Canadian tradition of marksmanship should not be allowed to die
Published by the Ottawa Citizen, August 23, 2003
Some of Canada's finest civilian marksmen will be competing for the Governor General's Medal at Connaught Ranges today, but Her Excellency won't be there to do the honours. Neither will the minister of National Defence, whose department, along with the Dominion of Canada Rifle Association (DCRA), co-sponsors this annual event.
This reveals a government out of touch with the traditions and history that inform responsible gun use in Canada or, worse, one simply pandering to political correctness. Certainly it betrays a lack of understanding of how firearms use in Canada is grounded in an institutional framework consistent with peace, order and good government and the best civil society traditions.
"It isn't surprising," says Gerry Frazer, a retired consulting engineer to the B.C. forest products industry and regular competitor at Connaught. "We might hope our sport could regain the stature of the past, but Canadians see little value and some personal threat in marksmanship by civilians. In the public mind, any meaningful link with national defence has disappeared."
Frazer, a stalwart in an institution which against increasing odds survives into its third century, knows what he is talking about. From the age of nine at the Courtney Junior Fish and Game Club, he was shooting, winning his first trophy at 15. Smallbore, trap, skeet, handgun, practical rifle, practical pistol, archery ... if you could shoot with it, Gerry tried his hand at it.
For a young man in a 1950s fishing and forestry town on the northeastern coast of Vancouver Island, shooting was a responsible undertaking that meant food on the table. It also established a foundation for the top-level competition he would later undertake. By 1987, he had won the B.C. Lieutenant-Governor's Prize and was on the national team to compete at Bisley, England -- a feat he repeated in '90, '92 and '94. Today, in addition to shooting, he engineers performance-enhancing rifle devices, works with the DCRA council and occasionally writes about its history.
In the winter 1996 issue of the Canadian Marksman, he describes the DCRA's institutional origins. "In the century following American independence, defence against invasion by the United States dominated colonial military planning for the (British North American) Pro-vinces." When the War of 1812 successfully "combined the skill and discipline of the Regular with the patriotism and bravery of a people armed and free," the Volunteer Militia -- paid, uniformed and armed citizens who performed rifle drill and target practice -- was formed. Then, in 1868, the new Canadian government formalized these arrangements under the Dominion of Canada Rifle Association.
Mandated to promote and encourage the training of marksmanship throughout Canada, DCRA competitions were a key training device. Winners such as Private T.H. Hayhurst, 13th Battalion, and the first DCRA team member to capture the Queen's Prize at Bisley in 1895, made headline news and received heroes' welcomes.
Through the Boer, Korean and two World Wars, militia and regular forces worked together. Two events changed that. The first, in 1957, saw the introduction of the FNC1 -- the semi-automatic service rifle. Firepower became more important than marksmanship, with inevitable results. Declining interest from the military meant that by 1971, civilians were eligible for the DCRA team at Bisley.
The second event occurred in 1989 when 14 female college students were shot to death in Montreal. Canadian gun owners and taxpayers shoulder the burden of that tragedy, but the DCRA, with budget cuts and the gun registry, was most deeply affected. By 1996, its government grant and ammunition allocation were eliminated and half its members were gone.
The DCRA today maintains a viable organization and upholds its mandate to sponsor annual competitions. These still produce star performers like Alain Marion, who in 1996 won Bisley's coveted Queen's Prize for a record-tying third time.
As for the future of marksmanship, Gerry Frazer remains hopeful. "The great tradition of rifle shooting ... has helped preserve the Rifle Associations. In this Canada may be fortunate, for one day the skill of riflemen may again be needed."
Having squandered on the gun registry an amount sufficient to kick-start its languishing defence needs, Canada may indeed find it necessary to call again on the services of its stalwart riflemen. In the meantime, the government would do well to rehabilitate one of Canada's most venerable institutions and its presence at future DCRA events.
Margret Kopala writes weekly on western perspectives.