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Amal Attar-Guzman: I’m terrified of guns. But the government’s firearms legislation is still fundamentally flawed

Commentary

I am terrified of guns. 

Growing up in Toronto, I have never held any sort of firearm in my life. The mere notion of guns freaks me out, even to the point where I can admit that my fear is somewhat irrational. But of course, it is not totally unfounded. The worsening issue of gun-related violence has plagued Torontonians in frightening and even fatal ways.

Gun violence will always be present in big metropolitan cities like Toronto, but it has risen in dramatic fashion in recent years. It reached a peak in 2019, with 492 incidents and 284 persons killed or injured, according to Toronto Police Service data.

Dropping to the ground at the sound of gunshots has become a first-hand experience for far too many Torontonians, myself included.

And not just Toronto. The trend persists at the national level. According to Statistics Canada, in 2021 gun violence was the most common cause of death among homicide victims for the sixth consecutive year, accounting for 40 percent of homicides, wherein handguns are primarily used. 

Hence, with the initial introduction of Bill C-21—which purportedly aims to address gun violence and place a “national freeze” on handguns—I will admit, I did feel some sense of comfort. At first blush, it seemed to me that the federal government was finally taking this issue seriously. Hopefully, something would be done, especially when it came to illegal gun smuggling and trafficking.

As details of the actual legislation became apparent, however, that feeling dissipated. In late 2022, the government introduced some last-minute amendments that expanded the scope of prohibited weapons to include semi-automatic weapons such as hunting rifles and even sporting guns

In introducing these amendments, it was clear that the Liberal caucus was either not aware of its own biases and blindspots on the issue and the present realities that Canadians across the country face, or they just did not care and were content to, once again, play wedge politics with this file.

First, hunting rifles and semi-automatic guns are not the main causes of rising gun violence across Canada, except for a few exceptions. According to Statistics Canada, 40 percent of homicides involved shooting incidents, of which handguns are the primary use (57 percent), followed by rifles and shotguns (26 percent). Stabbings, on the other hand, accounted for 32 percent of total homicides, a much higher proportion than cases involving hunting rifles and shotguns. 

Second, these amendments did not account for the differences between urban and rural realities. I live in a major urban city where I have easy access to important infrastructure and resources, including, importantly, the security of police who are close by and quickly responsive in an emergency. I also don’t live with the fear of wild animals coming to my home and causing me harm. 

Travel 2,551 miles north of Toronto, though, and you’ll find Yukon hunters and gun owners who live in an entirely different reality than I do and rightly expressed this to Public Safety Minister Marco Mendocino. Concerns ranged from the need to hunt for food to survive, the lack of law enforcement services due to living in remote areas, and the utility of rifles as protection from wildlife. And while rural areas differ from one another, that is nonetheless their common reality. 

And third, these amendments directly impacted Indigenous hunting and fishing rights. One major element that has been missing in this entire conversation is how this amendment contravenes Indigenous hunting rights—treaties and customs are enshrined in section 35 of the 1982 Constitution—and lived realities. About 60 percent of Indigenous peoples live in remote, rural areas, and that trend has been constant.  

As such, these amendments not only negatively impacted many Indigenous communities that rely on hunting not only for cultural reasons but for basic survival and sustenance. These firearms are not just for fun. They are tools that feed entire communities. For many communities, hunting their own food is the most economically feasible option. 

The new amendments would not have contributed to lowering gun violence across the country. Instead, they criminalized gun owners who live in rural or remote areas and Indigenous communities. Canadians who live outside of major cities may not matter much to the Liberal government electorally speaking, but their concerns are just as valid as the rest.

These amendments have since been withdrawn after major opposition, with the Liberal government backtracking its own rhetoric on the issue.

And yet even still, the bill in its current state misses the mark in two fundamental ways. 

First, the national freeze on the sale, purchase, or transfer of handguns and acquisition of new handguns into Canada—which came into force in late 2022—does not directly reduce gun violence. This is the case since Canada already established specific gun controls through the possession and acquisition licence (PAL) process.

To receive a PAL, you have to go through a meticulous process of criminal background and medical history checks and must pass the Canadian Firearms Safety course. Additionally, the federal government already expanded background checks to include a PAL applicant’s entire life history, rather than just the last five years. 

