Mr. Speaker, it is not every day that a bill before the House generates the kind of public debate that we have seen in the past few months, a debate that will end with the vote scheduled for the end of our proceedings today.
This bill has prompted a public debate because it brings into focus the values that we hold as a society. Before I go any further, let me say-and I am certain there will be no disagreement-that our society is undergoing rapid change, and not always the kind of change we want to see. Violence is on the rise.
This debate is taking place because we are cognizant of the fact that danger threatens our society at every turn. Danger is not a problem found only in cities. It affects people everywhere. It is a problem observed not only here in this country, it also touches our neighbours and friends to the south. In the United States, increasing social problems have led to an upsurge in violence and we are now beginning to witness the same phenomenon here. This is not a trivial matter that we are discussing, nor something that should leave us indifferent. It is an extremely important issue, both for the present and for the future.
Violence can manifest itself in many ways. The use of firearms is not the only factor associated with violence. Very serious social problems can lead to a sense of frustration which in turn, can breed various forms of violence. Psychological, domestic, personal and community problems can all lead to the use, among other things, of firearms.
However, there is nothing trivial about firearms. They represent one of the most significant ways of manifesting the violence to which I alluded. I think we would all agree on this, regardless of the party to which we belong, that a society such as ours which claims to be reasonable, vigilant and civilized, has a responsibility to ensure that the use of firearms is better controlled.
So far, so good. I do not believe that even our friends in the Reform Party would oppose legislation that gives the state the ability to control violence and to intervene to stop its spread. If they would oppose it, I am certain that they will let us know. In any event, I would be surprised if the Reform Party opposed some control over firearms, given the social context. In a society such as ours, it is essential that the state be allowed to step in and assume its responsibilities in the area of gun control.
The bill now before us is a reflection of the government's vision of gun control. What course of action is the government advocating? The key feature of its proposed legislation is firearms registration. Many of the bill's provisions relate to registration. Some reforms were introduced in 1992, primarily to ban certain types of assault, prohibited and military weapons. Some administrative controls regarding storage and so forth were also introduced. This series of reforms will complete the cycle of government action in this field. The central element of the reform is the universal registration of all firearms, essentially those used for target shooting, hunting and so forth, since other kinds of weapons are already prohibited.
The debate has, without a doubt, been controversial, since very opposite views have been voiced. I do not think that we can accuse anyone of failing to understand the validity of the other party's arguments. Clearly, we are dealing with a clash of two different value systems. On the one hand, we have an overwhelming majority of citizens who are concerned about violence in society and recognize the need to control guns, one of the instruments used to commit violence. On the other hand, we have those who perceive the intervention of the state and additional restrictions as an unnecessary attack on individual freedoms.
We cannot dismiss the reaction of the second group lightly. Honest citizens own firearms. The fact that they own guns does not make them any less honest. I would even venture to say that the vast majority, if not virtually all, of the citizens who own guns, who use them for sporting purposes and who have done so for generations, are upstanding citizens. The introduction of these measures has made them somewhat uneasy. They are upset to see the state interfere once again in their affairs and this has a great deal to do with their attitudes.
Although this country has existed for several hundred years, ours is still a young society, still close to its roots, to the time when vast territories had to be conquered and people had to tame, colonize and settle this vast land. Obstacles had to be overcome. Wild animals roamed the landscape and people needed to defend themselves. Trapping and hunting were important survival tools.
It is well known that beaver trapping was a very important activity in Canada. It was the basis of the country's economy. In other words, the country's origins are closely linked with firearms. To many, firearms symbolized-and I would imagine this still holds true today-freedom and man's dominance over an often hostile environment. The issue speaks to long-standing, profound values. Then there is the issue of hunting. The hunting instinct is one of the first known to man. Had men and women not been hunters, humankind as we know it would not have survived to this day.
Therefore, this issue is complex and it is understandable that the debate has been controversial and quite emotional. Another reason why opponents have reacted so negatively and have
expressed outrage from the moment the bill was tabled in the House is because the state has already intervened a great deal.
Individual freedoms have already been restricted considerably by the administrative and bureaucratic actions of the state, so much so that many citizens are quite fed up with what they view as government harassment and red tape.
Some dream of returning to the free, somewhat bucolic society of yesteryear in reaction to the excessively large public service and the systems and networks springing up everywhere. The bureaucracy has exploded, particularly in the last 20 years. People are very leery about more government intervention, particulary now when they feel that their civil liberties are been affected.
