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What you need to know about the gun registry data dispute

A primer on the issues involved retroactive legal changes to the handling of gun registry records


 

 

Patrick Deegan

The root dispute

The initial dispute comes down to a disagreement over what details from an individual gun registration can actually be released. The RCMP argues that there are 27 pieces of information involved, of which 15 are personal—names, addresses and phone numbers, for example—and must be blacked out. The remaining 12 items of information, plus four other bits of related information, were released.

But the information commissioner says each registration actually includes 60 pieces of information, which would then be subject to the usual privacy, security and other Access to Information Act exclusions.

“The RCMP disagrees with my office,” information commissioner Suzanne Legault told the Senate finance committee. ‘That’s the gist of the Federal Court matter: We have a disagreement in terms of what must be disclosed to the requester still, to this day.”

The investigation

Information Commissioner of Canada Suzanne Legault responds to a question during a news conference after the tabling in Parliament of the special report, Report Cards 2011-2012, Thursday December 6, 2012 in Ottawa. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Adrian Wyld

Legault told the government and RCMP on April 13, 2012 — a week after Parliament voted to end the long-gun registry and destroy the records — that she was investigating a complaint about an access request that was submitted before the new law had passed. She was assured in writing that the data would be preserved while she completed her investigation, in accordance with the access act.

Over the next three years, thousands of documents were surrendered under legally enforceable “production orders,” two RCMP members were examined under oath and Legault toured the RCMP firearms centre.

In the meantime

Despite the written assurance from then-public safety minister Vic Toews, the RCMP says it went ahead and destroyed all the long-gun registry data in October 2012, except the records for Quebec, which were under a separate legal challenge.

The Mounties say they’d received previous similar access requests for the entire registry and had released limited amounts of information, apparently without complaint. Eventually, in January 2013, they provided that same limited data to the complaining requester.

So why did the RCMP feel it could destroy data that it knew was part of an active investigation by Legault?

“The copy we provided to the requester is what we felt, what we believe and continue to believe, was responsive to his request for information. So we met our obligations under the legislation,” Rennie Marcoux, the RCMP’s access-to-information head, told the Senate finance committee.

In other words, the RCMP placed its interpretation of the Access to Information Act above that of the information commissioner, who has statutory jurisdiction over the act. While Legault has filed a suit in Federal Court, the Mounties have already destroyed the spoils.

The finding

Legault informed the government in March that there were grounds for possible charges against the RCMP under the Access to Information Act for destroying data supposedly protected under her investigative powers.

The response

On May 7, the government introduced a 167-page budget bill. Deep within it is legal language that retroactively exempts gun registry records from the access act. The amendments also exempt any documents related to the destruction of the records and removes the jurisdiction of the information commissioner, the police and the courts. And it’s all backdated to Oct. 25, 2011, the day the bill to end the long-gun registry was introduced in Parliament.

After introducing the budget bill, the government forwarded Legault’s allegations to the public prosecutor, which handed them over to the Ontario Provincial Police to begin a criminal investigation.

The fallout

Legal, parliamentary procedure and access-to-information experts say the retroactive legal rewrite is unprecedented and “Orwellian,” but also within Parliament’s powers. Legault issued a special report calling it a “perilous precedent” that could be used by future governments to cover up electoral fraud, spending scandals or other wrongdoing. She also went to Federal Court to protect the requesters’ right of access to the remaining Quebec registry records. The government maintains it is closing a “bureaucratic loophole” and simply amending the law to respect the will of Parliament.

 


 

What you need to know about the gun registry data dispute

  1. What would be nice to know is who was the requester and what was the real aim of the request.

    It would also be helpful to see the list of the 27 items the RCMP say are included and the 60 of the commissioner with the ones to be released highlighted.

    • When it comes right down to it, those details – while interesting – don’t really matter. It’s the preceden the government is setting that’s the real issue.

    • Does the name Bill Clennett ring a bell? How about Shawinigan handshake?

      French media, La Presse, Radio-Canada report he is the requester. Certainly not a Liberal. Last I heard he was a defeated candidate for Quebec Solidaire.

  2. You can be sure the “requester” was one of the usual suspects…..

    Screaming anti-gun nut, or one of the various “impartial” groups always looking to find dirt on the govenrment, or a lawyer looking for a payday, or some bona-fides to run for the Liberal party.

  3. “Legal, parliamentary procedure and access-to-information experts say the retroactive legal rewrite is unprecedented and “Orwellian,” but also within Parliament’s powers.”

    The legal, parliamentary procedure and access-to-information experts need to go back to law/parliamentary procedure/access-to-information school, because retroactive legislation is rather “precedented”. Any bill intended to take effect upon announcement is technically “retroactive” because it will be months or longer before an enacted bill receives royal proclamation. For example, every federal budget for at least the last 25 years has been “retroactively enacted” to the date each was tabled. It is even quite common for legislation to be given retroactive effect prior to the announcement date. This is quite common for tax legislation – a recent example is a tax amendment made 15 years retroactive.

    If nothing else, this kerfuffle might result in a greater understanding about how laws are actually made among journalists and the “experts” they rely upon.

    • Budgets are usually retroactive to the beginning of the year, and this is known and planned for (though I’m curious about your 15-year retroactive claim, esp. given records are only retained for seven). Even in your other example, there is warning of what is coming and people can act and plan accordingly.

      This, however, is significantly different. It is a change in the law specifically designed to head off an investigation and a court case. That is what is unprecedented. Once these goons get away with that, who’s to say what other things they will make retroactively legal? You’ll never see anything like the in-and-out, robocalls, or Del Mastro/Penashue overspending issues ever make it to court; they’ll just wave their magic statute and make it all suddenly legal.

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