WEST GREY — Municipal council meetings rarely draw a crowd in West Grey, but on April 16 with the issue of hunting with guns on Sundays on the agenda, residents turned out by the dozens to show support for their side of the potentially explosive debate.
Once the chamber reached capacity, people spilled out into the hall and into an adjacent antechamber, says Dyan Jones. Like most of the residents at the meeting, she opposes Sunday gun hunting in West Grey — one of the few dozen municipalities where it is still banned.
The crowd had gathered because of an earlier council decision to allow Sunday gun hunting in the rural municipality of 12,000 people, 30 minutes south of Owen Sound. On March 19, council heard from a delegation from the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters asking for the ban to be lifted. Without allowing any time to consult the broader community, council then voted three-to-one in favour of allowing gun hunting on Sundays (two councillors were absent).
Jones and her husband learned about the decision by email as they were eating lunch. Others heard the news through phone calls and Facebook. “Everyone was astonished,” Jones says, that council had lifted the ban so suddenly.
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Sunday gun hunting was banned throughout southern Ontario until recent memory, a holdover from a time when laws prevented people from doing much other than going to church or spending time with family. (Bow hunting is allowed on Sundays throughout the province and Sunday gun hunting is permitted in northern Ontario.) Then in 2005, the provincial government allowed municipalities to decide whether to permit the activity for an extra day. Since that time, 170 municipalities in southern Ontario — about two-thirds of the region’s municipalities — have opted to permit Sunday gun hunting, while a minority of municipalities continue the ban.
West Grey council first considered lifting the ban in 2008. Residents jammed the municipal chambers back then, too, and successfully convinced council to scrap the proposal. This time around, residents compiled petitions both for Sunday gun hunting (300 signatories) and against it (737).
In the packed council chamber on April 16, Mayor Kevin Eccles defended the earlier decision to vote right away. Council’s procedural bylaw does allow a motion to be moved after hearing a delegation, he explained.
Yet Eccles is personally in favour of the ban, and he clarified his stance by taking the unusual step of temporarily abdicating his mayoral seat so he could vote to support its return. (Mayors typically only vote to break a tie and Eccles therefore hadn’t voted or declared his position on the issue during the March 19 meeting; he did vote to support the ban in 2008). Council reversed its previous decision, voting five-to-one in favour of maintaining the Sunday hunting ban. There’s now talk of a referendum on the issue.
Liz Zetlin, a poet and filmmaker who was a long-time West Grey resident and now lives in Owen Sound, was among those who had protested lifting the ban in 2008. When she heard that the issue had erupted once again in the municipality, she dug out a poem she had written a decade ago and read to council at the time. She recited it again at a council meeting on April 2, during the brief interlude when Sunday gun hunting was allowed in West Grey.
“This is not against hunting or hunters,” begins “One Day a Week.” It goes on to outline her case for quiet time to enjoy “the sacred space” of the wild “for families who want to walk / through the bush … without / the startle of rifles firing / the bolt of wildlife fleeing.”
More prosaically, supporters of the ban say gunshots during hunting season make them feel like prisoners on their own properties. In a letter to council, West Grey resident Dick O’Brien wrote: “Sunday is usually the day of the week when I can invite family and friends for visits so they can walk my property with some sense of safety and security.”
In another letter, West Grey resident May Tettero wrote that although she enjoys running, cycling, and walking with her grandchildren on the roads and in the forests near her rural property, she stops these activities during the hunting season. “Hearing [gunshots] all around me makes me feel unsafe and thus interferes with my activities,” she wrote. “Having at least Sunday as a gun-free time zone makes it possible for me to go out and enjoy the rural area around my home.”
Glenn Meads, a local trapper who sits on the regional executive of the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters, says, “I hear their side of the story,” but he doesn’t buy the logic. “If it’s safe to be in the bush with a gun or to be in the bush when somebody else is [with a gun] Monday to Saturday, it’s the same on Sunday.”
The federation argues that having an extra day to hunt makes it easier for people to pursue their hobby while juggling the demands of shift work and family duties.
There’s economic motivation for communities as well: those that allow hunting on Sundays could be more of a draw for visitors, since most people would prefer to have two days of recreation rather than one when there’s a long drive involved.
As for safety, Ontarians must pass a provincially mandated safety exam before they are allowed to hunt. The preparatory training includes an overview of hunters’ responsibilities, hunting laws, and regulations, and how to use equipment.
Brian McRae, club services liaison for the OFAH, stands by the safety record of hunters. He says Statistics Canada figures show that hunting is safer than other outdoor pursuits, including hiking, boating and swimming. “For anyone who feels that allowing Sunday gun hunting would increase the danger to anyone walking the woods, they are more likely to be injured by either being struck by lightning or bitten by an insect than being injured by a hunter,” McRae says.
Federal statistics about causes of mortality show that from 2010 to 2015 in Canada, 28 people in total died from a rifle, shotgun, and larger firearm discharge; lightning and being struck by sporting equipment each killed seven people. However, far more deaths — 1,074 — involved all-terrain vehicles. Meanwhile, data from the Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry show an annual average of 10 hunting gun-related injuries in Ontario from 2013 to 2017. And when injuries do happen they can be deadly, as in 2012 when former Boston Bruins enforcer Stan Jonathan accidentally shot and killed Peter Kosid with his rifle at Ohsweken, in Six Nations of the Grand River First Nation near Brantford.
Municipality by municipality, the pro-Sunday gun hunting side is winning the argument, despite its recent setback in West Grey. The OFAH, which consists of 740 local clubs and at least 80,000 members, describes Ontario’s gradual shift to Sunday hunting as a “significant success story” for the organization, and it continues to lobby the holdout municipalities to lift the ban.
Jones doubts the issue will erupt with such vehemence ever again in West Grey, although more public discussion seems likely to happen. Two councillors who are running for re-election say the issue should be a 2022 referendum question. “I think that’s reasonable,” Jones says.
Zetlin, meanwhile, finds the patchwork of Sunday hunting laws unsettling. “The thing about some municipalities allowing it and some not, is that the hunters may or may not know where their municipal boundaries are,” she says. “I wouldn’t want to take my grandkids out there at this point. That’s what I would be thinking of.”
This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting southwestern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of faculty and students from Western University’s Faculty of Information and Media Studies.
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