Long gun registry data destroyed illegally

The Harper government may have thought it killed the Long Gun Registry more than three years ago. But it’s back in the news again, and likely to stay there long enough to show up like an unwelcome ghost just in time to cast a shadow over Conservative chances of re-election.

One can only hope. It certainly should give voters pause to reflect on the state of Canadian democracy when the issue now before the courts is whether or not the government pressured the RCMP to break the law by destroying Long Gun Registry data while it was still the subject of an Access to Information request.

That’s a serious offence under the Access to Information Act, punishable by up to two years in prison or a fine of up to $10,000, or both.

As if that’s not enough, the government attempted to avoid any such charge or charges being laid by making Long Gun Registry data an exemption under the Act, retroactive to a date before the registry was actually abolished in April 2012 by the majority Conservative government.

And of all things, that bit of sleight of hand was buried in the government’s 167-page, omnibus budget Bill C-59 recently approved by Parliament and given Royal Assent. So it too is now law, of a sort.

Federal Information Commissioner Suzanne Legault is shocked, and rightly so, by what she regards as a dangerous precedent, affecting your right-to-know and freedom of expression.

Her office has filed documents with the Ontario Superior Court earlier that argue the government’s action was essentially unconstitutional. The case has since been referred to a three-judge panel of Ontario’s Divisional Court where hearings may not take place for several months, just in time for the run-up to the 2015 federal election campaign.

Court documents filed by Legault’s office allege Long Gun Registry data was destroyed while applications for Access to Information were still active, despite written assurances from former Public Safety Minister Vic Toews in 2012 that the data would be preserved to meet the legal obligations under the Act.

But late that year the government said all the data had been destroyed except that from Quebec, because of a court challenge there.

This week Justice Luc Martineau of the Federal Court ordered the government to hand over that remaining data in the form of a computer hard drive until the court actions have been resolved.

It was an astonishing slap in the face to the Harper government. It said, in effect, the government could not be trusted with the material.

To its credit, I suppose, the government blinked and complied with the order.

There is a limit, after all, to what even this government thinks it can get away with.

For years Conservatives, including our own Grey-Bruce-Owen Sound MP Larry Miller, called the Long Gun Registry a huge waste of money that turned “law-abiding” gun owners into virtual criminals by forcing them to register their weapons. Meanwhile, it did little if anything to deter the actual criminals from doing their bad things because they were certainly not going to register their guns.

That “law-abiding” part sounds richly, even bitterly, ironic now in view of the most recent revelations.

But it was a persuasive argument in small-town, rural Canada especially. And many of the people who bought into it won’t be happy until they can rest assured their names are still not tucked away in some government file somewhere, or easily retrievable on the hard drive of a government computer.

Hence the Conservative government obsession with “destroying” all the data, including that which pertains to gun owners in Quebec.

Of course the conspiracy theorists will never be satisfied that someday, somewhere the ghost of the Long Gun Registry won’t rise again.

And yet a government that plays so fast and loose with the spirit of the rule of law and the people’s right to know, and does it in such an underhanded way, is more of a threat to personal freedom than the registry ever was.

Information Commissioner Legault herself touched on that issue, the one after all that concerns her the most, when she appeared before the Senate Standing Committee on Finance on June 3 to express her various concerns about the part of Bill C-59 that troubled her. She noted, for example, they will make it impossible for anyone to find out through the Access to Information process if Long Gun Registry data was actually destroyed, or not.

“This probably means that no one will be able to request information about whether the RCMP has really deleted his or her information from the Registry or about how much the destruction of the Registry cost Canadian taxpayers. Indeed, no one will be able to find out what transpired in relation to the destruction of the records at issue in my investigation. This is above and beyond what was ever considered by Parliament in 2012. You must ask yourself why?”

Now, there’s food for conspiracy theorist thought.

Originally published in The Sun Times in 2015.

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