Third reading of Bill C-21, An Act to amend certain Acts and to make certain consequential amendments (firearms)

By: The Hon. Dawn Anderson

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Hon. Dawn Anderson: Honourable senators, I rise in the Senate today to speak to Bill C-21, An Act to amend certain Acts and to make certain consequential amendments (firearms). I want to acknowledge that today, I speak from the unceded territory of the Algonquin Anishinaabe Nation.

Colleagues, I believe we share a common understanding of the urgency to tackle Canada’s escalating problem of illicit firearms in circulation, especially concerning instances of intimate partner violence involving these dangerous weapons. My remarks today stem from the specific ramifications of certain clauses within Bill C-21 rather than from a critique of the bill’s overarching purpose.

As an Inuk woman, I intimately understand the impact of federal legislation on our communities. Whether it aims to undermine our Indigenous identity or carries well-meaning intentions, legislation often poses risks to the North and Indigenous peoples when crafted without due consideration for our unique circumstances. It comes as no surprise that these concerns are evident within the fabric of Bill C-21.

Three primary concerns stemming from this bill encompass, first, the critical role of the chief firearms officer and their primary residence outside the territory that they represent; second, a lack of meaningful consultation; and third, the “red flag” provisions.

In 1972, Chief Dan George said:

Let no one forget it. We are a people with special rights guaranteed to us by promises and treaties. We do not beg for these rights, nor do we thank you. We do not thank you for them because we paid for them, and the price we paid was exorbitant. We paid for them with our culture, our dignity and self-respect. We paid until we became a beaten race, poverty-stricken and conquered.

It is ironic that my initial plea is not about seeking special treatment but, rather, advocating for equality, aiming to grant the Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut the same rights as all 10 Canadian provinces. Canada’s Arctic and Northern Policy Framework rightly highlights the long-standing disparity faced by Arctic and northern residents, particularly Indigenous communities, in accessing services, opportunities and living standards comparable to other Canadians.

Bill C-21 serves as a stark example of this disparity. Notably, the chief firearms officers, or CFOs, for the Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut are located in Surrey, British Columbia; Edmonton, Alberta; and Winnipeg, Manitoba, respectively. This arrangement starkly contrasts with the provincial set-up, where each CFO operates within their respective province. This discrepancy emphasizes the fact that all three territorial CFOs are situated in the southern regions, amplifying the ongoing lack of equitable access and representation for Arctic and northern communities, especially Indigenous peoples.

According to testimony from Natan Obed, the President of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, on November 6, 2023, before the Standing Senate Committee on National Security, Defence and Veterans Affairs:

Clause 70.3’s provisions, allowing for a conditional licence, is not guaranteed but rather subject to the discretion of the CFO. This is not an equitable measure, particularly when considering the geographical and logistical barriers Inuit face when accessing CFOs. The officer responsible for Nunavut, for example, is located in Winnipeg. The distance is more than geographical; it is also cultural and practical. We must ask whether such officials can adequately assess and understand the unique circumstances and necessities of Inuit hunters. . . .

My attempt to propose an amendment in committee — requiring chief firearms officers to reside and operate within their designated territory — unfortunately failed. As legislators responsible for sober second thought, it seems crucial that we address the persisting inequalities and disparities within Canada.

Why is it that while the Yukon, Northwest Territories and Nunavut are subject to the same legislation as the rest of Canada, they lack commensurate access to services and support provided to the 10 provinces? I note that, subsequently, the Minister of Public Safety, Democratic Institutions and Intergovernmental Affairs Dominic LeBlanc has written a letter to all three territorial premiers regarding the potential appointment of resident CFOs in each territory. While this is promising, I believe that there is a moral and legal obligation that must be addressed by the immediate placement of CFOs in all three territories. Anything less than this corrective action is unacceptable and represents a failure of Canada’s duties.

