The Right to Bear Arms by John Robson

What exactly makes someone a Canadian? Our elite is prone to navel-gazing on this point and to some rather weird answers. But I think it’s pretty straightforward. Our vast, rugged beautiful land has given us a profound love for nature and resilience in the face of bad weather. And we are passionately attached to our rights.

We have the right of free speech, the right to choose our governments, the right of free assembly and the right to bear arms.

Whoa. Hold on a second. What was that last one? Did you just parachute in from Lubbock, Texas?
No. Not at all. Despite a lot of nonsense spoken and written on this point in recent decades, and some ill-advised and unreasonable legislation, the right to bear arms is a quintessential part of our heritage going back not just to the Upper and Lower Canada Rebellions or the Glorious Revolution, but to Magna Carta and before that all the way to the end of Roman Britain.

That’s why we’re in the process of raising money for another documentary, this one to tell the story of Canada’s traditional right to bear arms. If you believe in the right of free people to self-defence, and to the means necessary to exercise that right, and if you believe in keeping the proud story of Canadian liberty going, please visit our Kickstarter website ( and consider making a contribution. Especially if you liked our Magna Carta documentary.

The right to bear arms is sound in principle. But it’s also important to grasp how central a part of our heritage it is and how untrue to Canada as well as to freedom it is to insist that only agents of the state should have weapons.

Remember, when the American colonists rebelled in the 1770s against an increasingly tyrannical British government they did so to protect their ancient British liberties not to establish some new and unusual set of rights dreamed up by radical intellectuals. They explicitly linked the Revolution to Magna Carta and the long struggle to protect the liberties it guaranteed.

Yes, those liberties included the right of free people to possess weapons for self-defence, against wild animals, criminals and the state. The seal of Massachusetts in 1775, after all, showed a man with a raised sword in one hand and Magna Carta in the other. But this was not some dramatic departure, a rejection of the British past we share with our southern neighbours. It was a profound affirmation of that past.

The Glorious Revolution in Britain in 1689 specifically asserted the right to bear arms. The citizens of Victorian England were free to own weapons and did so, in a remarkably peaceful society. And when we inherited a Constitution “similar in principle to that of the United Kingdom” in 1867 it included this presumption in favour of liberty.

We were not people who welcomed, indeed demanded, the warm soothing embrace of the nanny state. We were independent, self-reliant, indomitable. We conquered a wilderness and took pikes, swords, muskets, rifles and pistols with us as we did so. And we were skeptical of the state.

We insisted that we were masters of government not its servants. It is absolutely clear in the rhetoric of Canadian leaders including those who made Confederation. And a crucial part of that vision is that we had the right to mistrust the state and limit its powers. It did not have the right to mistrust us and limit ours.

Remember, too, that we were granted self-government, both in the United Province of Canada and in Nova Scotia in the wake of an armed revolt in Upper and Lower Canada. Our official history regards William Lyon Mackenzie and les Patriotes as heroes, opponents of arrogant entrenched elites, courageous defenders of freedom. So it should not forget that to them it was natural that if the state denied rights, citizens took up arms to oppose it. It’s exactly what they did in 1837 and 1838 and it worked.
To be sure, the revolt was put down quickly, particularly in Upper Canada, because another larger group of armed citizens regarded the rebels as a rabble and taking their own weapons in hand marched out to oppose them. But then the British, mindful not just of the practical but the moral lessons of the American Revolution, sent “Radical Jack” Durham out to investigate knowing perfectly well that he would recommend responsible parliamentary self-government.

The revolts were in the end a fairly gentle reminder. But they could only be gentle because the British conceded the right of free people to armed resistance to misgovernment as well as the fact of misgovernment. It was as British as rhubarb crumble, and as Canadian as maple syrup.

The Upper and Lower Canada Rebellions, and the American Revolution before them, were just part of a long history of forceful resistance to forceful tyranny in the minds of the free people who made them. The Glorious Revolution was relatively peaceful because the vast majority of Britons rallied quickly to William of Orange. The English Civil War was a much more protracted and bloody affair because sympathies were more divided not as to whether liberty was good but as to how it might best be protected. It lasted a lot longer than the fighting over Magna Carta which, in turn, was an uncontroversial affirmation of the right of free people to uphold their rights as well as their physical safety against all comers.

Imagine trying to tell the coureurs des bois that they ought not to be trusted with firearms. Or Canada’s outstanding soldiers in both world wars that it was somehow a bad thing that they’d grown up handling guns, hunting, understanding the need to respect these powerful tools but proud of their ability to exercise responsibility and independence. They would have called you unCanadian and they would have been right.

Lately we’ve drifted a surprising distance in the other direction. Like the right to property and, increasingly, that of free speech and free association, the right to bear arms is depicted as reactionary and foreign. But it is those who make such arguments who are untrue to our heritage.
We want to keep that heritage alive where it is threatened and to reclaim it where it has been lost. If you feel the same way, please help us tell the story of Canadians’ ancient right to bear arms. Every contribution helps, big or small, and as little as one dollar gets your name in the credits.