The Canadian Press - ONLINE EDITION

National media splash silenced on eve of gun registry data destruction

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OTTAWA - Public servants spent a full month, at the "urgent" request of Public Safety Minister Vic Toews, preparing two splashy announcements heralding the destruction of the long-gun registry data — only to have the events cancelled at the last moment without explanation.

The final deletion of millions of registry records last October 31 could be seen as a crowning achievement for a Conservative government that had campaigned against the registry for more than a decade.

Instead, Toews confirmed the destruction during a closed-door meeting in Regina in a manner that one puzzled gun advocate likens to sliding "a note under the door."

"Conservative MPs communicated the important news with their constituents," Julie Carmichael, Toews spokeswoman, said this week in an email when asked about the low-key announcement.

She pointed to a news release posted on Toews' local MP web site — a release that is not cached on Public Safety Canada's web site with his many other ministerial announcements.

The local delivery was all the more puzzling given the taxpayer-funded resources poured into preparing two major "national" media events to mark the occasion.

"Given that the MO (minister's office) has flagged this as urgent, may I please request your respective comments by 11 a.m. tomorrow, if possible," a Public Safety communications official emailed his colleagues on Sept. 26.

Documents obtained by The Canadian Press under access to information show that "message event proposals" specifically targeting the national media market were drafted as early as Oct. 2.

Speeches were written and edited multiple times, as were news releases.

The RCMP was brought into the loop.

Three government spokespeople, Toews, Maxime Bernier and Candice Bergen, were lined up to speak, and arrangements were being made to hold the first of two media events at the same farm south of Ottawa where the government had announced the introduction of legislation to kill the registry in 2011.

On Oct. 16, Toews' communications adviser for "ministerial events" sent the whole package to a "strategic communications" analyst in the Privy Council Office — the central bureaucracy that supports the prime minister and clears all communications materials. The package was copied to 11 different officials at Public Safety Canada, including a senior web strategist and someone whose job title is social media adviser for ministerial events.

As late as mid-afternoon on Oct. 29, less than 24 hours before the first media event at the Richmond farm, an email was circulated with fully developed plans for the two events attached.

And then ... nothing. No events, no speeches, no photos, not even a government news release.

Questions about why the communications material was prepared but not delivered were ignored by Toews' office this week.

But campaigners on both sides of the yawning divide between sport shooting advocates and the gun control lobby arrive at the same conclusion: The Conservative government no longer sees its pro-gun advocacy as a broad political winner.

"I think the government, if you'll forgive the bad pun, has gotten gun shy," said Gerry Gamble, the past president of the Sporting Clubs of Niagara and until recently a member of the government's firearms advisory committee.

Gamble says there were many puzzled reactions from gun enthusiasts on comment boards last November when the registry data destruction got such a quiet Conservative farewell.

"Gee, this is like somebody slid a note under the door. But I think it's a situation where they've been burned so many times on this that maybe they're just cautious about anything that's going to give" ammunition to critics, said Gamble.

"This is only my supposition but I think they have basically decided that the stuff they're going to do, they're going to do low-key so that they don't take heat from the public."

As Gamble puts it, "The only audience they're playing to are two million legal gun owners out of 33 million Canadians."

Michael Bryant, a former Liberal Ontario attorney general who now speaks for the Coalition for Gun Control, framed the same government impulse in less sympathetic terms.

He called the deletion of the registry records "a shameful violation of the public trust — but add cowardly to shameful when it comes to the destruction of the documents by the government."

Bryant believes the Public Safety minister was big-footed, and says that can only have come from the Prime Minister's Office.

The Coalition for Gun Control, citing concerns expressed by the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, believes that ending long-gun registration — and destroying existing records — will put public safety at risk and make police investigations of gun crimes more difficult.

Bryant argues it's only a matter of time until some ugly gun incident highlights those police concerns.

"Having video clips of them dancing on the grave of the gun registry and the destruction of documents — as was planned but then cancelled at the last minute — is the last thing they want playing during an election," said the former Liberal politician.

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