Liberals' gun control bill could put lives of Indigenous hunters at risk, committee hears

‘Semi-automatic rifles are effective and necessary as a humane method to quickly dispatch animals, and as defence against polar bears, grizzly bears, and wolves’

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OTTAWA — Banning semi-automatic rifles could put Inuit hunters in danger, an official with a northern Canada Indigenous organization said Wednesday.

Testifying on Bill C-21 before the Senate national security committee on Thursday, Nunavut Tunngavik vice-president Paul Irngaut told senators that Inuit hunters face unique dangers while stalking their quarry, and don’t enjoy the same search and rescue services that hunters in other parts of Canada call upon if in trouble.

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“Semi-automatic rifles are effective and necessary as a humane method to quickly dispatch animals, and as defence against polar bears, grizzly bears, and wolves,” Irngaut said.

“Inuit hunters are taught to prevent dangerous encounters and to scare away these predators, but this is not enough. It could mean life or death when one or more aggressive bears are breaking into your cabin or tent.”

Hunters in those situations, he said, need to use their firearms to scare dangerous animals away — and often don’t have the time to reload their firearms.

“If this bill is passed with the ban on semi-automatic firearms, we will have to shoot-to-kill, resulting in an increase of fatalities to wildlife,” he said.

Nunavut Tunngavik, Inc. (NTI) legally represents Inuit people in Nunavut and oversees agreements and treaties between their people and the Government of Canada.

Unlike single-shot or repeating firearms that require shooters to manually reload or re-cock the firearm before firing again, semi-automatic rifles automatically put a new cartridge into battery after each shot — without the need to manually cycle a bolt or load new ammunition.

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Unlike fully automatic guns that continuously fire for as long as the trigger is held down, semi-automatics only fire once per trigger pull.

Canada’s push for stronger gun control has met resistance from many quarters, including Indigenous groups.

Last December, the Assembly of First Nations (AFN) passed an emergency resolution opposing Bill C-21 — taking specific exception to a number of now-withdrawn amendments that would have outlawed scores of hunting rifles commonly used by Indigenous hunters.

That resolution called on the federal government to conduct proper consultations with Indigenous groups to ensure traditional and treaty hunting rights aren’t infringed upon.

“There has not been sufficient consultations on the bill,” Irngaut told Senators on Wednesday.

“It is our information that Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, the national Inuit organization commonly known as ITK, had received a briefing of the most recent version of the bill shortly before it was tabled in May,” he said.

“However, neither NTI or ITK has been fully consulted on the language and impact of the bill.”

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Irngaut described this lack of consultation as concerning.

“Consultations up here can be very expensive, even though under our agreement we have to be consulted when it comes to issues that affect Inuit,” he said in response to a question from Manitoba Senator Don Plett.

“Just a few years ago, two people up here died when they were attacked by a polar bear, and just last summer two teenagers were very lucky that they managed to shoot the bear when it came into their tent. That’s the reality that we have up here.”

Irngaut also said the bill’s definition of “assault-style firearm” is far too broad and called for its deletion from the bill, saying that its removal would have little impact on its objective.

Tabled in the house last May, Bill C-21 is currently at the committee stage in the Senate ahead of third reading.

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Appearing before the same committee last month, Public Safety Minister Dominic LeBlanc said that while an “initial version” of the Trudeau Liberals’ gun control legislation sparked worry among organizations that included Indigenous groups, he said those concerns have largely been dealt with.

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“I don’t think that Indigenous peoples were at large opposed with this bill, and I don’t think hunters or sports groups oppose this legislation,” LeBlanc told senators during the Oct. 23 meeting, acknowledging that an “initial version” of the bill caused “concern” among these groups.

At a subsequent meeting, Plett branded LeBlanc’s words as “disinformation.”

Mohawk Council of Kahnawà:ke Chief Jessica Lazare, who told the committee earlier this year that existing firearms laws already hinder Indigenous hunters, told members on Wednesday that C-21’s current iteration is still a concern.

“It offers no substantive protection of our rights, and may actually be harmful,” she told committee members, taking exception with clauses tucked into the end of the bill that insist C-21 upholds the rights of Indigenous people as spelled out in Sec. 35 of the Constitution Act.

“While so-called non-derogation clauses like this may be useful reminders for officers on the ground, they offer no added legal protection for our hunters.”

She compared such clauses to “post-it notes” that point to Canada’s constitution.

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“Parliament wrote the post-it note, but forgot to attach it to the laws that ordinary people see,” she said.

She said better safeguards need to be in place to protect Indigenous rights than a clause tacked onto the end of Bill C-21.

“If Parliament were serious about protecting out rights, they would be tabling amendments that specifically direct decision-makers not to issue prohibition orders that impact Sec. 35 hunting, harvesting and cultural rights,” Lazare said.

“Or better yet, recognizing that this decision making belongs to Indigenous peoples themselves.”

She also urged the government to focus instead of the root causes of gun crime, rather than far-reaching legislation that prevents Canada’s Indigenous people from practicing their culture.

• Email: [email protected] | X: @bryanpassifiume

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