Federal public safety minister Marco Mendicino is in Yellowknife, Łútsël K’é and Behchokǫ̀ this week to make budget announcements – and talk guns.
In February, the federal government abandoned amendments to proposed firearms legislation that Indigenous groups and others, including NWT Liberal MP Michael McLeod, had opposed.
McLeod said in December the amendments, which introduced a list of long guns to be banned, were “a bit blurry for me and a little bit concerning,” and Bill C-21 as a whole would not have his support until he was “completely convinced” northern hunters, sport shooters and trappers will be unaffected.
On Wednesday, Mendicino promised that nothing in Bill C-21 will affect northern Indigenous hunting rights.
The minister went further, repeating an accusation that Conservatives have engaged in “disinformation” by suggesting that the bill would have that effect.
“[They] say we’re going after hunters and the like. We’re not,” Mendicino told Cabin Radio.
Pressed on whether his trip to the NWT is motivated in part by local dissatisfaction at the way C-21 has rolled out – McLeod said his own party’s amendments to the bill took him by surprise, and the Assembly of First Nations vowed to oppose the legislation – Mendicino said he had come “to strengthen relationships” and would use meetings this week to “really have that direct conversation and to make sure that we’re aligning the experiences with our legislation.”
He also suggested Bill C-21 could be used to tackle the advent of 3D-printed weapons, which have begun to make appearances in Yellowknife and represent a separate frontier in the fight against illegal guns, though that would require a further amendment.
Meanwhile, Mendicino said he wants to “accelerate the process” of rolling out First Nations policing, which he said would allow First Nations in the North “to drive their own public safety initiatives, including and up to the creation of their own police services.”
Alberta’s Siksika Nation last year began moves to replace the RCMP with its own police service. A community policing pilot has been taking place in Fort Liard.
Mendicino said he hopes to table related legislation this year.
Use the audio player above to listen to Cabin Radio’s full interview with Mendicino or read a transcript below.
This interview was recorded on April 5, 2023. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Ollie Williams: What brings you up here?
Marco Mendicino: First, it’s great to be back. This is not my first time in the Northwest Territories. I believe it’s my third trip, so delighted to be here in my capacity as Minister of Public Safety.
I’m going to be touring around with Mike McLeod to talk about a few important priorities, including Budget 2023, which will provide more money into the pockets of households here in the North to deal with the challenges around affordability and inflation. Second, to talk about the rolling out of additional healthcare supports, including a new dental healthcare plan, which is important for families. And then third and finally, just talking broadly about the creation of good, clean jobs. And obviously, there’s a lot of good opportunities here in the North when it comes to leveraging our natural resources. So very excited to be back.
People here probably best know you for the recent debate on gun laws. There was real concern that your government didn’t seem to understand how the proposed changes might affect Indigenous hunting rights. Where are we at, now, with this bill? How will you do a better job of ensuring that northern traditional lifestyles aren’t affected?
Well, that’s one of the reasons why I’m up here, is to really make sure that I have a chance to meet with gun owners and, obviously, First Nations here in the North who have, for a very long time, used firearms not only for food security but for protection. I had a recent trip up in the Yukon where I had a chance to go onto the Dawson Overland trail and meet with hunters and trappers there.
But let’s take a step back. What we’re doing with our agenda is trying to reduce gun violence, and we’re doing it in three ways. One is introducing what we think is the best and most effective policy, including through C-21, which we can get into, but also investing in law enforcement at the border to stop the illegal flow of guns into Canada, which is a challenge. And then third and finally, we’re investing in grassroots organizations on the ground to stop violence before it starts. And the way that we do that is by addressing a lot of the root causes and social determinants of gun crime.
And it’s only by doing these three things, together, that we can turn around the trends around gun violence. So I think through engagement up in the North here, we’re going to be able to make the important progress that we need to, to keep our community safe
Focusing on Bill C-21, the legislative side of that: even your colleague – our Liberal MP, Michael McLeod – was surprised that these amendments arrived in the fall that seemed to target a vast range of guns, some that people up here were really quite upset about. He had no idea that was coming. I don’t think most people had any idea that was coming. Do you regret the way that that happened?
Well, first, I want to give a shoutout to Mike McLeod, who’s a great friend and colleague, and it’s in part because of his advocacy – and others from within our caucus, which is a big tent, which represents all stretches of land across the country, including in the North – that we are taking the additional time to get C-21 right.
