OTTAWA - Canada's privacy watchdog shot a big hole Tuesday in one of the Harper government's main arguments for destroying the records compiled by the long-gun registry.
Jennifer Stoddart said there's nothing in the Privacy Act that prevents the federal government from sharing the data with provincial governments.
The privacy commissioner said the act actually permits disclosure of personal information, provided it's done through a federal-provincial agreement for the purpose of administering or enforcing any law or carrying out a lawful investigation.
Quebec wants to use the data to create its own gun registry.
But the Conservative government, which has introduced legislation to scrap the controversial national registry, has flatly refused to share the records.
Public Safety Minister Vic Toews last week maintained that transferring the data to Quebec would violate the Privacy Act.
When the registry was created, Toews said gun owners were compelled to provide personal information "for a specific purpose with respect to a specific piece of legislation."
"The government cannot say now that it will ignore the Privacy Act or the commitments it has made in Parliament and transfer that information with the intent to use it in a non-authorized manner," he told the Commons.
However, in a response to a query from New Democrat MP Dennis Bevington, Stoddart said the Privacy Act "permits the disclosure of personal information" through federal-provincial agreements.
"Therefore, in appropriate circumstances, an information sharing agreement or arrangement put in place for the purpose of administering or enforcing any law (including provincial law) could assist to ensure any transfer of personal information was in conformity with the Privacy Act."
Toews' office did not immediately respond.
In the House of Commons, interim NDP leader Nycole Turmel pressed the government on its refusal to share the registry data.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper repeated the government's position that it will "not do anything to support the creation of registry by other levels of government."
While Quebec wants the data, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty said his province is not interested in a provincial version.
"I support a national gun-registry system, not a hodgepodge of various and sundry provincial registry systems," McGuinty said at Algonquin College in Ottawa. "That, to my way of thinking, is not what we need. That is less than ideal."
Opposition MPs noted with dismay that the Ruger Mini-14 used to massacre women at Montreal's Ecole Polytechnique engineering school in 1989 would no longer need to be registered once the bill passes, since it is classified as a non-restricted weapon.
Only restricted or prohibited firearms, including handguns and full automatics, would continue to be registered.
New Democrat MP Jack Harris said the legislation means semi-automatics and armour-piercing sniper rifles — even those capable of dropping a target two kilometres away — will no longer be catalogued.
"The government is making it easier for these dangerous firearms to fall into the wrong hands," he said. "The government likes to talk about hunters, but the last time I checked, hunters are not going after armoured targets a kilometre and a half away."
Harper said the system for the classification of firearms was established long ago by the former Liberal government. "The government follows the process. It is not changed in any way by this particular bill."
There's no reason why any civilian should have access to military-style firearms, said Heidi Rathjen of the Students and Graduates of Polytechnique for Gun Control.
"There is absolutely a case to be made to reclassify certain weapons," she said in an interview.
"For 22 years, we asked for the Ruger Mini-14 to be a prohibited weapon."
Liberal Leader Bob Rae took issue with the government's insistence that the long-gun registry had not saved a single life. Rae said police have used the registry to take thousands of guns out of the hands of potentially violent people.
"Of course there were crimes that were prevented by the registry."
— With files from Steve Rennie