The most intense battles were in the 12 NDP ridings where MPs voted in line with their constituents' wishes. I met some very committed women who lobbied their MP to have him vote to save the registry. I'd like to thank the three women who took the time to talk to me: Donna Kroocmo, Debbie Zweep and Kari Jefford.
This article was intended for a publication, but unfortunately, by the time I submitted it, the article was no longer current.
What really happened in the rural ridings
On October 8, NDP MP Charlie Angus tabled a Private Member’s Bill to make the long-gun registry more palatable to both urban and rural voters, delivering on his party’s promise to fix rather than abolish the registry. Angus, who represents the northern Ontario riding of Timmins—James Bay, was among the 12 NDP members who voted with the Conservatives on the second reading of bill C-391 and then made the difficult decision to side with his party and narrowly defeat the bill in its third and final reading. On his controversial decision, Angus confessed to the Timmins Daily News, “Yeah, there will be a backlash. I’m going to have to live with that.”
The long-gun vote was decided more than two weeks ago, and unfortunately, Charlie Angus’s Private Member’s Bill will do little to staunch the NDP’s bleeding. Even if the bill receives the support it needs from the Liberals and Bloc Québécois, it will most likely be defeated by the Conservative-dominated Senate.
There’s no debating that the long-gun registry has been a lose-lose situation for the NDP. In keeping with his party’s tradition, Layton opted for a free vote, allowing his MPs to vote with their conscience, a great disappointment to urban NDP supporters. Although Layton’s attempt at compromise was laudable, it only pushed the bitterest of battles into the 12 NDP ridings of those MPs who voted with the Conservatives on the second reading.
The Conservative Party’s aim was more than to pit urban voters against their rural counterparts, as was popularly believed. Instead, it was intended to create the deepest, longest rift possible. Making the best of a bad situation, Layton did the only thing he could do to mitigate a divisive tactic—put the vote in the hands of his MPs who best understood their constituents.
In the Timmins—James Bay riding, Charlie Angus had received only negative views on the long-gun registry from constituents in a riding where long-gun ownership is common and hunting is popular. This should come as no surprise as the Timmins—James Bay area spans 249,624 km2 and is home to just 80,791 people.
Angus had a change of heart after hearing from Timmins Police Chief Richard Laperrière. The MP discovered from officers in the field that they used the registry on a daily basis. After further consideration, Angus changed his mind, stating that internal police audits painted a very different picture than what he had been led to believe about the gun-registry. Also bear in mind that Charlie Angus has been re-elected twice, and in the most recent election he won handily with 17,188 votes. His closest competitor, a Liberal, received only 6,740.
Mr. Angus was able to draw on his knowledge of his constituents and his lengthy experience as an MP to make his decision, experience that other MPs didn’t have, such as Thunder Bay—Rainy River NDP MP John Rafferty, who was elected in the October 2008 federal election.
As you may recall, MPs Rafferty and Hyers were the first NDP MPs to stray from party line and vote with the Conservatives in the third and final reading of bill C-391. Mr. Hyer’s riding is located to the north of Mr. Rafferty’s. The Thunder Bay—Rainy River constituency extends from the shores of Lake Superior at Thunder Bay to the northern Minnesotan border in the south, to the Manitoba border in the east. To many constituents and outdoor enthusiasts, this area is a hunting and fishing wonderland.
An outdoor enthusiast herself, Donna Kroocmo works just 10 to 15 minutes away from fishing on one of the area’s many pristine lakes. Kroocmo is the Executive Director of the Atikokan Crisis Centre, a 10-bed women’s shelter serving 10 First Nations’ communities in Atikokan, a small town two hours west of Thunder Bay. As can be expected of someone working on the frontlines with battered women, Kroocmo does not agree with John Rafferty’s position on the long-gun registry.
“I’ve written to Mr. Rafferty twice about changing his position, and I’ve never even received a reply,” said Kroocmo, who also sits on the local police services board.
On several occasions, MP Rafferty has stated that he based his position on a flyer survey that he sent out to all 35,000 households in his riding in January 2009. Rafferty’s spokesperson said that his office received 528 responses to the survey: 504 voted to abolish the gun registry, 17 to keep it, while 7 others remained undecided.
Kroocmo said that she had never even heard of the survey. Debbie Zweep, the Executive Director of the Faye Peterson Transition House, a 24-bed women’s shelter in Thunder Bay, echoed Kroocmo’s statement.
“I have never seen this survey, nor has any of my staff,” she said.
Zweep spoke of the daily reality in her constituency. “It’s not uncommon during hunting season for people to drive around with their guns in their vehicles, and every household usually has at least one shotgun or rifle,” she said. “We aren’t saying get rid of your guns. We are just asking that they be registered.”
Zweep’s statement is similar to those that were made across the country in both large urban centres and rural communities. It was an issue of safety for everyone. Zweep was also part of a coalition that included Thunder Bay Chief of Police Robert Herman and Canadian Auto Workers’ (CAW) President (Local 229) Kari Jefford. The coalition was trying to persuade MPs John Rafferty and Bruce Hyers to change their position on the long-gun registry.
Several days before the coalition was to meet with John Rafferty, CAW President Jefford, who represents nearly 3,000 workers in Northwestern Ontario, issued this statement to the press:
This is very much a voting issue…Our brothers Rafferty and Hyers have to know that labour had a large part in getting them elected, and brother Rafferty didn’t win by all that many votes.
The day before the scheduled meeting, John Rafferty’s office called to cancel. In a heated exchange with Jefford, Rafferty’s representative stated that the coalition had already made its position public and that they had nothing further to discuss.
An NDP MP refusing to meet with a local labour leader and women’s services advocates prior to a key vote demonstrates the extent of the rift created by the long-gun registry issue in just one rural riding.
Fortunately, the Thunder Bay—Rainy River constituency was not subjected to the barrage of Conservative-funded radio ads that other constituencies endured. Mr. Rafferty’s riding did, however, receive the Conservative party’s automatic dial-outs on the Monday and Tuesday prior to the final vote, urging voters to contact their MP and make their position known.
The Conservative Party used the long-gun issue for the sole purpose of decimating the left, and although the Conservatives lost the vote, they were successful in dividing rural communities, parties and people who in the past were able to see eye-to-eye on most issues.
The only remedy for the Conservatives’ divisive politics is unity. Layton’s maneuvering managed to win the vote, and this issue is off the table for at least this parliamentary session. The left in Canada needs to lick its wounds and prepare for future battles, which there is no shortage of this session.
My previous position:
Long-Gun Registry: What's Going On