Essentially, if you have already committed a crime, have a history of violent behaviour, a history of mental illness associated with violent behaviour, a history of threatening/attempted violence, or if there is any basis that law enforcement reasonably believes that you will pose a risk to yourself or others if you own a firearm, all these factors can disqualify you from legally owning a gun in Canada. 

PAL holders are also required to register their firearms and are subjected to continuous background checks and mental health screenings while holding a licence. Licences can be revoked if any crime is committed after the fact or any anomaly is found. 

Why was there then a need for a “national freeze” on the sale, purchase or transfer of handguns and bringing new handguns into Canada, especially since they were legal? Even though PAL holders and authorized businesses are exempted, there is no point. Even before the national freeze, people who are not PAL holders cannot get a handgun unless through illegal means. 

The Liberal government seemingly based their decision on this statistic: registered handguns in Canada increased by 71 percent between 2010 and 2020, around the same time period that gun violence increased. From this, they claim that there is a correlation. Except they missed one major point: registered guns are only owned by PAL holders who are less likely to commit acts of violence than non-PAL holders. 

While there is limited data on whether firearms associated with gun violence were legally accessed or not, in a majority of cases gun violence comes from those who are not PAL holders, i.e. they acquired a firearm illegally. 

Hence, rising gun violence is most likely due to the rise of illegal firearms—particularly handguns—coming into Canada and then being used by non-PAL holders or criminal organizations. Who would be a part of a process that puts you under a microscope to see whether you qualify to receive a firearm or not when wanting to commit a crime? 

So while Bill C-21 does address some issues surrounding gun smuggling and trafficking and more provisions of licence revocation surrounding intimate partner violence and gender-based violence, the bill itself does not confront the main root causes of gun violence on our streets. 

There is a correlation between rising gun violence and general crime and deteriorating socioeconomic conditions, such as rising poverty, lack of education and economic opportunities, lack of mental health support, and lack of support for young Canadians—especially those from racialized and marginalized communities. 

This is very much the case in Toronto, where there is a correlation between rising gun violence and worsening conditions. Due to deteriorating socioeconomic conditions, people turn to the illegal business of gun smuggling and usage because it is a lucrative business. The fact that any strategy addressing root causes has not been mentioned in Bill C-21 is a major blindspot. And while the government has addressed this in their 2022 budget, the lack of intersection between these issues is concerning, to say the least. 

Fear is a potent emotion. This combined with biases and uncertainty can make people blind from seeing long-term consequences when making unsubstantiated decisions. On the surface, this bill may seem to appease those of us from the GTA, but with a closer look, at its current state, Bill C-21 is in need of major revisions. 

As Bill Klassen, former RCMP officer and Yukon government senior bureaucrat who is a gun owner, remarked to Minister Mendocino, “I don’t see how [Bill C-21] is going to make Canada safer.” I can’t help but agree.

Let’s hope the government does too.  

Paul W. Bennett: New Brunswick tried to ram through French immersion reforms. Here’s why it failed

Commentary

Tampering with French Immersion is a perilous undertaking in K-12 education. In New Brunswick, Canada’s only officially bilingual province, it is proving to be like “touching the third rail” in education politics. A proposed plan to change French-language education by eliminating French Immersion in New Brunswick’s Anglophone schools is being overridden by a firestorm of popular resistance.  

A series of four scheduled and managed public consultations from January 17-26 attracted huge crowds and not only sparked a backlash, but sent Minister of Education Bill Hogan reeling and put the Blaine Higgs’ Progressive Conservative government at risk. It was exposed by the Canadian Parents for French NB as a rather ineffective attempt to apply the Delphi Technique—a decision-making strategy that utilizes seating in circles and is conceptualized as a learning activity that is designed to contain and diffuse dissent.

Why managed consultation imploded 

As a strategy for managing public consultations, popularly known as the “World Café,” it essentially crashed and burned. The overwhelming majority of parent and teacher participants saw it as a “con job” and every speaker denounced the plan to introduce the changes in kindergarten and grade one, beginning in September 2023. Manufacturing consent can and does backfire, especially when utilized in a thinly-veiled fashion to ram through school reforms or facilitate school facility changes such as school closures. 

