For NWT gun owners, Bill C-21 casts a long shadow

For NWT gun owners, Bill C-21 casts a long shadow

In one photo, William Alger’s SKS semi-automatic rifle lies next to his grandmother’s old .22. A hunter and land defender in the Dehcho region, he is not the first in his family to carry a firearm.

Now he’s worried about continuing that tradition.

The SKS, in all of its variations and modifications, is one of the rifles specifically targeted in a proposed set of amendments to the draft Bill C-21.

“Technically, they shouldn’t even take my gun away from me because I have Treaty 11 rights,” Alger says. “It’s the only tool I have that allows me to safely harvest on the land.”

One of the aims of the bill was to curb gun violence by introducing tougher penalties for violators and tightening restrictions on handguns.

But late last month, after the bill passed a second reading, Liberal MP Paul Chiang proposed a series of amendments. This included a list of firearms that would become illegal. This list includes the SKS.

The Liberal government has since backed down on these changes: Shortly after the changes were published, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said the bill would be reviewed to make sure it didn’t target hunting rifles or shotguns.

But NWT gun owners are still concerned about what C-21 will mean to them.

Stenvne Thomas by Yellowknife is both a hunter and a competitive shooter. “I’m a law-abiding citizen, I’ve never been charged with a crime,” he says. “I support my family, I support my community.”

“I’m a law-abiding citizen, I’ve never been charged with a crime.”

Though he is reluctant to name the models he owns due to the proposed legislation, he says that 12 of the 14 rifles he owns would become illegal if the C-21 and its modifications were passed.

Also in Yellowknife, Tim Thurley is a hunter who harvests to save on his family’s grocery bills. He also wrote a master’s thesis on gun control and homicide in Canada. He strongly opposes the bill, in part because of the impact handgun restrictions will have on sport shooting and the industry in general.

But he says the proposed changes are “the most egregious part” of the legislation. “The SKS is one of the most popular budget hunting rifles in Canada, right up there with the Lee Enfield,” he says. “Statistically, the incorporation of SKS alone will provide a large number of PAL given its proliferation in Canada [Possession and Acquisition Licence] Owners are badly affected.”

“Getting the Conservatives, NDP and AFN to fight together against a bill is quite an achievement. But the government did it – poorly managed –.”

“It needs to be cleaned up”

Like many Northerners, Northwest Territories MP Michael McLeod says he has handled guns since childhood.

He says his constituents are confused about the law. “The math isn’t clear; The bill is very difficult to read,” he says. “It should be clear; People should know, okay, my gun is on the list or it’s not on the list, but it doesn’t work that easily.”

“People should have the comfort of knowing, okay, my gun is on the list or it’s not on the list, but it doesn’t work that easily.”

Confusion also reigns on Parliament Hill: One of the changes would ban weapons that produce more than 10,000 joules of energy. “I keep hearing other MPs say, ‘Well, only people who shoot elephants use a 10,000-joule gun,'” says McLeod. “But there are buffalo hunters who have used weapons of this caliber.”

McLeod says he supports many sections of the bill, including more resources to fight gun smuggling, red and yellow flag laws and new restrictions on handguns.

“My suggestion to the minister is to take the time to do more reviews, talk to more people who use guns, like hunters, to more people who are sport shooters, to more people who are in the military and RCMP, and coming up with something that’s well rounded, that’s right,” he says.

“Fighting the causes of violence”

Rod Giltaca is the CEO and Executive Director of the Canadian Coalition for Firearm Rights (CCFR). He says hunters who paid attention to the bill are furious. “The Liberals and their supporters, the NDP, have repeatedly reassured them ad nauseam that this is not a ban on hunting rifles or shotguns,” he says. “And of course, this change that has been put forward affects a tremendous amount of firearms that are suitable for hunting.”

Earlier this month, the CCFR came under fire for using the promotional code “POLY” on its online shop in the days leading up to the anniversary of the École Polytechnique massacre. The organization says the promotional code was not a reference to the shooting but a reference to the Twitter account of PolySeSouvient, a gun control advocacy group that emerged from the massacre and has criticized the CCFR.

“If we address the root causes of violence — and that’s lack of opportunity, unemployment, there are some socio-economic issues — if we address these societal issues, violence will decrease across the board, including gun violence,” says Giltaca.

Heidi Rathjen, the founder and director of PolySeSouvient, says much of the opposition to the law is based on misinformation.

“This is not only a complex change, it’s a complex area,” she says. “Everyone knows that drawing a clear line between hunting rifles and assault weapons is incredibly difficult, if not impossible.”

“Everyone knows that drawing a clear line between hunting rifles and assault weapons is incredibly difficult, if not impossible.”

For example, firearms like the Weatherby Mark V and Mossberg 702 Plinkster that appear on the list were already banned by a 2020 council order following the Nova Scotia massacre.

“We believe that if people actually understood the implications of the change, much of the opposition from hunters, from Aboriginal people – obviously not all – wouldn’t be there,” says Rathjen. “And then we can focus on looking at the list and seeing if there are any weapons that are anomalies that fell on the wrong side of the line.”

Contrary to popular belief, PolySeSouvient would be open to reviewing the legislative changes to exclude guns that could “reasonably” be considered hunting guns.

She says the SKS, the rifle Alger uses, is probably one of those exceptions.

For Alger, the right to use a gun for hunting is a matter of reconciliation. “If they really want to do this right, it will do more harm than the past makes up for.”

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