Disinvitation from École Polytechnique group sent Trudeau government into damage control mode: emails

Later, the Trudeau government adjusted its policy so that its initial voluntary gun buy back became the mandatory confiscation that PolySeSouvient demanded

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A Quebec-based anti-gun group declaring it would disinvite Prime Minister Justin Trudeau from the annual commemoration of a 1989 mass shooting because it disapproved of his latest gun-control measure sent several officials within the Public Safety Ministry into damage-control mode looking for ways to respond, documents released under access-to-information show.

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The emails reveal that government staffers reacted with concern to news coverage of a March 2021 letter sent to Trudeau from PolySeSouvient, an outspoken Canadian anti-gun group founded by survivors of the 1989 École Polytechnique shooting.

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The letter and subsequent coverage expressed the group’s anger over Bill C-21, which the group described as “lamentable.”

In a March 18 French-language article published by Radio-Canada, PolySeSouvient accused Trudeau of “abandoning” and “betraying” victims of Canadian gun violence over the government’s announcement of a voluntary “buy back” program for certain firearms, instead of mandatory confiscation, which PolySeSouvient had demanded.

If the prime minister refused to change the policy, PolySeSouvient said Trudeau would be declared persona non grata at future commemorations of École Polytechnique victims.

Later that year, the Trudeau government adjusted its policy so that its initial voluntary buy back became the mandatory confiscation the group had been demanding. It is in the process of becoming law.

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The story reporting on PolySeSouvient’s excommunication of Trudeau was first brought to officials’ attention via an 8 a.m. note from the Privy Council Office, prompting an email from Public Safety Canada communications adviser Judy O’Brien to 10 recipients urging “urgent” action to address the criticism.

“We have another urgent request — this one is to develop media lines to address the criticism from PolySeSouvient in this morning’s Radio-Canada article,” wrote O’Brien. “Your urgent review is requested by 11:30 a.m.”

O’Brien indicated in the email that comments to help with the response had been compiled from the government’s firearms and operations policing policy division as well as the secretariat office leading the buyback “to provide more detailed insight into the buyback program” to be released later in the day “if necessary.”

But the Privy Council Office “is looking for holding lines that can be used now.”

The letter to Trudeau from the group, translated from French, had said: “If you continue with this bill, we will never again welcome you alongside us when we mourn the death of our daughters, sisters and friends during the annual commemorations.”

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Jean-François Larivée, whose wife, Maryse Laganière, was killed during the École Polytechnique massacre, was more blunt in speaking to Radio-Canada.

“Let him no longer come and cry his crocodile tears beside me and then put on his political play in an attempt to get votes,” he said in French.

Trudeau’s government had introduced new gun-control measures in February 2021 that, along with increasing penalties for gun trafficking and allowing municipalities to enact handgun bans, introduced details of a voluntary “buy back” program allowing willing gun owners to sell their firearms to the federal government.

PolySeSouvient had officially registered its dismay in a Feb. 15, 2021 letter to then Innovation, Science and Technology Minister Navdeep Bains, saying the group was “extremely disappointed” over what it saw as the government’s attempt to “break its promise” to confiscate so-called “military assault weapons” that “serve no legitimate purpose in the hands of civilians.”

An email, sent Feb. 15 2021, from PolySeSouvient to former Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains, expressing its dismay over the Liberal government's gun control measures.
An email, sent Feb. 15, 2021, from PolySeSouvient to former Innovation minister Navdeep Bains, expressing the group’s dismay over the Liberal government’s gun-control measures.

That letter and attached fact sheet — also included in the access-to-information request — claimed that not going all-in on confiscating firearms from licensed owners was a reversal of previous election promises vowing to “initiate a buyback program for all assault weapons,” and blamed Canada’s “gun lobby” for fomenting trepidation over supposed failures in New Zealand’s firearm confiscations following the 2019 Christchurch shootings in New Zealand. It also refuted criticisms that the confiscation would adversely impact First Nations people, as they would be given a special amnesty of two years to replace their newly banned firearms.

