03/27/2015 09:47 EDT | Updated 05/27/2015 05:59 EDT

Quebec vows to create its own long-gun registry despite Supreme Court ruling

The Quebec government will build its own long gun registry with or without federal co-operation, the province's public security minister said after the Supreme Court of Canada ruled to destroy Quebec's federal registry data.

“The premier has taken steps to put in place a Quebec gun registry with or without the federal gun registry data. There will be a Quebec registry," said LiseThériault, Quebec's public security minister.

In a split 5-4 decision, the top court found the federal government’s law requiring the destruction of gun certificate information is lawful under the Constitution, and the province of Quebec has no right to the data.

Thériault said early estimates put the cost of creating a Quebec long gun registry at $30 million.

She reminded reporters that all Quebec MNAs unanimously voiced their dissent after the federal government announced it would destroy its long gun registry in 2012.

The desire for greater gun control is something that unites all Quebecers, Thériault continued, while noting 95 per cent of guns in Quebec are long guns and that the registry is consulted in Quebec 900 times a day by police officers and officers of the court.

Yves Francoeur, the head of the Montreal Police Brotherhood, said on Friday that he was disappointed by the Supreme Court’s ruling and called the registry "an essential tool for police officers."

"We need a Quebec long gun registry," he said in a statement. "The destruction of the data by the Conservative government is the equivalent of punishing Quebec taxpayers for ideological reasons."

Supreme Court split decision

The decision marks a victory for the Conservative government on a key hot-button issue on which it has campaigned for years. It also disrupts a losing streak for the Harper government at the top court.

The judges went out of their way to say they were not ruling on the policy merits of a long-gun registry or its destruction, only on the legality of the government’s latest law.

The majority wrote, “to some, Parliament’s choice to destroy this data will undermine public safety and waste enormous amounts of public money” but “to others it will seem to be the dismantling of an ill-advised regime and the overdue restoration of the privacy rights of law-abiding gun owners. But these competing views about the merits of Parliament’s policy choice are not at issue here.”

Quebec had argued the database was a joint effort by both federal and provincial authorities, and therefore Quebec had the right to the information in the spirit “cooperative federalism,” a legal concept that ensures flexibility in the separation of powers.

But the majority opinion written by Justices Thomas Cromwell and Andromache Karakatsanis found that principle was not applicable, and the constitutional division of powers authorizes Ottawa to take unilateral action in matters of criminal law.

3 Quebec justices dissent

In a dissenting opinion, Justices Louis LeBel, Richard Wagner, and Clement Gascon wrote that the federal decision to destroy the data was intended to harm the other level of government, namely the province of Quebec. The judges also wrote that the federal decision was unconstitutional because it infringed on provincial powers.

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The ruling applies to the certificate system for long-gun owners in Quebec, which was created by the then-Liberal government in the 1990s. The Quebec records comprise certificate information for some 500,000 gun owners in that province. All other certificate data on gun owners in the other provinces and territories was destroyed when the Conservative government dismantled the registry three years ago.

​The provinces still control information on gun licences.

Quebec won its case to obtain the data in Quebec Superior Court in 2012, but that decision was overturned by the Quebec Court of Appeal in 2013.

Today’s ruling is expected to anger gun-control advocates and please rural long-gun owners.

The long-gun registry was created by former prime minister Jean Chretien's Liberal government in 1995, partly in response to the mass shootings of female engineering students at Montreal’s École Polytechnique in 1989.

Heidi Rathjen, a survivor of the Polytechnique shooting, said she was deeply disappointed by the ruling.

"I’m reacting as a Canadian, as a citizen, as a Quebecer, because I believe in gun control," she said.

Rathjen said she was relieved to know the provincial government will create its own registry, but lamented the fact that it will take years to reproduce the data the federal government intends to destroy.

'Very bad federalism'

In a statement Friday, the press secretary for Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney said the Harper government is pleased with the ruling. 

"We have a strong system of gun control in Canada, and our government has toughened laws and penalties for those who commit crimes with guns," wrote Jeremy Laurin.

But former Liberal cabinet minister Stéphane Dion said it was a "sad victory" for Stephen Harper's government, and "very bad federalism" not to co-operate with Quebec.

"The court in a majority decision said it's not a constitutional obligation. I would say, though, that it is a political necessity when you want to co-operate with your constitutional partner," Dion told reporters.

If the federal Liberals were in power, they would have respected Quebec's wishes, he said, although the party has no plans to rebuild a national registry should it win power again. 

Veteran campaigner Wendy Cukier, the president of the Coalition for Gun Control, said that "in the current context, where people are much more attentive to issues around public security, destroying the data on over a million guns owned in the province of Quebec does seem incredibly punitive and foolish."

Polytechnique victim's brother relieved

Claude Colgan, a pro-gun advocate and brother of Polytechnique shooting victim Hélène Colgan, said he was very pleased with the Supreme Court’s decision.

“My first thoughts are for my sister and my parents. It was long, but we got there,” he said.

He said his sister would not have wanted to be associated with the gun control movement.

The next step, Colgan said, is to continue lobbying the Quebec government to not create its own registry.

“It’s a waste of taxpayers’ money, it’s as simple as that. There’s no point in having data of serial numbers. I would like to know how a serial number can save your life,” Colgan said.