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A Brief History of Gun Control in Canada, 1867 to 1945

Bill C-68’s enormous cost overruns continue to generate intense controversy over the rationale and efficacy of Canada’s firearm controls. 

But conflict in Canada over regulating firearms is nothing new. It has occurred many times since Confederation. In the first of two articles, I will provide a brief history of the federal government’s efforts to regulate the ownership and use of firearms, and to outline the context in which these regulatory actions took place.

European settlers to North American viewed their firearms as essential for providing food and necessary for both personal protection and the common defense. The modern idea that private gun ownership constitutes an unacceptable threat to public safety would have been viewed as little short of bizarre by our eighteenth- and nineteenth-century ancestors.

In fact, up until the late twentieth century, private gun ownership was generally regarded as essential to defend Canada against external aggression (virtually every adult male was required to belong to the militia, and to provide their own firearms), and to protect the citizen against domestic tyranny.

While the “right to bear arms” is now usually regarded as a peculiar American obsession, its English origins are frequently overlooked. Incorporated in England’s 1689 Bill of Rights, the right of citizens to bear arms for the defense of themselves and the state is described by Sir William Blackstone, in his famous 1765 Commentaries on the Laws of England, as one of the fundamental liberties of an Englishman. No doubt most early British settlers in Canada shared this view. With neither a standing army nor a modern police service, both personal and national security relied on civilian gun ownership.

But it is internal security issues that will eventually drive most of Canada’s firearm laws.

Social and political conflict has played a fundamental, but largely unacknowledged, role in the development of Canada’s gun laws. Like the United States, England, Australia and New Zealand, most of Canada’s firearm legislation appeared during periods of turmoil. Motivated by perceived threats to the political and economic status quo, and combined with an exaggerated fear of crime and disorder from aboriginals, ethnic minorities, labour activists and the unemployed, firearm control in Canada has always been used more for “citizen control” than “crime control.” Gun laws accompany every major social and political crisis in Canada, and as we peel away the layers of legislation, it becomes abundantly clear that the history of Canadian ‘gun control’ is the story, and perhaps the future, of the country itself.

Glued together by the British North America Act, a document described by Canadian historian Greg Marquis as “one of the least-inspired constitutions of the nineteenth century,” the confederated provinces of Canada (Ontario and Quebec), New Brunswick and Nova Scotia are governed by a political structure that secures the economic interests of the business classes, ensuring that Great Britain, merchants and industrialists dominate the colony. Even today, a majority government in Canada’s House of Commons is, in effect, a clique of ruling senior level civil service mandarins and cabinet ministers who value the facts of power of the appearance of power. Assisting them is a rigorous code of strict party discipline, combined with carefully rationed patronage, that virtually assures that all government legislation is approved.

With a power base favouring the political interests of Ontario and Quebec, the structure of Canadian government continues to protect Eastern Canada’s political and financial elite, ensuring that the Liberal and Conservative parties dominate Canadian politics. Peace, order and good government thus becomes synonymous with the political and economic status quo, and as time and circumstances progress, ‘gun control’ plays its own unique role in maintaining this relationship.

Just six months after Confederation, the renewed threat of Fenian-led invasion from the United States prompts the federal government to pass legislation on 21 December 1867 prohibiting the “. . . unlawful training of persons to the use of arms.” The legislation, originally introduced during the 1837 rebellions in Upper and Lower Canada, is applied almost exclusively against Irish-Canadians (anti-Irish, and especially anti-Irish Catholic sentiment, is especially pronounced during this period of Canada’s history), many of whom are unjustly considered sympathetic to the Fenian cause.

In April of 1877, Liberal Justice Minister Edward Blake tells Parliament that the “. . . practice of carrying firearms is becoming too common . . . they were carried by two classes who ought not to carry them . . . the rowdy and reckless characters, and boys and young men.” His government responds by introducing legislation recognising the defence of self, family or property as the only legitimate reason for carrying a “pistol” or “air gun” upon the person.

The parliamentary debate over Blake’s legislation has a remarkable resemblance to firearm control arguments heard one hundred years later. MP’s viewed the world as divided into criminals, whose access to handguns needed to be prohibited, and the law-abiding, whose right to carry guns for self-protection should not be restricted. This dichotomy continues to frame discussions on the ‘gun control’ issue. Even Sir John A. Macdonald criticised the proposed legislation as having the effect of “. . . disarming the person who ought to be armed, and arming the rowdies.” 

