Harper government tries to kill all traces of long-gun registry

The long-gun registry was killed in 2012, but pieces of it apparently survive in various databases. The Harper government has introduced retroactive legislation that would prevent citizens from requesting any remnants under the Access to Information Act and Privacy Act, a move some critics call an assault on Canada's past.

Conservatives want registry data walled off from requests under Access to Information Act

A spokesman for Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney says 'outdated' versions of the long-gun registry still exist, and need to be protected from access to information requests. (Adrina Wyld/Canadian Press)

The Harper government wants to blow the head off the long-gun registry, which was "destroyed" long ago but keeps stumbling back like a zombie.

The next return of the dead registry comes Thursday morning, when Canada's information commissioner tables an unusual report in Parliament about the mishandling of an access to information request for long-gun registry records. Suzanne Legault has declined to reveal the contents in advance.

The tabling follows an unprecedented move by the government last week to retroactively exempt the long-gun registry from Access to Information Act and Privacy Act requests, back to 2011.

Both moves are raising questions about whether data in the registry was really wiped out in October 2012 as the government claimed.

"We live in a modern age where we know that deleted is never really deleted," said Solomon Friedman, an Ottawa lawyer with expertise in firearms law. He previously acted on behalf of the National Firearms Association, which has long pressed for the registry's destruction.

'Dead and gone'

"I think what the government appears to be doing is to try to ensure that no one can revive the registry — that once it's gone, it's dead and gone."

Solomon said traces of the registry are likely enmeshed in other databases, including those controlled by police forces, and could be partially reconstructed through access to information requests.

A spokesman for Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney as much as confirmed the persistence of "deleted" long-gun registry data.

It was still possible to access outdated copies of the long-gun registry.- Public Safety spokesman

"It was still possible to access outdated copies of the long-gun registry through access to information legislation," Jean-Christophe de Le Rue said in a statement. "This technical amendment will address this."

The Ending the Long-gun Registry Act came into force on April 5, 2012, and the government said most records were destroyed by Oct. 26 of that year, apart from records pertaining to Quebec which were maintained only until the province lost a court challenge earlier this year.

But anti-registry activists have long suspected that the destruction was not total, and have filed access to information requests to see what turns up. News organizations, including Montreal's La Presse, have also publicly posted redacted versions of the registry they obtained before the order to destroy was implemented.

The Canadian Press, citing an unidentified source, reported Wednesday that Legault's report will allege criminal action by the RCMP in failing to fulfil an access to information request about the registry — and that the government's move last week to retroactively exempt registry records from access requests was designed at least in part to protect the Mounties from possible charges.

Retired colonel Michel Drapeau, an Ottawa lawyer who teaches at the University of Ottawa and wrote a textbook on the Access to Information Act, said that if the RCMP destroyed some registry records before any legislation was passed, the force could face a criminal charge.

Reaches back in time

But "if you have a law in fact that reaches back in time, it would absolve and it will make legal an activity which at the time would have been clearly illegal," he said in an interview.

The measure to exempt long-gun registry records from the access to information and privacy acts was among a host of non-budget-related amendments stuffed inside the 167-page budget implementation bill.

Ottawa lawyer Michel Drapeau, a retired colonel, says the government's proposed amendments protecting long-gun registry information from public release would also protect the RCMP from allegations of misconduct. (CBC)
Critics have called it an Orwellian attempt to wipe out a piece of  Canada's past, but the government says it's mere housekeeping to ensure Parliament's will to destroy the long-gun registry is carried out in full.

A spokeswoman for the privacy commissioner said that office was not consulted about the proposed amendment to the Privacy Act as it applies to the long-gun registry.

"It is not an approach we have seen before," said Tobi Cohen. "We are currently preparing our views for submission to Parliament as both chambers prepare to study the bill and hear from witnesses."

Legault's office also would not comment on the omnibus bill amendments to the access law, though the commissioner is known to be concerned about the measure.

With files from Susan Lunn, Dean Beeby and Terry Milewski