Marty Cheliak was made Director General of the Canadian Firearms Program in August 2009. He supported the Program’s long-gun registry, uniting all of Canada’s major police organizations behind the cause. A year after his appointment, just before Parliament was to debate the long-gun registry, Cheliak was removed from his post.
Beginning in 2003, the Canadian Firearms Registry required all gun owners to register restricted and non-restricted firearms. Originally the responsibility of the Ministry of Public Safety, the program was handed over to the RCMP in 2006.
The Conservative Party has lobbied against the inclusion of long-guns within the Registry since the legislation was enacted in 1995. After it formed a minority government in 2006, despite the opposition’s unwillingness to abandon the Registry, the Conservatives succeeded in curbing the Registry’s effectiveness by granting amnesties for unregistered long-gun owners and waiving registration fees.
Marty Cheliak was appointed Director General of the Canadian Firearms Program in charge of the registry in August 2009. He quickly became known for his strong support of the Registry. He publicly called for it to not be scrapped before a Parliamentary committee in early 2010. Cheliak also united the three main police associations in Canada - the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, (CACP) the Canadian Association of Police Boards (CAPB) and the Canadian Police Association (CPA) - into a “common front to fight for [mandatory] registration” of long guns.
After only nine months on the job, Cheliak was ordered by RCMP Commissioner William Elliot to abandon his post, allegedly to pursue French language training in August 2010, a few weeks before Parliament was due to debate on whether to scrap the federal long-gun registry.
That August, before being told to begin French classes, Cheliak had been scheduled to attend the CACP’s annual meeting in Edmonton. At the meeting, he was to receive a President’s award for his work on the long-gun registry, as well as to unveil a CACP report on a national firearms safety strategy, which called on police officials to promote the registry’s values to politicians and the public. However, the RCMP decided not to send Cheliak to the CACP meeting after all.
During the meeting, Canada’s police chiefs displayed overwhelming support for the long-gun registry. The CBC reported that the chiefs who were there generally thought Cheliak had been “too outspoken” at the “wrong time,” and the government decided to make an example of him.
The timing of Commissioner Elliot’s decision caused many police chiefs to suspect political interference. The RCMP has vehemently denied that any arrangements were made to "lower [Cheliak's] profile" weeks before the long-gun registry came up for debate in Parliament. Commissioner Elliot said that, "there is absolutely, positively nothing to the suggestion that there was any political role or interference with respect to this."
Some have criticized Cheliak for taking a political stand on the long-gun registry. Others, including Toronto Police Chief William Blair, maintained that officers should be free to speak out on public safety issues that often involve political discussions.
The Harper government was accused of using language requirements to get rid of Cheliak, especially in light of the timing of Commissioner Elliot’s decision, and the fact that Cheliak had presumably met bilingualism requirements for the position in 2009 when he was chosen for the job, yet somehow did not a year later. The RCMP told the BBC that Cheliak was “below the rank needed to fill the job permanently.” However the Globe and Mail reported that the RCMP said Cheliak did not “currently meet the linguistic requirements of the job,” and that was why he was being replaced.
In response, a senior Harper official told the Globe and Mail that allegations of political interference didn’t make sense, since Cheliak couldn’t have voted in Parliament or influenced the votes of MPs, even though MPs regularly listen to the advice of experts before making major policy decisions. The government also maintained that the RCMP makes its own decisions and that Cheliak’s removal was not political in nature.
Elliot was appointed RCMP Commissioner by Prime Minister Harper in 2007 - the first civilian to be given the job. He was moved on in 2011, following complaints from numerous senior RCMP officers and a CSIS-conducted workplace assessment which found much frustration against Elliot amongst senior staff. Elliot himself said that the next Commissioner should be someone with policing experience and not another civilian.
After winning a majority of seats in Parliament in the 2011 election, Conservative MPs promised to kill the registry for good. In October 2011, legislation was introduced to scrap the registry and to eliminate all records in the system, provoking outrage about wasted funds and loss of existing data. After the government’s rejection of Quebec’s request to keep the data of the federal long-gun registry, on December 13, 2011, Quebec’s Public Security Minister Robert Dutil announced the intention of the province to launch a legal battle against the federal government in order to keep Quebec’s portion of the federal long-gun registry in service.
- August 2009: Martin Cheliak placed in acting capacity as head of the Canadian Firearms Program.
- 2009-August 2010: Cheliak forcefully defends the federal long-gun registry, appearing before a parliamentary committee, and bringing together police associations across the country.
- August 2, 2010: Cheliak leaves office.
- August 25, 2010: A Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police conference is held in Edmonton; Cheliak is absent.
- September 2010: Parliament votes to retain the long-gun registry, by a 153 - 151 margin.
- July 2011: With a new majority of seats in Parliament, the Harper government vows to kill the long-gun registry.
- October 2011: A Bill is tabled by the Harper government to scrap the registry and to destroy the existing files on gun ownership.
- December 13, 2011: Quebec announces that it will go to court to keep its portion of the federal long-gun registry in service.
Role or Position
Implications and Consequences
- Free speech: The removal of Marty Cheliak contributes to a political climate in which those who oppose the government’s position fear retribution for expressing their views, even if they do so on behalf of public safety and the general public interest, and with overwhelming support from Canada’s forces of law and order.
- Free speech: As Police Chief Blair stated, officers should be free to speak on such issues, as the business of public safety includes decisions that often involve political discussions.
- Transparency: The ambiguity in the government’s public justifications for replacing Cheliak, even though the facts point to obvious motives, shows a lack of willingness to be forthright and open with the Canadian public.
- Democracy: The government’s desire to avoid public debate about an issue on which they have an ideological position, irrespective of the opinion of experts in the field, neglects the government’s responsibility to represent the interests of the people.
- Democracy: The decision of the Harper government to permanently delete more than seven million files on gun ownership prevents the provinces that want to create their own registries from using the available data. Thus, it deprives Canadians from acquiring much needed scientific expertise in the field.