Second, I emphasize, once more, the continual lack of meaningful consultation with Indigenous peoples, echoing an alarming and recurrent pattern evident in prior legislation. This repetition persists ad nauseam, despite the existence of section 35 of the Constitution; the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, or UNDRIP; the Calls to Action by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission; and Canada’s persistent commitment to reconciliation, including the affirmation of meaningful consultation.

I note that the Northwest Territories Indigenous population is 49.6%; Nunavut is 85.9%; and the Yukon is 22.3%. The lack of consultation is particularly concerning as the right of Indigenous people to hunt is asserted and affirmed in section 35 of the Constitution and in historic and modern treaties as well as land claim agreements. A 1974 journal article entitled “Inuit Hunting Rights in the Northwest Territories” states:

The Inuit culture and identity are based upon an intimate relationship with the lands and waters they have traditionally occupied and used. Hunting for food and clothing is part of their traditional and continuing culture. Their lands and waters are an integral part of their total being. Few Canadians realize that many Inuit are experiencing within a single lifetime a tremendous cultural transformation from that of a food gathering tribal community to an industrial society. . . .

Therefore, the preservation of Inuit hunting rights has the effect of enhancing their cultural identity in a rapidly changing society. The present economic benefits of hunting will be increasingly incidental to the cultural aspects, rooted in thousands of years as a hunting people. The protection of Inuit hunting rights can be viewed as a mechanism to preserve Inuit culture, without cost to the rest of Canadian society.

This statement is just as true 49 years later, where subsistence hunting is central not only to our identity but also to our survival. Hunting and, thus, guns remain central to our ability to address food insecurity and the high cost of living. Guns are also a necessity to ensure our safety from predatory animals in and outside of our communities.

According to witness testimony from Mr. Paul Irngaut, the Vice-President of Nunavut Tunngavik Inc., on November 8, 2023:

There has not been sufficient consultation on the bill. We understand that Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, the national Inuit organization commonly known as ITK, had received a briefing of the most recent version of the bill shortly before it was tabled in May. However, neither ITK nor NTI has been fully consulted on the language and impacts of the bill.

Additionally, I will reiterate the viewpoint expressed by my colleague Senator Don Plett in the chamber. On November 6, 2023 — on Bill C-21 — during witness testimony in relation to consultation, Mr. David, Director of Legal Affairs at Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, stated:

Put simply, there was none. The minister had reached out and offered, and we had reached out and requested, but that consultation never occurred. We’re still waiting.

I share that sentiment. I’m still waiting — waiting for Canada to honour and hold their commitments to Indigenous peoples. Despite my role as a senator, and despite the numerous opportunities and privileges afforded to me as a parliamentarian, I am constantly reminded that I am an Inuk woman in a place whose history has deeply influenced and moulded not just myself but also my family, community and generations of Inuit in immeasurable, harmful and profound ways.

Parliamentarians should be deeply concerned when Canada consistently passes legislation without meaningful consultation, despite the presence of crucial frameworks like UNDRIP, section 35 of the Constitution and the Calls to Action of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, alongside Canada’s explicit commitment to reconciliation. This ongoing disregard for meaningful consultation undermines the integrity of the legislative process, and contradicts Canada’s pledges to uphold Indigenous rights, respect Indigenous sovereignty and engage in a genuine reconciliation process. Such actions perpetuate systemic inequalities, erode trust and disregard the voices and rights of Indigenous peoples, hindering the nation’s progress toward genuine reconciliation and equitable governance.

This brings me to the new “red flag” provisions that would allow any person to make an ex parte application to a provincial court judge for an order that would allow for the search and seizure of firearms with or without a warrant.

According to Mr. Thurley, a firearms researcher and policy specialist:

The ill-considered red flag proposals are also problematic. Under Canada’s existing licensing system, police and judges already have the power to remove guns and revoke licences from those who pose a threat. The new provisions have no requirements to consider Indigenous hunting rights, for the complainant to have any relationship to the accused or for the accused to be heard in court. Indigenous people are disproportionately impacted by the criminal justice system and are also the most reliant on firearms for subsistence. We will undermine the built-in safeguards of the existing red flag law. Where people hunt to feed families, this has real consequences.

