5. The Politics of Panic - A History of Canadian Firearms Control


Gun control as a political issue in Canada remained dormant until 1969. The 1969 firearm control legislation was incorporated with a series of other Criminal Code amendments and was known as Bill C-150.

John Turner, then Minister of Justice in the Liberal government of Pierre Trudeau, tabled this legislation which introduced the concept of restricted/non-restricted and prohibited firearms.

All automatic firearms, handguns, and firearms less than 66cm (26in) in length were classified as restricted firearms and required registration (Criminal Law Amendment Act, 1969, Sec.82[1]G).

For the first time temporary permits were required to allow transport of a restricted firearm for the purpose of change of address or to a gunsmith for repair (Criminal Law Amendment Act, 1969, Sec.98[3]G). For all intents and purposes, the simple handgun carry permit Canadians had been accustomed to for over 70 years was eliminated (Kopel, 1990, p.142; Ramsay, 1994, p.7).

Increased criminal penalties were introduced for possession and carrying of both registered and unregistered firearms.

The requirement that "aliens" have permits in order to possess firearms was formally removed.

If Hansard is any indication, Canadian firearm owners do not appear to have objected to the final legislation to any significant degree (Hansard, 1969, p.4860,p.5948).

In 1934, the firearm and offensive weapons section of the Canadian Criminal Code was six pages in length. The 1969 amendments increased it to nineteen.

John Turner: "I am going to confess to the house that I do not believe there is any foolproof gun law. Even if we to withdraw every weapon in the country."

An MP: "You would have a revolution." (Hansard, 1969, p.4721)

Indeed they were revolutionary times in Canada.

Political violence in Quebec was escalating. On 13 February, 1969, a bomb exploded at the Montreal and Canadian Stock Exchange injuring 27 people. In March, 1969, the City of Montreal recorded 64 terrorist bombings of armouries, public buildings, and businesses. Two people were injured when a bomb exploded at the Liberal Party social club in Montreal. FLQ member Pierre-Paul Geoffroy pleaded guilty to 129 charges of making and placing explosives and possession of dynamite in connection with 31 bombings in the Montreal area (Myers, 1987, pp. 240-241).

J.A. Mongrain (Trois Rivieres): "...A few minutes ago, Mr. Speaker, it was announced under the seal of secrecy that a bomb had exploded in Montreal, in a harbour building, wounding some thirty people. It is high time that governments take the necessary steps to prevent such disorders and slaughters which are now increasing most alarmingly in Canada. I think that the regulations governing the possession of weapons and the penalties for those who are caught in such misdoings are not yet strict enough. Indeed, the public should call upon the governments to impose even more rigid control."

(Hansard, 1969, p.5476)

Mr. MacDonald (Egmont): "...Perhaps we have been overly influenced by the tremendous lobby that has existed in the United States in the matter of gun control. Surely the instances of assasination of great figures during the last few years will not let us forget the importance of such regulations."

(Hansard, 1969, p.5473)

MacDonald's statement indicated that the firearm control amendments contained in Bill C-150 may have been viewed by some Members of Parliament as self-preservation rather than "crime control".

Social and political unrest was also evident in the United States and the United Kingdom during the same period. Both countries introduced additional gun control laws.

In the United States, race riots erupted in the African-American ghettos of nearly every American city during the summers of 1966-1968. Assasins had shot down Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King (Kopel, 1990, pp.339-340). The United States government responded with the Gun Control Act of 1968, which American journalist Robert Sherill reports was introduced "...not to control guns but to control blacks" (Sherill, 1973, p.280).

The late 1960s in Britain was also a time of rising crime and civil disorder. In 1965, the government of the United Kingdom abolished capital punishment; however, the murder of three policemen by armed criminals raised a popular outcry for the return of the noose. The British governmnet announced additional firearm controls to divert attention from the issue of capital punishment (Kopel, 1990, p.76).

On 5 October, 1970, the British Trade Commissioner, James Cross, was kidnapped by the FLQ. Five days later they abducted Quebec Labour Minister, Pierre Laporte.

On 16 October, 1970, the Trudeau government invoked the War Measures Act and suspended civil liberties. Laporte was found murdered; his body discovered two days after the War Measures Act was enacted (Granatstein, 1990, p.501).

Security forces arrested 465 persons, mainly in Quebec, who were held without trial. Only eighteen were ever convicted of any crime (Myers, 1987, p.247).

"..the attitude of most Canadians [towards the imposition of the War Measures Act] was much like that which insulated the rest of the country from the evacuation [of Japanese-Canadians in World War II]. In 1942, the evacutation calmed the people...and assured them that the federal government possessed secret information and was responding with vigour to a threat. The mood of Canadians in 1970 was much the same, that the government was agaain responding massively by using necessary means to stamp out a threat and that the price being paid was worth the effort. A Gallup Poll, published on December 12, indicated that 87% of Canadians approved the invocation of the War Measures Act, representing a pinnacle of support for any government action. And so the emergency powers allowed authorities to arrest, detain, censor, expropriate with impunity; to stiffle criticism and to round up innocent people. The terrifying allegations made in 1970, for example, by Jean Marchand, echoed those made in 1941 and 1942: "these people have infiltrated every strategic place in the province of Quebec...They are in a position to cause the Quebec and the federal governments, as well as the city of Montreal, irreparable harm." Not a shred of evidence was divulged to support the equally terrfying allegations made of the Japanese in 1942; similarly, Trudeau, who championed civil liberties all his adult life but who imposed on Canada the most repressive measures available to a prime minister, has never divulged in any sort of detail the components of the state of "apprehended insurrection" which was then said to exist in 1970."

"...Outside of Quebec, the imprisonment of French Canadians seemed like the detention of enemy aliens, and Canadians accepted their internment just as it accepted the incarceration of Japaneses in 1941."

"The real lesson of 1942 and 1970 was in the complacency of Canadians over the fact that there is no guarantee that future governments will not once again shuffle off the imperatives of freedom in the name of law and order or "national security". Many Canadians who may have had deep reservations, were reduced to silence in 1942 and 1970 by what seemed to be a reasonable discretion in uncertain circumstances. And politicians who had expressed disgust at the "scandals" of the past were seen to be willing to become chancellors of blood and iron."

Adachi (1991, p.369)

It is generally acknowledged that in 1970, the Trudeau government, like Borden's, Meighan's, and Bennet's, had completely over-reacted to the situation (Granatstein, 1990, p.501).