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Dave Hancock could kill the rifle registry Print E-mail
Written by Link Byfield   
Monday, 02 February 2004

In a recent column in the Calgary Sun, Alberta Justice Minister Dave Hancock argued that Ottawa, not Alberta, is prosecuting Oscar Lacombe. Lacombe is the 75-year-old Metis war veteran who brought a disarmed .22 rifle to a small media conference near the Legislature a year ago in defiance of Ottawa's billion-dollar rifle registry.

The Citizens Centre has rebutted Hancock's bluster and evasions point by point on our Web site, It's a laborious chore. The Alberta cabinet keeps over 200 tax-paid spin doctors on call. But in the end it comes down to Hancock telling everyone to blame Ottawa for our problems. Leave Dave Hancock right out of it.

But unfortunately for Dave, he's in the middle of it whether he wants to be or not.

Under a constitutional right as old as Confederation, provincial attorneys-general have sole discretion over Criminal Code prosecutions. (This was a trade-off in 1867 for establishing a national criminal code. It allows provinces to assign lower priority to offences they consider trivial--such as Oscar Lacombe's.)

This can be a formidable weapon in the hands of the provinces, but only when they have the guts to use it. By calling it "political interference," Hancock is denying the right exists. And that is scandalous. If he continues, the right will disappear through disuse, and we'll have paid a very high price for one politician to get himself off the hook.

In 1982, for example, the Justice Minister of Quebec served notice on Ottawa that his department would no longer enforce the Criminal Code ban on abortion. Unable to do anything about it, Ottawa simply lost the letter and never replied. Six years later on a Charter challenge by Henry Morgentaler, the Supreme Court struck down that section of the Criminal Code because it was being unequally enforced across the country. Parliament tried to pass a new law but failed because the subject had become too controversial. So the law simply vanished and was never replaced with anything.

The same thing would happen if a single resolute provincial attorney general anywhere in this country actually refused to prosecute the rifle registry. "You federal people have a Firearms Act," he would say. "Enforce it yourselves. We will not harass Canadians over trivial new regulations you've put in the Criminal Code against our advice."

In this way Alberta could kill the registry--which is already on political life support as it is. The slightest little push could finish it. Some provincial attorneys-general would follow Alberta's lead, and others would not. Ottawa would dither. If it enforces the Firearms Act in Alberta, it could be struck down under the Charter of Rights on any of ten grounds (all of which, curiously enough, were ignored by Alberta in its jurisdictional challenge in 1997). And if Ottawa does not enforce the registry in Alberta, anyone in another province could successfully argue (as Morgentaler did) that the law is being unequally applied.

Either way, the registry would be dead.

And that's why Hancock is wrong to say, "Only the federal government can abolish the registry. This is where Byfield and all Albertans should focus their attention."

No, Dave, focusing on Ottawa is a waste of time. We're focusing on you. We expect you to defend Albertans from an abusive and dictatorial federal government. Use the powers of your office. That's your job. That's why those powers exist. Stop making excuses and drop the charges.

- Link Byfield

Link Byfield is chairman of the Edmonton-based Citizens Centre for Freedom and Democracy, and an Alberta senator-elect.
"Just Between Us" is a feature service of the Citizens Centre for Freedom and Democracy. The purpose of the Citizens Centre is to enhance freedom and democracy by enabling ordinary citizens to become active and effective on important issues outside the normal processes of party politics.

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