A parliamentary committee is looking into whether the RCMP should be found in contempt of Parliament for posting potentially misleading advice to firearm and gun shop owners regarding the Liberals’ gun legislation.
At the centre of the dispute is the question of whether the Canadian firearms program’s website anticipated a decision of Parliament by leading readers to believe that Bill C-71 had already been enacted. In fact, the bill is still winding its way through the Senate.
The divisive legislation would reclassify two types of firearms — most models of the Ceska zbrojovka CZ-858 rifle and certain Swiss Arms firearms — as “prohibited”, which means owners would have to apply to have their rifles “grandfathered” or face dispossession.
In an April bulletin, the RCMP wrote that “if your SA firearm was listed in Bill C-71, it will be classified as a prohibited firearm,” and went on to explain the steps gun owners would have to take to get their guns grandfathered.
Conservative MP Glen Motz — a noted opponent of the bill — raised a question of privilege in the House in May questioning the “presumptuous” language of the bulletin.
That same day, the RCMP changed their wording — a move the Alberta MP read as an admission of guilt.
In June, Speaker of the House Geoff Regan ruled the case was a prima facie case of privilege — serious enough to warrant further study.
“The vast majority of the information was presented as though the provisions will definitely be coming into effect or are already the law of the land,” Regan said at the time.
“Parliament’s authority in scrutinizing and adopting legislative proposals remains unquestionable and should not be taken for granted. The chair is troubled by the careless manner in which the RCMP chose to ignore this vital fact and, for more than three weeks, allowed citizens and retailers to draw improper conclusions as to their obligations under the law.”
Conspiracy or comedy of errors?
On Tuesday, MPs on the standing committee on procedure and house affairs began their study of what happened, starting with Motz as witness.
“This may seem like a technical issue but it is this technical issue that supports our very system of a parliamentary democracy,” Motz said.
“The message being sent to Parliament by the minister and by the RCMP is that they can act without Parliament and that contravenes the purpose of this House.”
Several Liberal MPs questioned whether the RCMP acted maliciously.
NDP MP David Christopherson, committee vice-chair, called the principle underlying the issue “a really, really big deal,” but said he’d need to be convinced that this was a government conspiracy rather than a comedy of errors.
“Then we get into the details of it and find out just how much skullduggery is behind the incident,” he said.
“It did happen, so the government’s got to take the hit for the fact that it happened, and we want to hear some appropriate bowing and scraping about how it’s not going to happen again.”
Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale will appear in front of the committee later this week.
In an email to CBC, the RCMP said it’s cooperating with the process.
The committee is expected to report to the House of Commons on whether it believes the RCMP is in contempt.
The committee also could recommend a penalty, but ultimately it’s up to the House to rule on sanctions.
It’s not the RCMP’s first time through this process. In 2008, the House found then deputy RCMP commissioner Barbara George in contempt for providing false and misleading testimony at committee.
In the end, MPs decided not to impose any punishment because “this finding of contempt is, in and of itself, a very serious sanction.”
It’s one of just six contempt motions that have been adopted by the House since Confederation.
According to House of Commons Procedure and Practice, the official rule book of the Commons, “contempts may vary greatly in their gravity; matters ranging from minor breaches of decorum to grave attacks against the authority of Parliament may be considered as contempts.”