Moreover, many people live on large tracts of land or own farms. That was true of my ancestors and of my father. I myself was born on a farm. These people accept that there is a government, a country and law enforcement agencies, but their farm is their domain. When they are at home on their farm, they cannot fathom that someone should be able to interfere and restrict in any way their right to do whatever they want on their own property, their right to use firearms to hunt and so forth.
Along comes this bill which challenges long-standing beliefs and deep-seated cultural reflexes.
Here we must appeal to reason. It is alright for those who oppose the bill to say so. While the vast majority of people support the bill, the Bloc Quebecois included, we must try to convince those who are against it, particularly the hunters who are directly affected by its provisions. We must try to convince them to accept the government's intervention in this area for the sake of higher principles. The citizens of this country are all reasonable people and they will reflect upon this and understand. However, it still comes as a cultural shock.
When the use of seat belts in automobiles became mandatory, I remember clearly my reaction to this announcement. I was a young man at the time, driving my first automobile. All of a sudden, I was required to buckle up. As a young man, owning my first car symbolized freedom. Everyone remembers how important their first car was, what colour it was, how much it cost, and so forth. Not everyone was pleased, myself included, to see the government legislate seat-belt use.
However, I had to learn to live with the law. I have to admit that occasionally, in a moment of weakness, I neglected to buckle up. However, I have been using my seat belt for many years now and it has now become a part of our everyday habits.
This decision was initially viewed and dismissed by many people as government interference. Over time, seat belt use was accepted because it was proven to be in the common interest. Large fines were also imposed.
The same will be true for firearms registration. Registration as such is not something new. People are accustomed to registering their automobiles, their bicycles, even their dogs. They may not have been too pleased the first time that had to get a license for their bicycle-imagine, a teenager having to get a license for his bicycle-but they accepted it.
People have come to accept many things because it is in the common interest and I am confident that this is one such issue. I am confident that the government will work hard to convince people to go along with registration. I have no doubt that the minister, who is an intelligent individual with a good understanding of society, will see to it that these measures are implemented properly, by appealing to people's sense of reason, not by using a strong-arm approach. I am confident that he will proceed in a civilized fashion and be respectful of individuals who have different opinions.
Registration may well be a bother, but fundamentally, this is not a transcendental debate. There are no fundamental principles at issue. The resulting inconveniences will be very minor. After all, people will only be required to register the firearms they own once in their lifetime. Only once! Furthermore, the process will only begin in three years' time. Therefore, we have three years to think about this, three years to discuss the matter, three years to calm down, three years to analyse the situation, listen to others and try to understand the reasons behind this decision. Once the process begins, people will have five years to register their firearms.
In my opinion, this will facilitate the implementation of the legislation and give people time to accept psychologically these measures.
Having said this, I do not believe and our party does not believe that the bill is perfect. On the contrary, we would have preferred something different.
We would have liked to have greater power of persuasion over the minister, in order to make changes we thought were required. However, I must acknowledge that some changes we requested were accepted.
We in the Bloc Quebecois tried not to address the issue from an ideological point of view, not to make it a debate on principle or a debate on religion because, in religion, everyone is right and everyone is wrong. We tried to address it from a pragmatic point of view and to make a party contribution, through the parliamentary process, to bringing in a balanced piece of legislation.
We are in agreement with government intervention, and with registration, and we wanted-or at least we tried-to bring a certain balance to the bill tabled by the government.
We were successful with some amendments, including one essential matter, one essential aspect of the bill: decriminalization. We think this aspect is important, because it is essential that good citizens, the vast majority of hunters, for example, not have the perception that the law lumps them together with criminals.
It is important for honest citizens to be sure that the government does not treat them like criminals, and that hunting and using firearms for sports activities do not make them criminals or people who are reprehensible in the eyes of the government or of society. This is a fundamental right which, to this extent, must be respected.
That is why we thought the government had to be persuaded to make a distinction between people who use firearms to commit crimes and people who use them to behave like normal citizens, for sports like hunting. That is where we got the idea of not making failure to register a firearm, in the case of a first offence, a crime as such. We have never claimed that there should be no penalties. We have never claimed that there be no sanctions, that the first offence of failing to register a hunting firearm, for example, should not make someone liable to punishment. That act had to remain something against the law, a reprehensible act to be punished under criminal law. But there is quite a distinction between criminalizing and penalizing that has not always gotten through to the public.