And I believe with the conversations that we’re going to have with Mike, with other First Nations communities, the Métis Alliance, the Dene, the Native Women’s Association in the North, as well as Minister Simpson, with whom I’m going to be meeting later on today, we’re going to be able to land this legislation in a place that both reduces the gun violence that is concerning to all of us, but also is respectful of the lived experiences here in the North.
Do you regret the way that it rolled out?
Look, I think, as I said at the time, we need to take some additional steps to consult, to make sure that we align the language of the bill to the government’s intent. And I want to be clear that the intent of the bill is to go after illegal guns, which were designed for a battlefield and not for recreational purposes at all. And so with the steps that we’re taking, I’m cautiously optimistic that we’re going to be able to land this legislation in the right way.
Are you partly here to mend relations, given how that rolled out?
We’re here to strengthen relationships, that’s for sure. And it is important that every community across Canada feels as though their voices and their experiences are represented in our legislation. And that’s one of the benefits of being able to come to Yellowknife, to be able to go to Łútsël K’é, and to be able to go to Behchokǫ̀ and to go to some other communities, to really have that direct conversation and to make sure that we’re aligning the experiences with our legislation. And again, I’m looking forward to it.
I think there’s a perception in some quarters that here we are, ferreting around with C-21, going through gun by gun deciding, “This one, that one, well, we’re not sure.” Meanwhile, we have reports here in the NWT of people just 3D-printing handguns with absolutely no traceable parts and then going off and committing crimes. It almost feels as though we have criminals that are several steps ahead here. How is the federal government combating that kind of gun crime where people can just produce a gun at home?
You are absolutely right to underline the fact that organized crime is doing everything that they can to evade the long arm of the law. And that’s all the more reason why we need to pass C-21. And I would say two things in response.
One, that over the years, yes, there’s been a lot of cherry-picking of makes and models, and which get prohibited, restricted and remain unrestricted. We’re trying to move away from that cherry-picking and selection process and instead go toward an agnostic definition that looks at the physical characteristics of a firearm, really zeroing in on the types of guns that were, again, designed for wartime and not for recreational purposes, or hunting purposes, or traditional purposes. And so that’s a conversation that we’re having.
But the other point in your question, that was very important, is that even beyond conventional firearms manufacturing, you do have new technologies which are emerging, like 3D technology. And that is something that I’m committed to working with parliamentarians to address as well, so that we can be sure to crack down on criminals who are using ghost guns, for example, to obscure serial numbers and to avoid detection. I think there’s an opportunity, potentially, to do that as well in the context of C-21.
But the really important point, of all of this, is that the status quo won’t do. We do have to make sure that we stay ahead of crime. And by passing C-21, we can do that.
You mentioned there’s an opportunity in C-21 to address 3D-printed weapons. How?
Well, the way the process works is that amendments can be put forward. Amendments are put forward by the members of the committee. And so once those amendments are put forward, if they are passed as part of the bill, they then come back to the House of Commons for a vote. What I have said all along, right from the moment that we tabled the bill, is that I’m open to working with parliamentarians from every party and every political stripe to strengthen the bill. And so if amendments are put forward that makes sense, that can be considered within the scope of the bill, then I will be open to considering– to supporting them.
With all that in mind, just briefly, when do you expect to have C-21 finalized, passed, part of our legal framework?
It can’t come fast enough. And the reason for that is that we’ve seen far too many people lose their lives or significantly harmed from gun crime. Just last week, I hope you will have seen that the Mass Casualty Commission in Nova Scotia issued its final report. One of the recommendations that came out of that final report was the need to strengthen our gun laws, particularly when it comes to guns that were designed not for recreational purposes or personal purposes, but rather to go after those guns which were designed for a military battlefield.
In keeping with the spirit of those recommendations, it is more urgent now than ever that we read the bill, that we debate the bill, and that we pass the bill as quickly as possible. And I’m going to work around the clock with parliamentarians to do just that.
And lastly, a commitment there that nothing in that bill will affect northern Indigenous hunting rights?
