Memorial in Portapique, NS, for the 22 victims of the April 2020 mass shooting.
Memorial in Portapique, NS, for the 22 victims of the April 2020 mass shooting. Photo: Joan Baxter Credit: Joan Baxter

The venue is a virtual “town hall” meeting with leadership Conservative candidate Peter MacKay. It’s hosted by the Canadian Coalition for Firearm Rights (CCFR), which calls itself “Canada’s most effective and recognizable firearm rights organization,” and the “public relations experts in the firearms community.”

MacKay, dressed for the occasion in a plaid shirt and dark blue sweater, starts off with some folksy reminiscing about his childhood in Pictou County, Nova Scotia. He says he feels very much a part of the “firearms community.”

I grew up in a rural community in Nova Scotia. And my earliest memories, quite frankly, of spending time with my grandfather involved walking in the woods where he would carry a rifle. And for my twelfth birthday I got a .410 shotgun. I thought that was the greatest gift that I’d ever received, and I cherish it. I have another bird gun that my other grandfather, who was Irish, gave me, and it’s more of an antique. And it breaks down, and it’s a beautiful, beautiful old gun but I’m not sure that I would even be able to register it today given some of these archaic and new rules around the ban. And we’re going to have a chance to talk about that tonight.

This is one of a series of virtual town halls that CCFR hosted in May with the four candidates vying for the leadership of the Conservative Party of Canada.

screenshot of CCFR virtual town halls with 4 candidates for the CPC leadership

The other three CCFR town halls with Conservative Party leadership hopefuls — Ontario MPs Erin O’Toole and Derek Sloan, and the Toronto-based lawyer Leslyn Lewis — were emceed by Tracey Wilson, CCFR vice president of communications (which she says is just a glorified way of saying she is a registered lobbyist). These three CCFR town halls also featured its CEO and Executive Director, Rod Giltaca, who generally kicked off the questions sessions.

CCFR website Tracey Wilson and Rod Giltaca
CCFR website with Tracey Wilson (left) and Rod Giltaca (right)

The CCFR town hall with MacKay is different.

First, the audience is far larger; MacKay says there are a thousand people online, whereas there were just a hundred for O’Toole, whom polls show is MacKay’s main competitor in the leadership race.

Second, the hosts are also different.

Rather than emceeing, Tracey Wilson shows up as a “special guest,” along with Tony Bernardo, who heads another firearms lobby group, the Canadian Shooting Sports Association (CSSA).

CSSA Executive Director Tony Bernardo during CCFR town hall with Peter MacKay
CSSA Executive Director Tony Bernardo during CCFR town hall with Peter MacKay

The hosts of the CCFR town hall with MacKay are two Conservative MPs.

One is Bob Zimmer who represents Prince George–Peace River. In 2016, Zimmer presented a petition from “Lawful Firearms Owners of Canada” to parliament, calling on the Liberal government to reclassify the semi-automatic AR-15 rifle (and its variants) as a non-restricted firearm in Canada, which meant it could be used for hunting and not just at gun clubs and firing ranges. That petition garnered 25,249 signatures. AR-15s are controversial because of how often they have been used in mass shootings in the US, where their manufacture or sale for civilian use was banned from 1994 until 2004.

Also welcoming MacKay is Blaine Calkins, Conservative MP for Red Deer–Lacombe. Calkins originally joined the Reform Party in 1996, before it morphed into the Canadian Alliance in 2000. In 2003, under the leadership of Stephen Harper, the Alliance then merged with the Progressive Conservative Party, led at that time by Peter MacKay. (He had signed an agreement with fellow Progressive Conservative party leadership candidate David Orchard that he would not allow such a merger, so the Conservative Party of Canada was born out of MacKay’s betrayal of that promise.)

MacKay represented Central Nova for the Progressive Conservative and then the Conservative Party from 1997 until 2015, and served as Minister of Justice, of Defence, and of Foreign Affairs under Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

This means MacKay is no stranger to the two Conservative MPs hosting the CCFR show.

