As published in the Western Standard
On a brisk, starry autumn night of 2002, Jean-Francois Laflamme stopped his old, rusted Jetta in the brightly lit parking lot of the village church in Saint-Wenceslas, a small village about 30 miles from Trois-Rivieres, in the heart of Quebec. It was about midnight on October 25, 2002, which happened to be the young man's 24th birthday.
Laflamme had just driven 20 miles from his home in Plessisville, a town of 6,800, and was on his way to meet a friend farther north, to go hunting. Feeling sleepy at the wheel, he stopped for a nap. He parked his car and trailer close to the street. He had barely turned off his engine and headlights, when a cruiser from the Surete du Quebec, the provincial police, appeared in front of the Jetta, and pulled up along its side, so that the two drivers' widows were just a few feet apart. Both drivers rolled down their windows. "Does it bother you if I am parked here?" asked Laflamme. "Does it bother you if we check you?" replied the driver of the police car, officer Claude Courchesne.
Laflamme had no objection. He trusted the police and had nothing to hide. A simple man with little education, he is a machine-tool operator by trade, and lives with his parents. Hunting is his only passion. Nobody in his family owns a computer. Politics never played a big role in the Laflamme household--his father says the family never votes. But the quiet life of the Laflammes was about to be turned upside down, due to one of Canada's most politically controversial laws. Laflamme was about to learn what it means to be a gun owner in Canada today, even if you are just a simple law-abiding hunter.
While officer Courchesne checked his driver's licence and registration, the other officer, Ghislain Sanscartier, went to inspect the trailer. Unlike Courchesne, an easygoing, middle-aged cop, Sanscartier is thirtyish, intense, athletic. When he spotted hunting clothes in Laflamme's car, Sanscartier said, "You're going hunting? You must have a rifle. I could seize it. I want to see it." Talking to Laflamme and Courchesne, he added, "I have just taken a course and I know what the law is."
He was right. Since the 1995 Bill C-68, it had become criminal to have a firearm without holding a licence. Laflamme opened his trunk to reveal a .30-06 Browning rifle. "Do you have your possession licence?" Sanscartier asked. Laflamme was proud to produce his Firearms Acquisition Certificate, the kind of licence that preceded Bill C-68, but which were, at the time, gradually being replaced as they expired. Courchesne had a quick look at the card and handed it back to Laflamme.
"Are you sure it is not expired?" Sanscartier asked his partner. He asked to see the licence for himself. Laflamme pulled it out of his wallet again and the officer noticed that it had expired six months earlier. Laflamme says he hadn't even realized that the licence needed to be renewed every five years.
Sanscartier wanted to seize the rifle, Courchesne looked undecided but submissive to his colleague, while Laflamme pleaded with them to let him keep it. He tried explaining to the cops that he was a decent guy, he was on the side of the police. It didn't work. The officers took his gun, issued a receipt, and left.
All details are Laflamme's version of events; the Surete du Quebec won't comment on the incident. But what happened that night was not the end of it. On Nov. 15, Laflamme received a summons advising that he was being charged under Criminal Code Section 91(1)--possessing a firearm without a licence. He was to go down to the police station and be fingerprinted.
In the meantime, Laflamme was trying to get into compliance with the law. He filled out the forms for renewing his firearm licence and sent it to the Canada Firearms Centre. But his application could not be processed because there was an ongoing criminal procedure against him. He retained a young criminal lawyer in town, Serge Bizier.
In March 2003, half-a-dozen representatives of the Canadian Unregistered Firearms Owners Association--an organization fighting to have C-68 repealed--came to Trois-Rivières to demonstrate their support for Laflamme. A few months later, the Crown attorney's office contacted Bizier to suggest that if Laflamme pleaded guilty, the prosecution would recommend an unconditional discharge. When Laflamme discovered that the plea would likely stop him from being eligible for a firearms licence, he had to refuse. Instead, Bizier filed a brief in February 2004 to ask the court, when the trial comes, to reject the evidence against his client on the basis that the accused had been arbitrarily detained and searched, in violation of his charter rights.
While Jean-Francois Laflamme was waiting for his trial last fall, his mother, Marie Laflamme, spoke to the Western Standard, in the family's modest bungalow in Plessisville. As she spoke, tears were running down her cheeks. "I am very emotional about this," she apologized. "He is our only son . . . He was not a criminal . . . He was just going to relax . . . This has made our lives quite miserable." The family has spent thousands of dollars on legal expenses, "borrowed on credit," adds Jean-Francois's father, Normand Laflamme, also a machine-tool operator.
On the afternoon of April 20, 2005, more than two-and-a-half years after the fatidic night, and the day before the trial was scheduled, the Crown withdrew the charge against Laflamme. The next morning, the Crown prosecutor made a brief statement to the judge, explaining it was "for humanitarian reasons."
Had Laflamme's trial proceeded it could have been a public relations nightmare for the province and the feds. If the Crown lost, it would prove gun laws to be toothless. A successful prosecution might see Laflamme, branded a criminal, becoming a symbol of the irrationality of Canada's gun laws. Over the past few years, some provinces have taken pains to avoid laying charges in cases like this one specifically to avoid a public legal battle.
The assistant chief Crown prosecutor for the district, Jacques Mercier, insists he faced no political pressure to let Laflamme off, though he admits that he consulted with the provincial Department of Justice on the case. He claims that the police "acted correctly," and that Laflamme would "probably have been found guilty," but the Crown didn't want to burden him with a criminal record. As to the wisdom of the gun licensing laws that led to the charges, Mercier says, "I don't make value judgements." Pierre Rivard, an SQ spokesman, says, "We are only there to enforce the law." He adds that "if the law changes," they would reconsider their policies.
Jean-Francois Laflamme is looking forward to getting his firearm licence before the bear hunting season starts. He says he got a phone message from the Canada Firearms Centre suggesting it is on its way. But the SQ also administers the licence application process in Quebec, and Rivard, who speaks for both the CFC and the SQ, will not comment on the progress of Laflamme's file, except to say that the police "will consider his application."
Jean-Francois's family is hoping that everything will soon return to normal so they can go back to their quiet lives. They never asked for any attention. Normand Laflamme says they didn't even complain to their local MP, because they considered the problem "a private matter." When asked how he feels about the gun laws that brought his family so much grief, he replies with resignation: "As time passes, things are getting more complex."