But it is important to remember that this legislation did not outlaw the carrying of firearms upon the person, which was evidently quite widespread, but merely specified that carrying a “pistol” or “air guns” in a manner that would upset the public could result in a possible jail term unless that person could prove that he or she carried a “pistol” or “air gun” because they had “reasonable cause” to fear an assault to self, family or property.

In 1878, alarmed by violent Orange Day rioting in Montreal that is blamed on Irish-Canadians, the federal government reacts by eliminating an accused person’s right to a trial by jury, and orders the licensing of gun owners in proclaimed districts of Canada. The legislation is modeled on repressive statutes used against the Irish by the British government. Known as “The Blake Act” after its proponent, Liberal Justice Minister Edward Blake, the legislation is temporary in nature and is renewed annually by the federal government until 1883. During its brief existence, it is proclaimed in Montreal, Quebec City and Winnipeg.

The federal government’s first serious attempt at region-wide gun control occurs after the 1885 rebellion. Parliament bans aboriginals, metis and “disloyal” white settlers in the Northwest Territories from possessing “improved arms” (firearms with rifled barrels) and cartridge ammunition. The legislation allows them to possess only smooth bore firearms, such as muzzle loading –muskets and shotguns. The government is well aware that the limited range of smooth bore firearms provides only limited utility as weapons in a modern military conflict.

The legislation is passed on 20 July 1885. It is not coincidence that the bill is approved on the same day that Louis Riel stands trial for high treason. But afraid that disarming white settlers in the region would “. . . interfere with the protection of peaceable subjects,” and provoke another rebellion that the authorities cannot afford to suppress, the government never proclaims it. Nevertheless, it remains on the statute books as late as 1950.

In 1892, provisions were introduced into the new Criminal Code requiring handgun owners to obtain a “certificate of exemption” from a justice of the peace if they wanted to carry a handgun on their person outside their home or place of business; however, anyone who had “reasonable cause” to fear an assault on their person or property did not require this exemption.

Most Canadians fail to appreciate that “multiculturalism” is a late twentieth century construct. In fact, a particularly virulent racism characterised politics and social science in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The “foreign born,” particularly non-whites and immigrants from south and east Europe, are considered by Canada’s Anglo-Saxon majority to be “feeble-minded,” “prone to violent acquisitiveness” and criminal behaviour. Along with the large numbers of immigrants who flood into Canada at the turn of the century arrive unorthodox political philosophies such as socialism, anarchism and communism that directly challenge the existing social and economic structure.

Marginalised by mainstream Canadian society, immigrants find themselves segregated into “foreign settlements” (immigrant communities). The prevailing attitude towards the “alien” (non-British immigrant) that is described in the following newspaper articles is not atypical:

“Let not the sympathy of the tenderhearted be aroused by these poor Chinks. They do not live like rats from force of circumstances. They prefer the stench and filth of their vile surroundings. They prefer the squalor because it is cheaper to live in filth than in cleanliness”

The Edmonton Journal, 1907

“The Alberta Government would be well advised if it passed legislation making it impossible for Japanese and Chinese to vote in this province. Make these yellow men realise that they are not going to have any influence on our affairs.”

Lethbridge Herald, 1907

“Rather a neat one was slipped over the confiding foreign settlements [immigrant communities] of the north end [of Winnipeg, after the 1919 general strike]. Word was passed around that several cars of fruit were spoiling at the Canadian Pacific Railway freight sheds and would be handed out free. A great swarm of aliens took advantage of this free lunch, but twenty-five suspects among them were promptly arrested and are now in jail. Among these is a colored Methodist person, whose appetite for watermelon could not be resisted.”

The Globe, 1919

The popular belief that “aliens” were genetically inferior, inherently criminal and predisposed to “radical”; i.e., violent, politics is combined with an exaggerated perception of rising violent crime in Canada’s “foreign settlements.” This anti-immigrant hysteria is used to justify handgun licensing and registration laws passed by Ontario in 1911, Manitoba and Saskatchewan in 1912, and British Columbia in March of 1913. Similar to the provincial statutes, the federal government’s first serious handgun legislation requires that civilians obtain a police permit to acquire or carry a handgun. It is introduced in June 1913, the same year that Canada records its highest level of immigration. Since the new law is administered by predominantly white, Anglo-Saxon police officers, it is fairly self-evident that ‘permits to carry’ were simply not an option open to resident “aliens.”

The western democracies, particularly the British Commonwealth, greet the Russian revolution of 1917 and labour unrest following WW1 with a flurry of ‘gun control’ initiatives aimed at preventing the spread of “red revolution.” Britain introduces universal gun registration and owner licensing in what is viewed by most scholars as the ‘first step’ in virtually eliminating their “right to bear arms.”

