Indigenous leaders stress need for consultation on federal firearms legislation

OTTAWA — A House of Commons committee heard criticism, as well as some measured support, as Indigenous leaders testified Tuesday about Liberal efforts to outlaw assault-style firearms.

Chief Jessica Lazare of the Mohawk Council of Kahnawake told MPs the realities of Indigenous people who take their firearms on trips to hunt for food are being overlooked due to lack of consultation.

Gwich’in Tribal Council Grand Chief Ken Kyikavichik said he does not question the intent of the federal measures, but noted there is a clear requirement for engagement and consultation with Indigenous Peoples and, more broadly, Canadians at large.

The Liberals banned some 1,500 firearm models and variants, including the AR-15, through an order-in-council in May 2020, saying they have no place in sport shooting or hunting.

The government moved last November to build on the ban by enshrining an evergreen definition of assault-style firearms in gun-control legislation that also contains measures concerning handguns, licence revocations and smuggling operations.

The Liberals withdrew the assault-style firearm amendments last month following weeks of criticism from Conservative MPs and some gun advocates who said the wording would prohibit many commonly used hunting rifles and shotguns.

Lazare said Tuesday there was no recognition of the way existing prohibitions and licensing already limit the rights of her people, and no attempt made to help them determine which specifications or models need to be protected.

That lack of comprehensive consultation is evident in the “incoherence and inconsistency” of the bill, she said.

The amendments would have prohibited a broad spectrum of hunting rifles, shotguns and other long guns used by Mohawk hunters, Lazare said.

“When you talk about firearms as objects, you forget that it’s the person holding it that makes it either a tool for sustenance or a weapon,” she said.

“We ask that you address the real underlying problems that cause gun violence, not further restrict Indigenous peoples from carrying out their lives in a sustainable ceremonial and generational way.”

Lazare urged MPs to focus on firearm safety training, awareness about gun violence, and mental health issues that lead to such tragedies.

Kyikavichik said the Gwich’in Tribal Council supports “the restriction of high-powered, automatic assault weapons that are generally utilized in military applications.”

“Far too often some of these weapons have completely overwhelmed the authorities that we depend upon for our public safety. We cannot allow this to continue to happen.”

He pointed out that a list of firearms that would have been banned through the legislative amendments included the Simonov SKS and other long guns common in his people’s northern communities.

“If some of these models are to be listed under this legislation, then a practical and proper process for a buyback program would be of interest to our participants and communities to compensate for any loss that may result from the passing of this potential legislation,” Kyikavichik said.

There would also be interest in possible exemptions for certain models considered crucial to Gwich’in hunting and stewardship, he added.

“People are passionate about this issue because for many Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians, the respectful harvesting of this country’s natural resources, along with the ability to traverse our great lands with pride and safety, constitutes some of our basic needs and human rights, along with those rights enshrined by our treaties or established at common law,” he said.

“There does, however, need to be a proper balance of public safety with our rights to exercise this privilege, to coexist in these habitats that we all call home.”

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