Quebec’s long-gun registry triggers opposition in Eeyou Istchee

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The deadline for Quebec’s new long-gun registry came and went January 29 with less than a quarter of the province’s estimated 1.6 million shotguns and rifles registered – and compliance is believed to be much lower in Eeyou Istchee.

According to the Cree Trappers’ Association (CTA), there remains much confusion about the registry. They have been busy helping members complete registrations but are still waiting for government support for staff training.

“The main problem is having people informed on the registry,” said CTA executive director Clark Shecapio. “People I’ve talked to were not aware of the registry and also they were confused with the federal one.”

Quebec decided to create its own system for tracking non-restricted firearms in 2016, four years after the then-Conservative government abolished the federal registry amidst soaring costs and widespread resistance. Gun owners were given a year to complete the free forms online or by mail. Those found with unregistered firearms could face fines ranging from $500 to $5,000.

The new law received cross-party support when first introduced as a tool to help police track all firearms in the province. The current CAQ government has pledged its support for the registry while loosening certain requirements to “simplify” the process, such as providing more time to declare a gun’s location change and no longer requiring information about the length of a gun barrel.

While gun-control advocates continue to call for tighter security measures, the registry has faced stiff opposition across the province from rural hunters and sport shooters. The National Firearms Association has encouraged members to protest by waiting until the last minute to comply. At least 15 small towns in Quebec have recently adopted resolutions denouncing the registry.

“Many of our great Cree hunters will become unknowingly criminals,” lamented Paul Dixon, coordinator of the CTA’s fur office in Waswanipi. The veteran tallyman told the Nation that there was little local awareness of the law before they took the initiative to assist members at the office.

At the community’s expense, two workers were hired to help Dixon with registering members less than two weeks before the deadline. About 160 citizens registered over 900 guns at the CTA office in just six working days, including some community members with more than 50 firearms.

Dixon noted that the federal government never reimbursed the CTA for $150,000 worth of gun-safety courses they conducted under the old registry.

Although it’s unclear how many citizens used the online service, Dixon estimated that only about 10% of guns were registered in Waswanipi. From trips to the bush, he knows many hunters are unaware of the new law while others say their guns are inaccessible because of unplowed roads. Language and technological barriers further hinder registry compliance.

The registry has been high in the minds of chiefs across Quebec, according to Ghislain Picard, who was re-elected as regional chief of the Assembly of First Nations Quebec-Labrador (AFNQL) shortly before speaking with the Nation

“There are many issues at play here – responsibility, jurisdiction, and the registry itself,” Picard noted. “At the same time, we have a Quebec government that is saying the law is there and everyone needs to comply – no exceptions. We want to open the door and have a dialogue but there is nobody to answer that call.”

The AFNQL has previously stated the long-gun registry does not address First Nations issues or jurisdictions, and rights to traditional and subsistence practices. Indigenous leaders have expressed concern about how the provincial law could affect existing treaties or be enforced on their territories.

“We understand we have nations under treaty,” said Picard. “They might have clauses within their agreements that provide a safeguard when it comes to those laws. This is something we’ll pay attention to. We would argue that you can’t have two categories of hunters within the Indigenous communities.”

During public hearings on the Firearms Registration Act in 2015, Nunavik Inuit requested an exemption based on their right to harvest wildlife under the James Bay and Northern Quebec Agreement. They argued that “hunters cannot be overburdened by bureaucratic measures” that infringe upon traditional practices.

In response, government officials pledged to support the registration process and provided guidelines in Inuktitut to local police detachments, although regional organizations say they weren’t consulted.

First Nations communities throughout Quebec have maintained that the law doesn’t recognize core concepts of their cultures, including the communal possession of hunting equipment. Rifles often move around on reserves between family members and friends, making it sometimes difficult to confirm a firearm’s location or ownership.

“I don’t think the law should apply to us,” asserted Dixon. “Almost zero per cent of gun incidents happen here. I understand [guns] are dangerous – a high-powered rifle bullet travels four kilometres in two seconds – but our Aboriginal people know that and respect it.”

While the government has publicly stated there will be no exceptions to the law’s application, officials from Quebec’s Indigenous Affairs ministry agreed to meet with Picard. He would like to see information to facilitate registration provided in different languages and funding to facilitate the process.

“Our intent is to bring the issue to their attention and present how diverse it is and from there we’ll see where they stand,” Picard said. “I don’t tend to be very optimistic in light of what I’m hearing – that it doesn’t matter what First Nations say, the law will apply. If that’s their starting position it doesn’t look positive.”

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