Bruce and Donna Montague’s 10-year fight to save their home from the Government of Ontario is finally over. They have accepted a settlement and the Honourable Mr. Justice Shaw of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice completely dismissed the civil forfeiture action against their home.
The Montagues live near Kenora, Ontario, where they once owned and operated a gunsmith business. Like so many other hard working Canadians, all they wanted to do was earn a living and raise their family with as little interference as possible from an intrusive government.
Bruce and Donna began publicly and peacefully protesting Canada’s firearms laws after the Federal Government introduced Bill C-68 in 1995—which they viewed as an unconstitutional attack on the rights of law-abiding firearms owners.
After years of activism with no noticeable results, the Montagues decided to put their convictions to the test. In 2002, Bruce deliberately let his firearms license expire. Donna did the same shortly after. There is no question that they would have been permitted to renew these licences had they chosen to do so, yet they deliberately chose not to as an act of civil disobedience. Their goal was to get themselves arrested and challenge the constitutionality of the law in court.
As they’d hoped, Bruce and Donna were arrested and charged with various Criminal Code firearms offences. Bruce did not dispute the fact that he had broken the law. As he later told the media, “I broke the law, I did it on purpose. What I was challenging was the law wasn’t valid in the first place.”
At the end of their criminal proceedings, Bruce was convicted of 26 firearms offences—none for being a threat to the public peace. He was sentenced to 18 months in prison with a lifetime ban on possessing firearms. Donna was convicted of a single possession offence and sentenced to six months probation. They also lost nearly all their business inventory, including firearms and ammunition.
This was not the result that the Montagues had hoped for, yet it was not entirely unexpected. It was the price they were prepared to pay for their principled stand.
But what came as a shock was that Ontario’s Civil Remedies for Illicit Activities (CRIA) office, which is responsible for enforcing the province’s civil forfeiture legislation, initiated its own separate legal proceeding in 2005 to seize the Montagues’ family home. After everything else that had happened to them already, the prospect of being homeless was devastating for Bruce and Donna.
Shortly after the Canadian Constitution Foundation (CCF) got involved in the Montagues’ defence, the CRIA office sent them a ludicrous offer to settle the civil forfeiture action out-of-court. It stipulated that the CRIA office would permit the Montagues keep their home if they paid $50,000 to the Ontario government and agreed never to talk about it publicly.
This offer raised some very important questions. Is this sort of behaviour a standard practice for Ontario’s CRIA office? Are Ontarians routinely silenced by the threat of civil forfeiture applications in order to secure cash payments? If this is happening to other Ontarians, it is deeply disturbing.
There was simply no chance that Bruce and Donna would ever accept this offer, so they prepared to go to court to fight to keep their home.
After nearly two years of legal wrangling, and with the CCF in their corner, the Montagues accepted a settlement offer from the CRIA office. And on June 16, 2016, the Honourable Mr. Justice Shaw of the Ontario Superior Court of Justice completely dismissed the civil forfeiture action against their home.
Bruce and Donna will not have to defend themselves in court again. They will get to keep the home they built. They will not be forced to pay $50,000 into a government bank account. And they are free to speak openly about all that has happened to them since that fateful day in 2002 when they decided to put their convictions to the test.
To their credit, the Montagues stood their ground and didn’t flinch even when faced with the daunting prospect of being made homeless. By doing so, they have done all Canadians a great service by bringing the abuse of civil forfeiture laws into the light and under public scrutiny.
Derek James From is a lawyer with the Canadian Constitution Foundation.
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