues that I hope will be addressed. When the committee studies the bill, I hope they will make sure they hear from witnesses who are Aboriginal hunters. Thank you.

 

The Hon. the Acting Speaker: Senator Patterson, we have some questioners.

Senator Lankin, are you asking a question?

Hon. Frances Lankin: Yes. Senator, will you accept a question?

Senator Patterson: Yes.

Senator Lankin: Thank you for your thoughtful speech.

There are issues we certainly need to look at in terms of rights of Indigenous peoples and the constitutional issues. I’m sure the committee will delve into that.

You also spoke about Vice-Chief Bear’s concern about the Chief Firearms Officer, as well as your own concern. I want to know how broad your concern is with respect to the provisions. One of the new provisions is that the Chief Firearms Officer can deem a person broadly ineligible to hold a possession acquisition licence if that person “poses a risk of harm to any person.”

I know you’d be aware of, and I know you would deeply care about, the alarming rate of firearm-related intimate-partner violence in Nunavut. It’s an issue I’m very concerned about, also. It’s an issue that affects marginalized communities, as you’ve talked about, and disproportionately affects women and children in those communities. In Nunavut, from 2009 to 2017, 45 per cent of the victims of police-reported firearm-related violent crimes were partners or other family members. We’re talking about intimate partners, children, parents and siblings. That’s nearly four times the rate of the rest of Canada.

Moreover, if we look at what the stats tell us, it is not handguns that are the problem. Over 80 per cent of those crimes are being committed with non-restricted rifles and shotguns.

A provision is being proposed that will expand the ability for the Chief Firearms Officer to deem a person broadly ineligible to hold a Possession and Acquisition Licence if that person, as I said, poses a risk of harm to any other person. As Senator Boisvenu said earlier, we need to have more preventive tools in dealing with domestic violence, and I wonder if you would then say that you agree with the proposed amendments of the Firearms Act that will better protect and prevent violence to vulnerable women and children in your communities.

The Hon. the Acting Speaker: Senator Patterson, your time has expired. Are you asking for five more minutes?

Senator Patterson: Yes, please.

The Hon. the Acting Speaker: Five more minutes, honourable senators?

Hon. Senators: Agreed.

Senator Patterson: I made some references to the incidents of firearms violence in Nunavut, and it is a concern. What I raised here today is that the PAL, which is the vehicle that you say, Senator Lankin, should be used to prevent the kind of domestic violence we all are concerned about, is that — and I think the committee should study this — in my anecdotal experience, hunters are not widely in possession of a PAL. That’s why the Chief Firearms Officer gets calls from gun shops often, because people are trying to buy rifles without the necessary licence.

You’re asking me if I think provisions in the bill will help to reduce domestic violence because the wrong people will not be given licences to possess rifles. They don’t have the licences to possess them right now, so I think we should be looking at the basic underpinnings of the Firearms Act, which are safe storage of firearms and trigger locks.

I remember that legislation being introduced by Kim Campbell when she was Minister of Justice . There’s a long tradition in Canada of trying to protect people through safe storage of firearms. I don’t know how well that is working. More efforts should be made in that connection. I’m hoping the committee study of the bill may shine a light on that.

The best answer I can give to your question, Senator Lankin, is that I’m just not sure how many people are respecting the Possession and Acquisition Licence, at least in the rural parts of the country and among Aboriginal people who sometimes have a language barrier, as well, in dealing with officials. Thank you.

Senator Lankin: Thank you very much. Just so you know, I live in a hunting community. My husband is a hunter, as are many people around me. The hunting camps are all around the area in which I live. At this time of year, they will have just finished the moose hunt but the deer hunt is going on. This is something I’m well aware of.

I also understand the issues you are raising with respect to the particular concerns in remote communities and language concerns. Those are all appropriate issues to raise. Also, your request to look at the underlying workings and whether they work in these communities is good.

I want to push you a little bit on the role of the Chief Firearms Officer and the expansion of this role. When gun shops call and ask because someone dost doesn’t have a licence, it’s an opportunity for the Chief Firearms Officer to do the work to understand whether this is a person who should be able to acquire a gun. I know guns are out there already, but should they be able to acquire a gun? If there’s an incident, should they be able to continue to hold a gun?

Eighty per cent of these violent crimes are being committed with shotguns and rifles. They’re not restricted weapons of any sort. There is almost four times the rate of family violence reported. The uniformed crime reporting provisions tell us that women and children in Nunavut — and in other parts of the country, but certainly in your part of the country — are at risk. I would hope that we could maybe come together in discussion, through committee, to understand the right provisions for people who are suffering in remote communities, who are suffering from mental health or who have a history of violence are somehow managed in not getting a licence and/or in having weapons taken away from them.

Senator Patterson: The role of the Chief Firearms Officer is important, and I wonder if they are as effective as the great guy I met in Nunavut, Ed North. He’s doing a great job. I was comforted by that.

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