OTTAWA — Gun control could wind up being a defining issue in next year's federal election.
Eighteen months ahead of the vote, both the governing party and the official Opposition are laying the groundwork for making guns a wedge issue, to carve away a share of each other's softer support. The Liberals are aiming at cities and suburbs, while the Conservatives focus on rural and remote ridings.
Justin Trudeau fired the first shot with Bill C-71, his Liberal government's recently tabled effort to tighten Canada's firearms law, including enhanced background checks for obtaining a firearms licence and mandatory record-keeping for vendors.
To Conservatives and gun advocates, it all smacks too much of the long-reviled long-gun registry — a creation of Jean Chretien's Liberal government that is credited with taking away the seats of a number of Liberal MPs, particularly in rural areas. It was abolished by Stephen Harper's Conservative government.
But the Liberals are hoping to turn the tables with a vigorous counter-offensive. They're accusing the Conservatives of being shills for the gun lobby and they're zeroing in on Andrew Scheer's not-quite-forgotten leadership campaign platform, which was deleted from his website as soon as he took the helm of the Conservative party last May.
In a fundraising email last month, the Liberal party blasted the Conservatives for opposing the government's "common sense" measures while pointing out that Scheer's platform included pledges to "increase gun magazine capacity and cut red tape for gun purchases."
"They're taking orders from Canada's NRA," the missive said, referring to the politically powerful National Rifle Association in the U.S.
In a similar vein, Ottawa Liberal MP Mona Fortier last week asked the federal ethics watchdog to investigate Conservative MP Michelle Rempel for accepting birthday gifts from Tracey Wilson, a registered lobbyist for the Canadian Coalition for Firearms Rights. Her request was accompanied by a copy of a video of a thrilled Rempel opening the gifts — two CCFR T-shirts, a gift certificate for a Highlander Tactical pistol holder and a hot pink pistol carrying case.
Fortier argued that the gifts could be seen as an attempt to influence Rempel in the performance of her duties, in violation of the Conflict of Interest Code. Dion wrote Fortier this week to inform her that he will conduct a preliminary inquiry into the matter to determine if a full-scale investigation is warranted.
Rempel's office told The Canadian Press that the gifts were returned to Wilson early this month. But even if that renders the ethics question moot, Fortier's complaint has still managed to draw attention to the video of Rempel, first posted by Wilson on Facebook but later removed.
"Yay — oh, I'm so excited. I need one," the Calgary MP says on the video as she admires the pistol holder. Then, as she unwraps the pistol carrying case: "I thought it was a protective case. I got all excited so I could bring my gun to Ottawa."
"This is the best gift ever," she says, clutching the hot pink case to her cheek. "It's like you know what I love."
Gun control is an issue that stirs Canadian passions, to be sure. But that's true on both sides.
Liberal insiders say their focus on guns is good offense. But Conservative public safety critic Glen Motz said he sees it as a purely defensive tactic, a sign that the Liberals fear Bill C-71 will sink their rural MPs.
"You should know that any time the Liberals are throwing that sort of nonsense around, they're trying to deflect from the real issue and that is that the gun legislation is nothing more than punishing law abiding Canadian gun owners," Motz said.
Nor, he added, does it do anything to target the real problem: guns and gangs.
"We continue to hear from law abiding gun owners and gun shop owners that this is nothing but a backdoor registry," he said. "It's focusing on law-abiding gun owners and it restricts their ability to transport firearms ... It puts the burden on gun shop owners to keep records or face criminal sanction."
The gun-friendly Conservative reputation was a constant refrain during the Liberals' convention in Halifax last weekend.
Mock gift bags distributed in the media room included a copy of Scheer's now-deleted leadership platform, which devoted a page and a half to promises to make gun laws more respectful of law-abiding gun owners — more space than he gave to any other issue, including health care, the environment, refugees and pipelines.
A campaign-style button proclaimed Scheer to be "bad for families, soft on guns." A Liberal version of a "real Conservative checklist" comes with "fulfills my gun lobby promises" already checked off.
In a fiery speech to the convention, Justin Trudeau served notice that he intends to aggressively defend his government's record and counter what he likes to call the Conservative "politics of fear and division." He credited the Liberal gun bill for helping "victims of domestic violence whose assailants will no longer be able to own a gun." The Tories oppose it, he noted.
Attacking the Conservatives on policy is not inconsistent with his avowed "sunny ways" approach to politics, Trudeau later insisted. He said he "will not shy away" from highlighting either Tory opposition to his government's "common-sense gun laws," or the fact Scheer proposed during the Tory leadership race to allow larger ammunition magazines.
"These are the kinds of things that it is important to bring up so that Canadians can make informed choices when they get to the ballot box next year," he said.
Motz, the Conservative MP, said he smells more fear than gunpowder.
"Let me quote a Liberal MP who yesterday told me: 'You guys are going to kick our ass on C-71.' His exact words."
Joan Bryden, The Canadian Press