Avoiding a Constitutional Crisis as Alberta and Ottawa Spar on Gun Ban Legislation

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Alberta’s controversial Sovereignty Within a United Canada Act (Bill 1) gained Royal Assent on Dec. 15 and has been formally enshrined into law. Premier Danielle Smith’s government will be itching for the chance to use the new legislation. Battles with Ottawa almost always shore up support for the government in power in Alberta, and Smith needs a good one if she is to validate the political capital she invested into Bill 1. Canada could be barrelling toward a serious constitutional crisis as Alberta refuses to participate in federal laws and legislation.

Ottawa’s attempt to illegalize potentially hundreds of thousands of firearms through Bill C-21 is setting the stage for Smith’s battle, and Alberta’s Justice Minister Tyler Shandro fired off the first shot on Dec. 15 with a short letter sent to federal Justice Minister David Lametti. Shandro announced the province’s Crown prosecution service would be assuming responsibility for prosecutions in the new year, and Ottawa would be advised not to pursue charges against people who may be found with firearms illegalized by C-21. This follows his stance in September when he said he would direct the provincial RCMP not to enforce the confiscation of firearms made illegal under C-21.

Saskatchewan followed Alberta’s lead when Minister of Policing and Public Safety Christine Tell sent a letter to the Saskatchewan commanding RCMP officer stating, “The government of Saskatchewan does not support and will not authorize the use of provincially funded resources for any process that is connected to the federal government proposed ‘buy back’ of these firearms.”

Five provincial governments and one territory are in opposition to Bill C-21. While not all are as militantly opposed as Alberta, we can rest assured they are watching closely and may emulate Alberta’s stance of non-compliance if it appears to be successful. This would put the feds in a very tough spot.

The federal government is well within its authority when it crafts and imposes criminal laws. The responsibility for enforcing those laws falls upon the provinces through local police forces or provincial contracts with the RCMP. The provinces also appoint the majority of and administer the offices of the Crown prosecutors tasked with prosecuting criminal code violations. While provinces can’t force the police to break laws or directly order prosecutors to ignore crimes, they can pressure police and prosecutors to prioritize some areas of law over others. The courts across Canada are already backed up. If police are hesitant to lay charges and prosecutors are reticent in pursuing them on firearm violations, the law will become a paper tiger.

Can the federal government abide by provinces usurping its authority in criminal law?

If Ottawa stands by and lets provinces ignore orders to prosecute criminal statutes with C-21, which laws will be next? The precedent would deeply undercut the authority of the federal government in the administration of criminal law.

What can the feds do if Alberta and perhaps Saskatchewan defiantly refuse to enforce C-21? Would  they try to bypass provincial management of police and order RCMP officers to enforce laws the provinces advised them to ignore? That would assuredly lead to the quick formation of provincial police forces in those provinces and the cancellation of RCMP contracts.

Would Ottawa send outside law enforcement officers into uncooperative provinces and task them with searching out and seizing firearms from citizens? That would surely lead to conflicts and likely inflame secessionist sentiment in the West.

Would Ottawa set up new courts and appoint new prosecutors in the province and direct these new offices to focus on enforcing federal firearm legislation? That would be expensive and ineffective without provincial participation.

According to federal Justice Minister David Lametti, Alberta’s stance “would not only offend the Constitution, but would also offend the rule of law.” This could be true, but it’s unclear what Lametti could realistically do about it.

Meanwhile, Bill C-21 is in trouble and is bogged down in committee. With First Nations now coming out in opposition to the bill, the government may start seeking an escape hatch with the legislation as they realize they overreached.

Extricating itself from Bill C-21 is likely the best course of action for the Liberal government right now, but there are two things that may keep it from doing so: ideology and pride.

The Liberals have wanted to disarm citizens since the 1990s when they imposed the failed long gun registry. They never got over the failure of that initiative and don’t want to be seen retreating from the issue again.

If the Liberals don’t back off on Bill C-21, it may trigger an irreversible constitutional crisis. They need to find an out with this legislation while still saving face.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Cory Morgan

Cory Morgan is a columnist based in Calgary.

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