Mr. Thurley also highlighted a critical concern: the anonymity of complaints and sealed court records could potentially render the system susceptible to false, trivial or vexatious complaints against prominent figures, including law enforcement officers and military personnel. For Indigenous Canadians — already overrepresented in the justice system — navigating this process to reclaim firearms unjustly confiscated could prove exceptionally challenging.

According to ITK President Natan Obed:

The red flag system is another example of a balanced measure that creates a mechanism that could disrupt Inuit families disproportionately. Inuit often live in multi-generational homes. Thus, the seizure of firearms could have unintended repercussions on entire families, not just the individuals targeted by the provisions of the bill. The confidential nature of the application process and the prospect that the target of the application or their household wouldn’t even know about the application could also lead to actions being taken without adequate notice or understanding of a family’s circumstances. On the other hand, the limited access to justice faced by Inuit also means the applications themselves would likely be hampered simply by the fact that Inuit may not be able to apply in the first instance.

In the Northwest Territories, 21 out of the 33 communities are accessible only by fly-in, and in Nunavut, all 25 communities are solely accessible via air travel. The remoteness and lack of infrastructure in these regions result in significant portions of the territories relying on fly-in courts, where judges, lawyers, Crown counsel, Legal Aid and court staff operate. These fly-in court sessions occur every two to three months but are susceptible to postponements or cancellations due to adverse weather or unforeseen circumstances.

For Indigenous peoples in these territories, accessibility remains restricted, not only due to the reliance on fly-in courts but also because the majority of lawyers are accessed through Legal Aid.

In regard to the red flag provisions, Mr. Will David stated:

I suppose the system itself presumes that there are police to enforce it, yes. It also presumes that there are effective provincial courts available in all communities at all times. There’s a real challenge there in terms of whether or not someone seeking an order has access to the means to be able to do it. From the perspective of trying to prevent violence, the red flag system itself may not be entirely helpful within all communities within Inuit Nunangat. On top of that, it allows for one to apply for an ex parte order, so you could have police, where the red flag system is available, showing up unannounced to seize firearms from people who are not aware that those police are . . . showing up to seize those firearms.

The entire system itself seems set up to work well in areas where there’s a lot of legal and enforcement infrastructure. The problem here is that we don’t perceive that there is adequate infrastructure to actually make the provisions effective, either for community safety or for the delicate balance that the legislation seeks to strike between, essentially, section 35 rights holders and harvesters and then victims or potential victims of domestic violence.

For these reasons, the implications of the red flag provisions pose some very real logistical challenges to the three territories, especially in light of the lack of meaningful consultations and the fact that no amendments were adopted despite the testimony of witnesses heard within the Standing Committee on National Security, Defence and Veterans Affairs.

The Hon. the Speaker: Senator, I’m sorry. The time allowed for debate has expired. Are you asking for a few more minutes?

Senator Anderson: Yes.

The Hon. the Speaker: Is leave granted, honourable senators?

Hon. Senators: Agreed.

Senator Anderson: Even with Minister LeBlanc’s recent efforts addressing deficiencies in Bill C-21 concerning Indigenous peoples and Northern Canada, my hopefulness remains tempered by the ongoing uncertainties about the sincere implementation of impactful measures to narrow the support gap for Indigenous peoples, the three territories and the disparities among provinces and territories. It is imperative for Canada to recognize Indigenous peoples as active collaborators in the legislative process, not just merely as its subjects.

According to ITK President Natan Obed:

The rights affirmed by the UNDRIP can only be implemented if they are interpreted as legal rights and implemented and enforced accordingly. Our human rights are not second-class rights and deserve the same protection as the rights of other Canadians.

QuyanainniMahsi’choKoana. Thank you.

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