By Karen Selick, Calgary Herald August 29, 2012
Canadians have rightly deplored the harshness of the two-year prison sentence imposed on Pussy Riot members by a Russian court following the group’s political protest in a Moscow church.
But our smugness in thinking that nothing like this could happen in Canada is sadly unwarranted. Something similar already has happened in Canada. However, the subject matter of the Canadian man’s protest was even more politically incorrect than Pussy Riot’s criticism of Vladimir Putin; consequently, his draconian treatment has met with virtual silence in the media.
The victim of this treatment is Bruce Montague of Kenora, Ont. Ten years ago, he was a firearms dealer and manufacturer with all the necessary licences and permits. However, he had long deplored the complex licensing and gun registration laws that came into effect with the notorious Bill C-68 firearms act in 1995. He believed the law violated his constitutional rights.
Montague joined a protest group called Canadian Unlicenced Firearms Owners Association. Then, putting his convictions to the ultimate test, he allowed his firearms business licence to expire in November 2002 and his firearms acquisition certificate in November 2003. Then he carried on with his gunsmith business.
Had he applied instead to renew his licences, they would undoubtedly have been renewed. Until then, he had never been in trouble with the law. In fact, he was the gunsmith patronized by the local police. But underestimating the viciousness of a state that finds itself defied, Montague decided to become the poster-boy protester against unnecessary firearms paperwork. His goal was to challenge the constitutionality of the law in court.
For about two years, Montague deliberately tweaked the authorities’ noses, daring them to lay charges against him. He even marched on Parliament Hill with an unregistered firearm in his hand. Nothing happened. But finally, while attending a gun show with his 12-year-old daughter, he was arrested by half a dozen Ontario Provincial Police officers and hustled off to jail. He was charged with 12 different offences in 53 counts.
His constitutional arguments against the validity of the law were rejected by two levels of Ontario courts, and leave to appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada was denied.
After a jury trial, Montague was acquitted on 27 charges and convicted on 26. Not a single conviction involved any violence or threat of violence. Not a single person was ever harmed, threatened, confronted, or even scared by him. Most of the charges involved failing to have a licence.
In an unprecedented move, the jury foreman asked to testify at Montague’s sentencing hearing. The prosecutor objected, probably suspecting that the foreman would advocate leniency for this paperwork criminal. The judge forbade the foreman to speak. It’s illegal in Canada for jurors to reveal what went on during their deliberations, so we’ll probably never know.
However, for merely failing to comply with regulations, Montague was sentenced to 18 months’ incarceration, followed by 90 days’ imprisonment in the community, plus one year’s probation. He is permanently forbidden from owning firearms, thus ending his gunsmithing career.
His combined jail terms were almost as long as Pussy Riot’s — and like those Russian rebels who are appealing their conviction, he never did anything other than defy the state. Indeed, when he appealed the length of his sentence to the Ontario Court of Appeal, the court cited “his deliberate defiance of the law” as one of their reasons for upholding the sentence.
Montague has now served his full prison sentences. His probation will end in January. But adding insult to injury, the province of Ontario has now brought a civil suit against him under the Civil Remedies Act, claiming the right to seize his home — which also housed his gunsmith shop — as either an instrument of crime or proceeds of crime.
Having already taken almost two years of this man’s life when he has never been shown to have hurt a fly, having also taken his livelihood, the state now wants to crush him completely by taking the only significant asset he has left.
Last fall, Ontario prosecutors sent him a written offer to settle the property forfeiture lawsuit. They’d let him keep his house provided he paid them $50,000 and agreed to a gag order that would prevent him from disclosing the terms of the settlement. In a telephone interview, Montague told me that he and his family had built that house themselves, long before he became a protester. He said he’d “rather die than have them take this house or extort money from me.”
Why isn’t this grossly disproportionate persecution of a protester making headlines across Canada and around the world?
Karen Selick is the litigation director for the Canadian Constitution Foundation.
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