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Saturday, 18 November, 2000, 01:18 GMT
Canada split over the gun
Myers High School shooting
Last year a boy shot dead a classmate in Alberta
By Lee Carter in Toronto

On the Canadian election campaign trail, the future of the health system and lowering taxes seem to be the dominant issues.

The election will be held on 27 November and the governing Liberals so far have a lead in the polls.

But a number of regional issues could upset that lead. One of those is gun control.

Prime Minister Jean Chretien
Jean Chretien draws most votes from eastern and central Canada
While many Americans are calling for more gun control in their country, many western Canadians think there is too much in theirs.

Particularly controversial is a gun registry passed into law a year ago.

Even though Canada already had some of the strictest gun control laws in the world, the new restrictions require the licensing and registration of shotguns and rifles.

That has upset many people in Canada's western rural and farming communities, who say they are willing to use their vote to protest over the issue.

Rural opposition

The law, known as Bill C-68, requires owners of hunting rifles and shotguns to buy licences, register their weapons, store their guns safely and gives the police the right to search the property of people they suspect of not having licences.

Two-thirds of Canadians, most of whom live in urban areas, support the new law but the people most affected - farmers and rural people - are vociferous in their opposition.


For a lot of people gun control is just one more thing that those easterners have done to us, and there are a lot of people who are one-issue voters

Voter Marilyn McCrea
"It's an infringement on their property and they feel very, very strong about it," says Lawrence Scott, director of the Saskatchewan Wildlife Association.

"They view it as something that is tangible, that they can mark their vote on."

The Wildlife Association, which represents hundreds of thousands of hunters, and the National Firearms Association are joining forces to spend tens of thousands of dollars to protest the law during the election.

Flashpoint

For several years Canadian farmers have also faced tough times and personal bankruptcies.

Yet just this week Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien refused to consider federal aid.

Howard Leeson is a political scientist at the Saskatchewan Institute of Public Policy says the juxtaposition of rural and urban funding is a potential flashpoint.

Stockwell Day
Opposition leader Stockwell Day is against the gun law
"It's one more issue where there seems to be lots of money to do gun control but not lots of money to give to farmers, lots of money for bureaucrats in Ottawa but no money for people at the farm gate," he says.

Party politics

The main opposition party, the Canadian Alliance, also opposes the gun control law.

Its leader, Stockwell Day, seems willing to risk criticism from urban voters to side with those who want the law repealed.

"It just shows again the different approach of the federal Liberals," he says.

"Don't do anything in a way that makes sense and do everything in a way that offends law-abiding citizens.

"How about going after the criminals in that area? Leave the law-abiding citizens alone. That's the Canadian Alliance position on Bill C-68."

Divided society

Marilyn McCrea runs the women's shelter in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan.

She supports the new law because she believes it will reduce the use of guns in domestic violence and lower the amount of suicides among native teenagers. But she knows she is in a minority.

"For a lot of people gun control is just one more thing that those easterners have done to us and there are, of course, a lot of people who are one issue voters and that is going to make a lot of difference to them," she says.

The last two Canadian elections have revealed a country that is politically fractured.

The Liberals hang on to power because of support from populous central eastern Canada, while the west is increasingly voting for the opposition parties.

Judging by the reaction to the gun control issue in Saskatchewan, little has been achieved in recent times to heal those divisions and Jean Chretien's Liberals may pay a political price.

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