We would have liked the first offence, someone who fails to register for the first time, to be prosecuted-that is summary conviction procedure-and convicted if guilty, but fined. We would have wanted a first offence not to be a crime within the strict meaning of the Criminal Code, but to lead to a considerable fine, say, from $500 to $1,250, confiscation of the firearm, and a requirement to register it within seven days: briefly, something reasonable and severe-quite severe-, but something that indicated this distinction between a crime as such and an offence to be penalized.
The government did not accept the Bloc Quebecois vision but, on the other hand, it did take a step in the right direction. It made a first offence a new, special offence, ensuring that people will be prosecuted under a statute and not under the Criminal Code; the summary conviction procedure will be used, but the first offence will not be a crime as such-although it is not clear what will happen with the criminal record. There will not be a criminal record in the traditional sense, but it does seem that there will be a register in which offences, even first offences, will be noted. Still, this flexibility is welcome, since I believe it will also give the Crown an option when prosecuting. If a person who has not registered a firearm is a habitual criminal, it is not the same thing as if the person were an ordinary hunter; the Crown can prosecute under another statute. There is discretion that could make it possible to eliminate the aspect we criticized.
Another amendment we proposed has to do with that prohibition on a person who wanted to obtain a firearm licence, if the person was an associate of some other person prohibited from possessing firearms. There, the problem with the initial bill was quite far-reaching, since it had to do with association.
Basically, it was a problem of guilt by association. As soon as you were "an associate"-as defined, an extremely vague, very elastic expression that could have led to witch hunts-of a person who had been prohibited from possessing firearms, you could be prohibited from owning them as well.
So, what we proposed was to keep the expression "an associate", of course, but to specify an associate living under the same roof. If you live in a house where someone prohibited from possessing firearms lives, it would be rather stupid and irresponsible for you to be given a firearm, when the other person living there, in the same house, could have practically the same access to the firearm as you do-even though elsewhere the bill prohibits that person from possessing firearms. The government accepted this amendment.
By means of amendments we proposed two days before the government's amendments, we also persuaded the government that there should be a grandfather clause, that is, a clause recognizing firearms handling courses people have already taken. We know that Quebec in particular has had a system of firearms handling courses, as a prerequisite for firearms licences, for quite some time now. So these courses that people had taken had to be recognized. We must not require people who have already taken courses in Quebec-very well-designed courses, by the way-to take them again. So the federal government agreed to recognize these courses and not require people to take them again under the bill.
We also requested an amendment to tighten up the bill in order to limit the government's former discretion to make regulations allowing the purchase of non-prohibited ammunition starting in the year 2001, during the transition period. The government agreed to tighten up the bill and make those regulations much stricter.
Another aspect to which we drew the government's attention was the power of inspection contained in the first version of the bill. We were not the only ones to make this point; in our society and in all regions, a great many worries and complaints were expressed about the excessive extent of the power the bill conferred on police officers: they were given practically the power to search and seize, without being required to follow the procedures that limit the action they take in other situations, such as the requirement to obtain from a judge a warrant citing a reasonable ground for carrying out a search. Now, in the bill, no
warrant is required, but police officers' power is limited to places other than dwelling-houses, strictly to places where there is reason to believe that there are 10 or more firearms, and the ground must be a reasonable ground, not just an opinion a police officer might have before taking action.
But there are other amendments with which we were not successful. We regret that, although those amendments are not as significant; the issue of fees is an example. We would have liked the government to provide a legal control, a guarantee of its political commitment to act reasonably and not raise fees unduly. We therefore proposed an amendment adding to the bill a mechanism limiting increases to registration fees. We know that the government is in power and we know the present minister's intentions; but there are the public service, the apparatus of government, circumstances and changes in the situation. In five years, who is to say that a deputy minister will not convince a minister to double registration fees? There is no legal guarantee. We would have liked there to be one in the bill. The minister is showing the best of intentions. We hope they will be repeated, but we really would have liked there to be this kind of control; one possible way of providing it would have been, say, to index changes in registration fees to the consumer price index. But the government did not want any such hindrances, and we regret that that was the case.
We also proposed something we think made a lot of sense: a requirement to lock, to install a locking mechanism on, any firearm manufactured or sold in Canada, so that if you are a hunter and you show up in a firearms store to buy a .12 or a .20 or a .22 rifle, you will automatically be sold a firearm on which a locking mechanism has already been installed, for greater safety. We hear that there is nearly consensus on this point, and that even many organizations representing hunters agreed with it. The government did not agree to this request, and we wonder why not. Would the manufacturers' lobby have been that powerful? We do not know. It would have been advisable for this amendment to be accepted, but it was not.
