Reports have revealed that a new government method of providing insight into Ottawa’s ban on assault rifles while maintaining cabinet confidence indicates that top-level planning for the prohibition began in March.
However, the content of a government defence of its response to requests for documents at a Federal Court challenge of the ban, which took effect on May 1, also suggests the pace of planning increased suddenly in April — when a lone gunman killed 22 people in a shooting and arson rampage in central Nova Scotia, reports also revealed.
According to the report, during the same period, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his top ministers were on the edge of another crisis, as reported cases of COVID-19 in Canada spiked from zero in early February to 2,000 by mid-April.
It would be recalled that the Canadian Coalition for Firearm Rights, new to the ranks of gun lobbies in Canada when it launched soon after the Liberals swept the 2015 federal general election, filed notice of its Federal Court challenge of the firearm prohibition on May 26.
Records had it that the ranks of challengers grew to a total of 27 gun owners, firearm dealers, gun manufacturers, and other industry businesses.
Recall that earlier on, the Privy Council Office (PCO) responded further to a flood of requests for documents related to the prohibition regulation, according to a document filed in the court case.
The PCO is the prime minister’s secretariat for oversight of the public service.
Meanwhile, Federal Court rules require departments or tribunals to comply with requests for document production during judicial review of a government measure, but the PCO has authority to decline the request under cabinet-confidence grounds in the Canada Evidence Act, based on constitutional convention.
One of the applicants in the Federal Court challenge submitted a total of 3,000 requests for documents.
In a swift response to a Justice Department request, the PCO agreed to provide ”signed descriptions” of information that would otherwise not be released at all under cabinet confidence protection.
A lawyer in the PCO’s legal-services section wrote “We have reviewed the record before the Governor in Council (cabinet) in these matters”.
The letters and descriptions of material that would be confidential to cabinet were to be sent to Federal Court, and copies would be provided to counsel for the applicants challenging the prohibition.
The description list begins with general reference to a cabinet submission from Justice Minister David Lametti last April regarding the May 1 prohibition regulations. It also includes a proposed order declaring an amnesty period, giving gun owners time to take part in a buy-back plan for banned guns, as well as a letter from Lametti to Treasury Board President Jean-Yves Duclos in March.
The descriptions also covered signed ministerial recommendations, draft regulations, and a vague reference to “accompanying materials of March and April 2020.”
It was disclosed that the description generally stated that the information covered by those documents constituted a memorandum to present proposals or recommendations to council (cabinet) — a record used for, or reflecting, communications or discussions between ministers, related to government decisions, or formulation of government policy that qualified as cabinet confidence.
The list of descriptions included the May 1 cabinet order itself on the list of documents protected by the cabinet-confidence doctrine, which some legal scholars describe as exceptionally onerous in Canada.
The description said “This information is a record recording the deliberations of Council. The information comes within the meaning of Paragraph 39(2)(c) of the Canada Evidence Act”.
It would be recalled that the 2019 Liberal election platform included a commitment to ban semi-automatic assault rifles.