Canada is quick to follow suit.

Following the 1919 Winnipeg General Strike, the federal government responds to the establishment’s fears of Bolshevik revolution, erroneously attributed to non-British “alien scum,” by prohibiting non-British immigrants from owning firearms and ammunition. The government is convinced that non-British immigrants, with their “. . . bad habits, notions and vicious practices,,” are “. . . thoroughpaced Bolsheviks, disciples of the torch and bomb,” who show “. . . [a] greater readiness to resort to the use of weapons than do our own people” (Hansard 1919, pp. 4359-4360).

Government paranoia over a possible Bolshevik revolution peaks in July 1920. The federal government orders the licensing of gun owners and the registration of rifles. In the government’s view, shotguns are “. . . not used in times of trouble as the rifle is,” and British subjects (remember that Canadians are British subjects until 1947) who own shotguns are exempt. Widespread opposition from firearm owners and rural MP’s forces the government to repeal the legislation in June 1921; however, the requirement that “aliens” obtain a police-issued license to acquire and possess firearms is not repealed until the 1950s.

National handgun registration is born in the context of the social and political upheavals of the Great Depression. It is passed on 3 July 1934, having been rushed through Parliament in only ten days. The law appears motivated by a fear of insurrection after Tim Buck, the popular leader of Canada’s Communist Party, is released from prison in June 1934 and appears to the applause of tens of thousands at political rallies held in Montreal and Toronto.

The federal government places handgun registration under authority of the RCMP. This is done, not because the Mounties are more efficient than local police forces at processing applications (provincial and municipal police services had been registering handguns under authority of the 1913 legislation), but because the RCMP is, according to Lorne and Caroline Brown’s An Unauthorized History of the RCMP, the federal government’s first line of defence against internal disorder and is considered “. . . the most reliable force in the country for breaking strikes, smashing the radical trade unions, controlling the unemployed and hounding political dissenters.”

Confiscating firearms from ethnic minorities, even those individuals who emigrated from nations that Canada was not at war with, was common during the First and Second World Wars. In WW2, registered firearms were confiscated from Japanese-Canadians early in 1940, long before Canada was at war with Japan. The RCMP’s 1941 Annual Report emphasised that the Attorney General of British Columbia had refused to register any firearms owned by “Orientals.” 

William Lyon Mackenzie King’s Liberal government feared both “fifth column” activity among Canada’s “enemy ethnic” communities, and more importantly, insurrection in Quebec over the conscription issue. On 2 August 1940, Montreal Mayor Camillien Houde publicly urges male Quebeckers to refuse registering for mandatory military service. The following day the federal government issues an order-in-council under authority of the Defence of Canada Regulations requiring the registration of all rifles and shotguns. The conscience of Canada’s elected officials and government bureaucrats is evidently not bothered by the fact that the ‘gun controls’ introduced by the OIC are as restrictive as the ‘gun control’ legislation existing in the fascist dictatorships that Canada is at war.

Not surprisingly, the RCMP, who often complains about the workload, administers long gun registration.

A registration certificate issued under the 1940 OIC contains the name, address and occupation of the owner; the purpose for which the firearm is owned; a description of the firearm; the racial origin of the owner; and, whether or not the owner is a British subject. The registration certificate becomes, in effect, a de facto license to possess firearms.

While many resident non-British immigrants present firearms for “registration,” RCMP Annual Reports show that the majority of registration certificates that are issued to “aliens” go only to visiting American businessmen and hunters. It appears that most firearms submitted for registration by non-British immigrants are simply confiscated.
Even though less than one-half of Canadian gun owners complied with this first attempt at universal gun registration, it continued until February 1945. Even the RCMP did not appear sorry to see it go, hardly a good precedent considering the widespread support for the war effort.

Like Bill C-68, long gun registration in WW2 appears to have accomplished nothing but to foster widespread noncompliance while criminalising a substantial portion of an otherwise law-abiding population. There is no evidence presented in the RCMP’s Annual Reports suggesting that registration of either handguns or long guns had been used to solve crimes, or that it did anything except divert resources from the war effort.

Universal firearm registration would be rejected by successive Canadian governments and law enforcement agencies for the next fifty years. With this historical experience ignored just half a century after the entire concept had proven itself a failure, universal registration and gun owner licensing will be born again as Bill C-68.

by Al Smithies, Research Director, CILA

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