SAULT STE. MARIE, Ontario — He says he doesn’t want to sound paranoid, but Prime Minister Stephen Harper is concerned his own federal bureaucracy is trying to bring back the long gun registry “through the back door.”
Harper courted gun owners and anglers on Friday in northern Ontario with a carefully stage-managed question and answer session with invited representatives of the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters.
Killing the long gun registry was a long-standing Conservative government promise — and fundraising cash cow. Now that it’s dead and buried, a governing party in election mode is reviving alleged threats of its resurrection in repeated donation appeals to Conservative faithful.
The government introduced new legislation last month to simplify gun licensing, and also has loudly denounced and reversed an RCMP move to prohibit a couple of guns police say can too easily be converted into fully automatic weapons.
“I don’t want to feed paranoia, but as prime minister I can tell you I share the frustrations of our caucus members,” said Harper, before alluding to “bureaucratic initiatives that we think are effectively trying to put the long gun registry back in through the back door.”
“This is not something we can tolerate.”
He said the government would ensure, in future, that such measures “can’t be done without some degree of political oversight.”
However, documents obtained by the CBC through the Access to Information Act show the RCMP notified the public safety minister well in advance about — and sought input on — its deliberations over banning the Swiss Arms Classic Green and the CZ858 rifles last winter. Harper himself was briefed in May 2013 on issues surrounding the reclassification of firearms, according to a heavily censored document obtained by The Canadian Press.
Still, resurrecting the ghost of the gun registry is good politics for a Conservative government that already appears to be in full flight toward a date with voters in 2015.
At a late afternoon speech to a packed room of about 250 Conservative supporters and MPs, Harper repeated his charge against the civil service, this time without any caveats about fanning conspiracy theories.
“We are taking all actions necessary to ensure that the bureaucrats _ or the Liberals or NDP for that matter — cannot bring back the long gun registry through the back door!” Harper told the crowd.
The stump-style speech, 35 minutes in length, was also notable for its repeated shots at Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau in a riding that has been strongly NDP in recent years.
Frank Fata, a Sault city councillor who was among 100 or so invited guests at Harper’s question-and-answer session, said the Conservative stand against the gun registry was a decisive factor in northern ridings such as Sault Ste. Marie, where the Tories reclaimed the seat in 2011 — by just under 1,200 votes over the second-place New Democrat incumbent — for the first time since 1988.
“Looking back to the last federal election, that did play a very important part in people’s minds,” said Fata, not a gun owner himself.
“Us being from northern Ontario, we tend to see it a little more personal and closer to home.”
Harper noted to the audience that conservation, hunting and fishing aren’t simply rural or northern preoccupations, citing statistics that 40 per cent of the fishing licences in Ontario belong to people in the Greater Toronto Area.
He said the issues “unite a wide range of Canadians from all backgrounds.”
Still, members of the crowd listening in the hotel ballroom were predominantly male, white and in suit jackets.
Dave McKinney, a local member of the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters, stood out in his camouflage jacket and magnificent white mullet haircut. He said he received an invitation to the event less than 24 hours in advance and showed up expecting to see the prime minister on a video link, not in the flesh.
“I was shocked that he was here,” said McKinney. “That’s pretty cool that he showed up in this little town of Sault Ste. Marie.”
He said the Conservative gun platform “absolutely” moved votes in the 2011 election.
“For northern Ontario votes, for sure. People have hunted and fished all their lives — I have — and all of a sudden there was all this red tape and more expense and hassles and police looking for you to be a bad guy.”
Current Conservative fundraising appeals are peppered with talk of alleged Liberal and NDP plans to revive the registry, although Trudeau is on record saying that now that the data has been destroyed he won’t try to recreate the old Liberal program.