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“Under a volunteer buyback program, countless fully functional assault weapons would remain in circulation, which could be stolen or used by their owners for violent purposes,” read the letter’s attached note.

After PolySeSouvient members angrily told Radio-Canada they would ostracize Trudeau from their annual commemoration, Public Safety officials debated how best to respond. An email from a redacted sender urged that a message to the group should come from the public safety minister himself, Bill Blair at the time, instead of a subordinate.

“Given that the organization’s statements — critical of the buyback program and the proposed C-21 legislation — were widely published, circulated and discussed in Canadian media and politics, we recommend that ADMO (Assistant Deputy Minister’s Office) consider that a response come directly from Minister Blair.”

When staff were asked to draft a reply from the assistant deputy minister, one member of the staff, whose name was redacted from the email, asked why it was coming from an assistant deputy rather than the minister himself and was told this was the procedure for correspondence with members of the public.

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“This incoming is considered by MCU (ministerial correspondence unit) by a member of the general public,” read a reply to the question.

“Minister responses are reserved for VIPS and VVIPs (Ministers, MPs, MPPs, police chief, First Nations chief,) etc. However, one can certainly make the case that Poly the group is more than just the ‘gen pop.’”

A subsequent reply indicated the sender felt that due to the “sensitivity surrounding PolySeSouvient” that it’d be best to frame the government’s response as coming from the minister rather than an underling.

In the end, the ministry developed two responses, one from the assistant deputy minister’s office and one from the minister himself.

PolySeSouvient did not respond to requests for comment on this story.

After the 2021 election, Marco Mendicino was made public safety minister. His Dec. 16, 2021 mandate letter from the prime minister instructed him to make it “mandatory for owners to sell banned assault weapons back to the government for destruction or have them rendered inoperable at the government’s expense.”

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Trudeau attended a Dec. 6, 2021 ceremony in Montreal commemorating the Polytechnique shooting, standing alongside survivors and other dignitaries laying 14 white roses in memory of the victims. He also attended a vigil in Montreal in 2022.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau places a white rose for victims during a vigil in memory of the 14 victims of the 1989 Ecole Polytechnique massacre.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and MP Rachel Bendayan place a white rose for victims during a vigil in memory of the 14 victims of the 1989 Ecole Polytechnique Montreal massacre, in Montreal, December 6, 2021. Photo by Paul Chiasson/The Canadian Press/File

On Dec. 6, 1989, Marc Lépine killed 14 women at the school claiming he was “fighting feminism,” before killing himself. Another 10 women and four men were injured.

Emails obtained through the access-to-information request indicate that in 2021 the government was highly sensitive to the concerns of gun-control groups about its new restrictions.

One from April 29, 2021, with names and subject redacted, except to indicate it was regarding a minister’s office, referred to discussing “new options” as “gun control advocates such as Poly Se Souvient and the Coalition for Gun Control want to require mandatory (not voluntary) participation in either: (i) buy-back; or (ii) deactivation for individuals who wish to retain possession of their prohibited assault-style rifle.” The email included a list of “updated options” that was redacted.

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The bill requiring mandatory buybacks, Bill C-21, passed third reading in the House of Commons on May 18, 2023 and is currently awaiting committee consideration in the Senate.

Mendicino, who was dropped from cabinet in July, introduced the federal government’s first phase of its confiscation program earlier this year, working with the Canadian Sporting Arms and Ammunition Association to compensate retailers left with thousands of unsellable firearms summarily outlawed after a May 2020 order-in-council prohibiting over 1,500 rifles deemed “assault-style weapons.”

Amnesty granted to gun owners under that order-in-council is set to expire this month.

The looming deadline, and no further word from the government on next steps, prompted the Canadian Coalition for Firearm Rights (CCFR) last month to seek an injunction in federal court to ensure a sizeable segment of licenced gun owners don’t find themselves in violation of federal firearms laws by Halloween. 

National Post

bpassifiume@postmedia.com

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