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Nunavut challenges gun law.


The Inuit people of Nunavut are not opposed to controls on guns but they won't stand by and allow federal firearms legislation to infringe their treaty rights. That's according to Paul Quassa, spokesman for Nunavut Tunngavik Inc. (NTI), the corporation that manages Nunavut's land claim agreement, the largest in Canada.

The Firearms Act, which is being phased in between Dec. 1, 1998 and Jan. 1, 2003, requires all gun owners and users to be licensed.

June 19, Nunavut Tunngavik filed a statement of claim in court to challenge the act. Their claim says the law breaches Article 5 of their 1993 land claim agreement with the federal government, so they are seeking an exemption from the licencing provisions.

"Article 5 creates a system of harvesting rights based on traditional and current Inuit harvesting methods--in particular, the right to harvest without a licence, permit or fees," said Premier Paul Okalik on June 21.

"This particular law is an example of complying only with the southern Canadian lifestyles, and will not benefit those of us here in the North. This law is clearly not a practical one in our territory. The animals that we rely on for food are not domesticated, like cattle in the south; we require rifles to harvest our animals."

The same day Okalik announced the Nunavut government was joining Nunavut Tunngavik in the court challenge, as an intervenor. This will allow the government to argue against the firearms law when the case gets to court. No hearing date has been set.

The Canadian Firearms Centre, which administers the Firearms Act, maintains that until a court rules differently, gun licencing and registration provisions apply to all. The "Aboriginal Peoples of Canada Adaptations Regulations" made pursuant to the act and in force Dec. 1, 1998, are sufficient to ensure the Aboriginal right to hunt is respected, they said.

But the Inuit contend more is at stake than getting minor concessions on the requirement for certification or some help to fill out forms in Inuktitut.

"We are not saying that the whole Firearms Act is something that we're against ... but we have been saying that parts of the Firearms Act does in fact violate our modern treaty," said Quassa.

"It states very clearly that Inuit, who are the beneficiaries of this Nunavut land claims agreement, do not need a licence to exercise their right to hunt, trap and fish anywhere in Nunavut. And secondly, that the Inuit don't have to pay any fees, levy or taxes in order to exercise their right to hunt, trap and fish, and certainly those are the two specific areas we are saying are violating our constitutionally protected treaty."

The Nunavut Land Claim Agreement Act gave the Inuit control of 350,000 square km of land, including mineral rights for 36,000 square km, and more than $1 billion over 14 years.

Quassa, who worked on the land claim negotiations from 1985 to 1993 and was one of the signatories with then-prime minister Brian Mulroney, said the Inuit did not lightly give up their Aboriginal title to lands and water in exchange for the treaty, so they will ensure it is honored by the federal government.

He said Nunavut Tunngavik has opposed the firearms law since it was introduced in 1995. They have appeared at standing committees, written letters to the ministers of Northern Affairs and Justice, but have received "no satisfactory answer since then." That is why the corporation is going to court.

"We cannot wait any longer to just stand on the side and ignore that we do have rights that are constitutionally protected," Quassa said. "The Supreme Court judge did say that treaty rights were overlooked when this Firearms Act was being created ... on top of that, our final agreement overrides any federal (or territorial) legislation that violates our treaty agreement."

No members of the government could be reached and the legislature is not sitting. John Ningark, constituency assistant to Ovide Alakannuaq in the riding of Akulliq at Pelly Bay, explained "this is the time of year when the community is busy and people are out camping and stuff like that." Ningark added that Alakannuaq "is in support of NTI."

Despite political opposition to the gun law, Nunavut has an above-average rate of compliance.

According to Michelle Snyder at the Canadian Firearms Centre, Nunavut's participation in the licencing scheme is 37 per cent, compared with 28 per cent for the rest of Canada. So far 2,445 people have a firearms acquisition certificate under the old system, have applied for a new licence, or have actually received a new licence. The centre estimates that 6,600 in Nunavut will apply.

Quassa attributes the high rate of Inuit licence applications to the fact that "we are law-abiding citizens."

Only three licences have been denied or revoked in the territory, which is 85 per cent Inuit, since the Act came in force.

Sgt. Mark Hennigar of the criminal operations section of the RCMP's V Division in Iqaluit says, "I haven't had any expressions whatsoever," of discontent with the licencing provisions. He added that in Nunavut "actual firearms violations are very, very low."

The premier has stated the reason Nunavut did not join Alberta's challenge to Bill C-68 with respect to firearms was because Alberta's claim was that the federal gun legislation infringed on provincial jurisdiction, and Nunavut is not a province. June 15, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled that firearms licencing and registration is a federal, not provincial, responsibility.
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Author:Taillon, Joan
Publication:Wind Speaker
Date:Aug 1, 2000
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