That’s exactly right. And I think there’s just been a lot of disinformation. We’re clearing the air on that. Me being here, I think, directly engaging with Mike McLeod, who’s an exceptional MP for the community here in NWT, with Minister Simpson with whom we’ve got a good, strong relationship, and directly with the communities… I think we’re going to get this bill into good shape.
I do want to move on. There’s a lot I also want to touch on. But just quickly, disinformation? What kind of disinformation?
Well, I think just some of the stereotyping that we’ve heard from some of our political opponents, particularly the Conservatives, who say we’re going after hunters and the like. We’re not. That’s disinformation.
Your government has also committed to work on First Nations policing. Now, things like this mean different things in different parts of Canada. What’s your understanding of what First Nations policing means in northern Canada?
Well, most importantly, it is about ensuring that we work with the RCMP and other local authorities within First Nations communities to keep those communities safe. We have invested over $860 million, which is a historic amount of investment at the federal level, to strengthen the First Nations and Inuit Policing Program. We roll out those federal dollars primarily through two vehicles: one are self-administered agreements where First Nations have their own police services, but the other is through what we call community tripartite agreements where federal, territorial and First Nations communities agree to the terms on which that money will be used to keep communities safe.
We want to move away from that program and we want to transition to something that is more enduring in terms of the relationship, that is respectful of the principles of reconciliation, creating the space for First Nations communities – including in the North – to drive their own public safety initiatives, including and up to the creation of their own police services. That is something that, as Minister of Public Safety, I have shepherded in a number of other communities, including in Siksika First Nation in Alberta. We are laying track to do similar things in Saskatchewan, in the Prince Albert community there, which is where the James Smith Cree Nation tragedy occurred. And finally, we’re doing something similar in the North as well, in Nunavut.
So by being here, we’re looking for ways to explore the strengthening of First Nations policing. And that really entails creating that space, again, to allow First Nations communities to drive those initiatives themselves.
And it’s my understanding that you’re hoping to do some of this through legislation. Will you be tabling a bill this year?
Well, that’s something that I discussed a little bit earlier this week at the Assembly of First Nations. AFN is having a special assembly as we speak, and I talked very openly about wanting to work closely with them, as well as directly with communities and rights holders, so that we can, together, come up with a legislative framework that is based on a number of shared principles and values, including, most importantly, the acknowledgement that First Nations policing is an essential service, as it is for every other non-Indigenous community right across the land.
So I believe that by moving away from program-based funding to something that is more enduring and structured, and in recognition of the inherent rights of First Nations communities, that we can strengthen public safety in the North.
And will you be tabling a bill this year?
I certainly hope so. You know, I have expressed the desire to accelerate the process. But I also want to be sure that we get it right. So I think if we roll up our sleeves and do the hard work together, I am a persistent optimist and I think that we can, indeed, start to come to something that looks like drafted legislation, and then hopefully table it, and then we’ll see where it goes from there.
Suicide prevention remains hugely important here. To what extent do you see your role as public safety minister as one involved in those efforts? And what more, either through this year’s budget or other efforts, does your government hope to offer northerners to address that?
I’m really glad you asked that question, because I think, historically, we’ve viewed public safety through the lens of law enforcement and police exclusively. One of the things that I’ve been trying to do in this job is place an equal emphasis on the need for a public health approach, which is one of the themes that emerged from the Mass Casualty Commission final report.
Yes, it’s important to have law enforcement. But you also need to take a public healthcare approach, specifically in the case where you are dealing with a vulnerable individual or vulnerable communities that are at risk, so that you can put in place the kind of mental health supports that address the social determinants that lead to violence and crime.
One of the things that’s in the budget is the creation of a suicide hotline, which will roll out within the next short period of time through the stewardship of my colleague, Minister Bennett, who is a fierce advocate in the space of mental health. And I think it builds on some of the other things that we’re doing within my own portfolio through the Building Safer Communities fund, which is again about strengthening the capacity of grassroots organizations who can provide those supports in mental health, in jobs and skills training, in advancing education and the like. And so by doing those things, as well as investing in law enforcement, we can create safer communities.
When you look at this all together, I mean, this is a very important time, I think, here in NWT. And that’s why I’m here, which is to talk about the investments that we’re making in Canadians, addressing the challenges around affordability, in making advancements in healthcare and in dental healthcare, making sure that we create jobs leveraging the natural resources, and finally keeping our communities safe.