The high court ruled Friday that the federal government has the right to order the destruction of gun-registry data that Quebec has coveted for years.
The issue sparked rare consensus among Quebec political parties as well as in broad swaths of the province — a unity that was reflected in the three Supreme Court justices from Quebec all being part of the dissenting minority.
While Prime Minister Stephen Harper welcomed the 5-4 ruling, it remains to be seen what impact it might have on his Conservatives' goal of winning more seats in Quebec in this year's federal election.
"The decision to destroy the data is not acceptable in terms of managing public funds or in terms of co-operative federalism," said Quebec Public Security Minister Lise Theriault.
"There will be a Quebec registry. We will proceed step by step so we respect the ability of Quebecers to pay. We are convinced that the use of such a tool on a daily basis is necessary to facilitate investigations and police interventions and to comply with court orders prohibiting the possession of weapons."
She estimated the cost of creating a registry at $30 million — a figure she acknowledged could fluctuate depending on its scope.
The Supreme Court ruled that destroying the data was a lawful exercise of Parliament's legislative power to make criminal law under the Constitution, firmly upholding the notion the government is free to enact policies it deems appropriate as long as it operates within the law.
"In our view, the decision to dismantle the long-gun registry and destroy the data that it contains is a policy choice that Parliament was constitutionally entitled to make," wrote Thomas Cromwell and Andromache Karakastanis for the majority, a group that included Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin.
Speaking near Quebec City, where he was making an unrelated announcement, Harper reiterated his long-held view the gun registry was obsolete.
"Yes, we have abolished one registry," he said in Saint-Apollinaire. "But what we have in Canada already is permitting. In other words, we have registration of all gun owners, already. We have registration of all handguns, already. We have registration of all restricted weapons, already.
"Our view —and I think it's been borne out by the facts — is that we simply don't need another very expensive and not effective registry.
"What we have needed are severe, strong and more effective penalties for people who commit criminal acts using guns, and that's what we've done."
A spokesman for Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney said in an email "the data will be deleted in the very near future."
The Liberal government created the gun registry in 1998 in response to the murder of 14 women at Montreal's Ecole polytechnique in 1989. They were targeted by a gunman because of their gender.
The Harper government abolished the registry for long guns in 2011 as part of a long-standing campaign promise — a controversial political move that also emphasized Canada's rural-urban divide.
Liberal MP Stephane Dion, the party's intergovernmental affairs critic, chastised the Conservatives for not allowing Quebec to keep the data.
"From a political perspective, I would agree that it's very bad federalism to not co-operate with the province in giving the data," he said. "It would not have been difficult for the Conservative government to do so."
Francoise Boivin, the New Democrats' justice critic, said it showed Harper and the Conservatives were not serious when they promised Quebec "a new kind of federalism" in 2006.
Wendy Cukier founded the Coalition for Gun Control after the 1989 Montreal massacre and became a leading firearms registration crusader.
Standing in the vast marble foyer of the Supreme Court, Cukier said she was "terribly disappointed" that a "punitive" government policy had cleared its last legal hurdle.
"The Supreme Court has made it clear that the decision to destroy the data is a political decision," she said.
"You can track a package you're sending from here to anywhere in the world, and yet we will not have information on who owns guns in the province of Quebec."
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