OTTAWA — Liberal backbenchers are pushing for action on gun violence and irregular border crossers as they prepare for the resumption of Parliament next week — and an election one year from now.
Banning handguns and assault weapons and faster processing of border crossers’ refugee claims are among the top recommendations Liberal MPs say they intend to raise with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his ministers in Saskatoon, where they’ll be gathering today at a caucus retreat to plot strategy for the fall parliamentary sitting.
But unlike last year — when backbenchers used the annual end-of-summer retreat to berate the government over proposed tax changes that had enraged small business owners — Liberal MPs now seem relatively content with the government’s performance as it heads into the countdown to the next federal election.
That’s despite a challenging summer for the Trudeau government, beset by a court ruling that toppled a central pillar of its climate change strategy and NAFTA negotiations that have dragged on without resolution, punctuated by repeated insults and threats to ruin Canada’s economy from U.S. President Donald Trump.
Toronto MP John McKay suspects Trump is responsible for the level of satisfaction he’s found among his constituents for Trudeau and his administration.
“I think everybody’s concluded that poor Trudeau is dealing with a lunatic and he’s just doing the best he can with what he’s got. Every time Trump tweets, Trudeau looks better,” says McKay, who’s found NAFTA negotiations are the top issue in his riding.
Caucus chair Francis Scarpaleggia says NAFTA negotiations have been “on everyone’s lips” in his Montreal riding as well. People recognize it’s “a difficult file,” but Scarpaleggia said he hasn’t heard any negative reaction to the government’s approach.
“I get positive vibes with respect to the way the prime minister is handling it, in terms of being diplomatic but at the same time standing up for Canadian interests.”
After months of sliding popularity, opinion polls suggest Liberal fortunes have rebounded somewhat over the summer, perhaps due in part to the internal travails of the two main opposition parties.
The Conservatives are coping with the scathing indictment of former leadership contender Maxime Bernier, who last month quit what he called the “morally and intellectually corrupt” Tories to start his own party. The NDP, meanwhile, has been struggling with dismal fundraising and polling numbers amid increasingly open discontent with Jagmeet Singh’s leadership.
At townhalls he’s held over the summer, Toronto Liberal MP Rob Oliphant said, “People tend to start out by saying they’re generally happy … and then, from the general happiness, they have things that we could do better, which feels like a good place to be in right now.”
Among the issues on which Oliphant said people want to see improvement are gun violence and the government’s management of the flow of asylum seekers entering the country at unofficial border crossings.
“People in Don Valley West … are concerned about handguns and want them off the streets,” said Oliphant, adding that a handgun ban is the “No. 1 issue” he’ll be taking into the caucus meetings.
City councils in Toronto and Montreal have passed motions calling for a ban on hand guns and assault weapons. Trudeau has said the government is considering the matter, along with other ways to beef up legislation that would impose stricter background checks on firearms buyers and new mandatory record-keeping practices for vendors.
The Conservatives are already trying to turn the legislation into a reprise of the pitched battle over the controversial long-gun registry, a Liberal creation that was ultimately scrapped by Stephen Harper’s government. McKay, for one, doesn’t relish a repeat of those kinds of “fun and games with the Conservatives,” but said his constituents are virtually unanimous about wanting to ban handguns.
“I don’t think I speak out of turn when I say that there is no tolerance for people having guns in Toronto, period — long guns, short guns, in-between guns, fast guns, slow guns,” he said.
Kim Rudd, who represents the largely rural Ontario riding of Northumberland-Peterborough South, said she’s received emails and calls on both sides of the issue, but the majority support a ban on handguns.
“No one wants our country to mirror the gun violence in the U.S.,” said Rudd. “It’s not just about whether it’s a rural town or an urban town — it’s about how we keep Canada as a country what we want it to be.”
While the government must take care to protect the legitimate rights of farmers, hunters and sport shooters, Rudd said, “Most people … question why anyone would need a handgun or need an assault rifle.”
Border crossing asylum seekers are also on backbenchers’ radar, although Scarpaleggia said concern about that issue seems to have faded over the course of the summer in his riding.
McKay, whose riding is one of the most heavily populated by immigrants, said those who came to Canada through regular channels are particularly upset about asylum seekers “coming through the back door.
“People have come to the conclusion that these people are not refugees and they should be returned, sooner rather than later,” he says.
“The only fair thing to everybody is to process them quickly, and I think that’s where the government’s weakness is.”
Some 30,000 asylum seekers have walked across the border at unauthorized crossings in the past two years. Only about 15 per cent of their refugee claims have been processed, with 47 per cent of those accepted. Only a tiny fraction of rejected claimants have been removed from the country.
Oliphant, who chairs the Commons immigration committee, said the government needs to balance a fair process with “expedited results,” where both the determination of refugee claims and deportations are done faster.
“If people are not eligible, they should leave quickly,” he said.
Joan Bryden, The Canadian Press