We consider that another aspect of the bill raises an issue of principle, a much more important one: the legality of law enforcement. By means of this bill, the government is giving itself an arbitrary power to make regulations that would allow it, for example, to exempt aboriginal people from respecting the bill and from the constraints the bill imposes on other citizens.
I am not saying that the government will avail itself of that power and exempt aboriginal people but, since the bill includes express mention of this point, we fear that inequitable treatment of citizens under the same law will be set up. It would be a real shame, and terribly irresponsible, to do that.
I do not see how aboriginal people are threatened by the enforcement of this bill. If the bill is acceptable for other citizens, it is acceptable for them, too; they, too, have the right to ensure their safety. The problems of violence exist in their communities, as they do in ours. I do not see how the government can give itself that power. Why is the government giving itself that power?
That point makes me think-in a much less significant vein-of the debate that took place during the referendum on the Charlottetown Accord, when it looked as though the Charter of Rights and Freedoms would not apply in aboriginal communities. I remember that even Mr. Trudeau-on that point alone, I must admit-agreed with the Quebec sovereignists who were saying that made no sense.
We agreed that, under the rule of law, as is the case in Canada, where we favour law enforcement that is equal for everyone, there simply had to be equitable treatment of all citizens, and that it was inconceivable that we could accept that outrageous, incredible, irresponsible concession made by Mr. Clark and Mr. Rae in particular, excluding aboriginal people from the application of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. We have somewhat the same thing here.
If this bill is so important, if it is so deeply rooted in respect for citizens' rights and obligations, why would aboriginal people be exempted from its enforcement? We were not successful on this point, but we do count on the government, and on the minister, to reassure us and tell us that citizens will be equal under this bill, as they are under any law, as is appropriate in any democracy.
Lastly, we would have liked to have another amendment passed, and we are very worried that it was turned down. We are really upset about that amendment; it raised considerable debate within the Bloc Quebecois. People in caucus took very strong positions on this point, and we understand them. This point is the requirement that any court impose a minimum four-year sentence on any offender who commits a crime with a firearm: a four-year minimum.
I consider that the minister has lapsed into political correctness and let himself be swept along by the lobbies that have sometimes gone too far. We are going to vote for the bill, but we, too, have been buffeted by headwinds. Outrageous things have been said by both lobbies. The pro-gun control lobby itself has sometimes gone too far.
I feel that, in this instance, the minister may not have maintained a balance. I feel that the minister should have resisted those excessive pressures, which are not at all progressive, which will fill up the penitentiaries with 18-year-olds with no chance of rehabilitation and, further, which will introduce inequity and disparity in sentencing.
Let us take the example of an 18-year old committing his first offence. We do not know what incites an 18-year old to hold up a corner store-we are not justifying it, it is completely unacceptable, serious things happen in those situations-but we do know that often these young people are grappling with drug problems, are in withdrawal, are in fact very well brought up-it happens everywhere-; for the first time in his life he goes and uses a firearm to hold up a corner store, and automatically gets four years in prison.
There is no possibility of the judge looking into the case, making distinctions, taking circumstances into account, or trying to give that young man a chance. When you are 18, you can be rehabilitated after a first offence and become a very good citizen. But with this bill, I tell you, I hesitated before taking a position. I deeply regret that the minister, who appears to be progressive in all respects, has made this abusive lapse, which will mean automatic prison sentences.
Incarceration becomes the only means of rehabilitating young offenders, of reintegrating them in society. That is serious. That smacks of a philosophical conception which worries me a lot. I am surprised that the gun control lobby would have steered the minister in that direction. I am truly astonished because I believe that the forces which impel us to adopt this bill are progressive forces, but not in this case. In this case, there is something absolutely deplorable and senseless, there are things that defy comprehension.
For example, if a sharp 12-inch dagger is held to the throat of a convenience store clerk to commit the same crime, the offender will get the minimum, not four years. I do not see the difference between a dagger and a gun-the clerk might not have his throat cut. It is the same thing with rape. These are dreadful acts. What is the difference between using a dagger or a gun to commit rape on a young woman? The two acts are absolutely abominable. And yet, in one case, it will be four years, automatically, and in the other not.
It seems to me that the minister in charge of developing the Criminal Code could have had a common sense reflex. It is not too late, by the way. I sincerely believe that this is something that should be fixed.