Organizers in New Brunswick were totally unprepared for the crowd, mobbed by speakers, and unable to answer fundamental questions. A harried-looking education minister went on the defensive, first threatening to dismiss the unruly crowd, then conceding that, if not enough French teachers could be found, it would be started in grade 1 and delayed at the kindergarten level. By the end of the consultations, he was now insisting it was “not cast in stone.”  

Education Minister Hogan has been dealt a bad hand. Appointed in October 2022 to succeed Dominic Cardy, a confident, fluently-bilingual public performer, he finds himself fronting a massively unpopular French language education initiative that is opposed by as many as three out of four New Brunswickers. What’s worse is that a rushed implementation is planned for September 2023 and the initial 22-odd Language Learning Opportunities (LLO) pilot programs were never properly assessed in terms of their effectiveness in improving the fluency and proficiency of students.  

Signs of implementation disaster

The minister and his deputy minister, John MacLaughlin, were left scrambling under the glare of extensive media coverage. All the signs point to either a full retreat or an impending implementation disaster. After two years of planning and almost two dozen pilot projects, how did it come apart so fast?  

The sacking of Cardy deprived Premier Higgs of his most effective and persuasive communicator and the department never recovered. Without Cardy fronting the project, the remaining trust dissolved among French-speaking New Brunswickers as well as the province’s most articulate Anglophone bilingualism advocates, French immersion parents, and graduates. 

Political skeletons sometimes get released from their closets at the most inopportune times. Few remembered Blaine Higgs’ 1989 Confederation of Regions leadership campaign pledge to eliminate immersion until it resurfaced again in a politically-damaging October 2022 commentary. From that point on, the fix was in on the high-risk policy proposal.  

Absorbing the school reform lessons 

Education Minister Hogan and his senior officials have broken all the rules in the textbook on how to implement successful education reforms. It’s all neatly synthesized in one of my favourite sources, David Tyack and Larry Cuban’s 1995 modern classic, Tinkering Toward Utopia. It begins by taking stock of previous initiatives and learning from the past. 

In the case of New Brunswick and French immersion, that means asking whether any other Canadian province has ever succeeded in eliminating the program and learning from past mistakes. The prime example would be former Minister Kelly Lamrock’s politically-bruising attempt in 2008 to delay the entry point to grade 6, then grade 3, before eventually abandoning it in the face of fierce opposition. Then, as now, it was all based upon the claim that the province was, according to Maclean’s “failing miserably at graduating bilingual students.” 

Education reform initiatives proceed, in stages, from policy talk to policy action to implementation. In the education sector, changes falter mostly during implementation. The key reasons are short timelines, lack of leadership capacity, or insufficient human or resource support to make it work. Implementation is much slower and more complex and governments tend to move on to other priorities. That explains why the evaluation of initiatives, including data-gathering, falls far too often by the wayside. 

Overcoming the gravitational pull of the status quo is not easy and, in the words of American education psychologist Robert Evans, most initially embrace change with as much enthusiasm as they do changing a baby. Inspiring and skillful leadership is required to overcome the initial sense of loss and convey a sense of renewed purpose going forward.

Introducing an upgraded universal French language program in place of French immersion is unlikely to work. With an election ahead in the fall of 2024, it all looks to be based upon election cycles rather than policy change cycles. Even if the change in the French language program gets authorized, it will be far too rushed in its implementation, half-baked in conception, and impossible to staff given the dire shortage of French teachers with the requisite competencies. 

A better path: deliberative engagement

Public engagement is quite distinct from public consultation in that it, under the right conditions, provides an open approach and a genuine commitment to breaking the mold. Being open, transparent, accountable, and responsive does require unique, well-calibrated skills. In the education leadership field, it often involves unlearning ingrained practices and habits. Finding a common cause, sizing up the conditions, leading with questions rather than answers, and meeting groups where they are are all critical ingredients. 

New Brunswick’s disastrous public consultation taught us a fundamental lesson about the critical need to engage citizens and build support for reforms. Canadian public engagement specialist Don Lenihan (Middle Ground Engagement, Ottawa) now calls it “deliberative public engagement.”  It may work in New Brunswick if the provincial government realizes that it’s time to start again, from ground zero. 

There’s got to be a better path forward in advancing bilingualism through the schools. Deliberative public engagement would be more likely to both find an acceptable and sustainable rapprochement and raise the number of bilingual graduates from Anglophone schools.