Amendments to controversial gun bill may scare away Americans, outfitters say

Although the federal government has promised it's not going after hunting rifles or shotguns, some are warning that any further restrictions on semi-automatic weapons will cause hunters from abroad who typically bring their own firearms into the country to reconsider their trips.

Rural economic development minister says outfitting is a 'billion-dollar industry'

A man poses with a hunting rifle in front of a lake, while three dead birds lie at his feet.
Rob Argue, who runs hunting and fishing lodges in eastern Ontario and in western and northern Quebec, says he worries about what will happen when Americans learn which guns are banned by Bill C-21. (Submitted by Rob Argue)

In Dale Clark's estimation, the money brought into New Brunswick by non-resident hunters — Americans or others — has never been fully appreciated.

"It is a multi-million dollar industry in the province that is not being recognized by our government, federal or provincial," said Clark, president of the New Brunswick Professional Outfitters and Guides Association.

"We have been put on — I don't know how you say [it] — the backburner."

Although the federal government has promised it's not going after hunting rifles or shotguns, Clark and others say they fear that any further restrictions on semi-automatic weapons will have American hunters, or other tourists who typically bring their own firearms here, reconsidering their trips.

A man stands in front of a poster.
Dale Clarke, president of the New Brunswick Outfitters and Guides Association, says hunting is a multi-million dollar industry that is often overlooked. (Submitted by Dale Clark)

According to the province's executive council office, 3,600 non-resident hunters came to New Brunswick in 2019. 

Bear hunting licences alone brought in more than $300,000 in sales before taxes, with 1,870 of them purchased for $160 a pop.

Now, after the industry saw a "very drastic decline" during the pandemic, Clark said the federal government's Bill C-21 and its controversial amendment that would ban many hunting rifles and shotguns has put it under fire once again.

"I would say … that probably 75 per cent of our membership relies on bringing in non-residents," he said.

Customer base only now starting to rebound

Rob Argue — who runs two hunting and fishing lodges in western and northern Quebec, as well as turkey hunting operations in eastern Ontario — said he has two rules he abides by in business, especially with Americans.

"I don't talk politics and I don't talk religion," he said.

But talk of politics has become "almost impossible" to avoid in recent years, he said — including the topic of gun control.

"I think the more hiccups or complications that we have in the process for someone to come up, at some point they're just going to say it's not worth the hassle," said Argue, who is based in Ottawa.

Three dead birds and a hunting rifle arranged on the mossy ground.
Argue, whose catch and hunting gun are displayed here, said he worries American hunters will decide traveling to Canada isn't worth the "hassle." (Submitted by Rob Argue)

Originally, Bill C-21 was proposed as legislation to ban handguns in Canada, but an amendment introduced by the government this fall added language that would create an "evergreen definition" of "assault-style" firearms banned by Ottawa.

Supporters of the ban have repeatedly expressed concerns about manufacturers evading the regulations by introducing new models. Critics, meanwhile, call the amendment an overreach.

"The point of the evergreen is to … alleviate some of the pressure on officials and experts to revisit this every year, every two years, or sometimes arbitrarily even longer than that," Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino said recently.

In response to criticisms of the amendment's language, the minister said the government would be looking at some gun models "very carefully."

Argue said most of his clients bring up typical hunting rifles like the Weatherby MARK V, a bolt-action rifle he said is common for hunting deer and would be prohibited by C-21.

Seeing other hunting rifles on the list, like the Webley & Scott wildfowl gun, also causes him concern.

While he said he doesn't believe most Americans are tuned into Canadian politics enough to know what's in the amendments, he worries about what might happen when they find out.

"I've been doing this for 13 years. I've never had Americans coming up that have had an issue at the border, because the firearms they're bringing are very legitimate, reasonable firearms to bring to hunt the species that they're hunting," he said. 

He estimates that before the pandemic, his American clients brought approximately $100,000 US annually to his business, Eastern Canadian Outfitters.

That customer base has only just started to rebound, he said.

In Quebec, 5,893 hunting licences for everything from black bear to wild turkey were sold to non-residents in the 2021-2022 season, although the province doesn't track precisely where those hunters lived.

In 2020-2021, 3,753 licences were sold in Quebec, while 2019-2020 saw sales of 8,308.

A man in a suit stands in the House of Commons.
Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino said the government would be looking at some gun models "very carefully." (Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press)

Federal Rural Economic Development Minister Gudie Hutchings, herself a gun owner, said last week that she and Mendicino met with the Canadian Federation of Outfitter Associations, which showed a willingness to work with the government on the legislation's language.

She called the outfitting sector "a billion-dollar industry in Canada."

She said that there's a "99.99 per cent ... chance" that "if you have a lever, a bolt, a break action, a pump action, it's your grandfather's gun that you've had for years ... that is not going to be impacted [by] this," she said. "We need to get the facts out."

Americans supply nearly half of northern Ontario's hunting revenue

The concerns of outfitters like Clark and Argue are shared by Laurie Marcil, executive director of Nature and Outdoor Tourism Ontario, also known as the Northern Ontario Tourist Outfitters Association.

Her organization represents the tourism interests of a huge swath of northern Ontario past North Bay — much of it a long drive from the American border.

Despite the government's assurances, she said she believes hunters will be hit by the proposed law. She also warns that Americans will hesitate about coming to Canada if C-21 becomes law as it's written now.

She pointed to a report from 2014 that said 12,000 American hunters contribute to northern Ontario's economy annually. While that's only 15 per cent of the total number of North American hunters spending time in the province's north, the report says American hunters contribute $17.5 million to the region's economy — almost half of the region's entire hunting revenue. 

Marcil said northern Ontario needs their business.

"They buy everything here," she said. "So you've got grocery stores, gas stations, you've got the outfitters themselves and their businesses and their jobs that they've created.

"So it's a pretty all-encompassing impact that they have on these northern communities."

According to more recent numbers from Ontario's Ministry of Northern Development, Mines, Natural Resources and Forestry, 6,871 non-residents had purchased at least one 2022 hunting licence as of Dec. 14.

In 2019 — before the pandemic — 11,284 non-residents purchased at least one hunting licence in Ontario.

The ministry told CBC News that non-resident hunters are mainly American, although anyone who buys a licence and doesn't reside in Ontario would be included. It said it didn't have an estimate of how much those hunters contributed to the province's economy.

It also did not include in those figures individuals who purchased a three-year small game licence in 2020 or 2021.

The ministry said it is unable to confirm whether those hunters actually travelled to the province — only that they purchased a licence.

Clark said many of New Brunswick's lodges have suffered as a result of the pandemic, and the outfitters and guides he works with are seasonal workers.

Clark said attracting people from out of province means more than just money in outfitters' pockets. Over the last three years, he said, workers in the industry have struggled and the average outfitter unlikely to qualify for government support programs.

He said the amendment to C-21 isn't needed and represents another blow to the industry.

"Once [Americans] become aware of what's going to be implemented, then yes, it's going to be a big impact," he said.


Joseph Tunney is a reporter for CBC News in Ottawa. He can be reached at joe.tunney@cbc.ca