During the town hall, both Calkins and Zimmer say they support MacKay for the leadership of the party.

In return, MacKay is adamant that he has “always stood with the lawful Canadian firearms community.” He says he is “proud to support the efforts” that are underway, led by the two Conservative MPS, Tracey Wilson of the CCFR, and Tony Bernardo of CSSA, “to repeal ineffective legislation” on guns.

MacKay says he would get rid of the Liberal government’s May 1 Order-In-Council that banned many semi-automatic assault-style firearms, including the AR-15 and many similar models. (The Halifax Examiner reported on that ban here.)

He also says he would repeal Bill C-71.

That bill, An Act to Amend certain Acts and Regulations in relation to firearms, which received royal assent in 2019, expands background checks for firearm licence applicants,  requires vendors to verify firearms licences before selling a non-restricted firearm, and helps police trace guns used in crimes by requiring businesses to keep point-of-sale records for non-restricted firearms. However, many of the Act’s new gun control measures have not yet been enacted.

MacKay reminds his CCFR audience that he was part of the Conservative government that repealed the long-gun registry, and says:

We need to simplify the classification system itself, obviously, as per our own party’s policy. This is a longstanding position that we held, that we would rewrite the Firearms Act, which I think is long overdue.

MacKay’s pledge to simplify the firearms classification system made to the pro-gun groups in the town hall meeting is conspicuously missing from his campaign platform on “Canadian Firearms Laws.”

The issue of firearm classification is significant, according to Blake Brown, a Saint Mary’s history professor and author of the 2012 book Arming and Disarming the Nation: A History of Gun Control in Canada. Brown tweeted about this discrepancy between what appears on MacKay’s website and what he said at the CCFR town hall. Wrote Brown:

Gun lobbyists have been pushing for the Simplified Classification System because it would make firearms like the AR-15 non-restricted, meaning they would be much easier to acquire and use. These guns would also no longer be registered.


Polling shows that a large majority of Canadians support stronger limits on assault rifles, which I guess explains why MacKay doesn’t want to draw attention in his platform to his pledge to gun lobbyists to make such guns much MORE available.

tweets from Blake Brown

“No compromise”

MacKay’s chummy participation in the CCFR town hall is certainly not the first time he has cozied up to the gun lobby.

On May 9, he gave CCFR’s Tracey Wilson a phone call. Wilson is a very vocal and visible pro-gun lobbyist, and the only female on the frontline of the debate about gun control in Canada.[1] She wrote on Facebook that MacKay confirmed to her his commitment to repeal the Order-In-Council ban and Bill C-71 “should he win leadership and go on to become Prime Minister.”

Peter MacKay in NFA t-shirt

In August 2014, while he was Canada’s Justice Minister, MacKay appeared in a photograph taken at a Conservative Party fundraiser in which he was wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with a maple leaf, half of which resembled an AR-15, atop the words “No Compromise.” The photo was posted to Twitter and to the Facebook page of Ericka Clarke, then a field officer for the National Firearms Association (NFA), another influential gun advocacy group.

At the time, the NFA slogan “no compromise” signified the group’s determination to get key gun laws repealed — both C-17, which prohibited large-capacity magazines and required more screening for firearms acquisition applicants, and C-68, which brought in registration for all firearms, including non-restricted shotguns and rifles.

The photograph of MacKay wearing the NFA t-shirt appeared just two months after a gunman — who was carrying an M305 semi-automatic .308 Winchester rifle for which he had a valid firearms certificate — shot five RCMP officers in Moncton, New Brunswick, killing three and severely injuring two.

Politics, guns, and the mass shooting in Nova Scotia

On May 1 this year, MacKay came out with his proverbial Twitter guns blazing, hours after the Liberal government announced an Order-in-Council prohibition of 1,500 military-style assault rifles, on which the Examiner reported here. Tweeted MacKay:

As a Nova Scotian, I am outraged that Justin Trudeau is using our tragedy to punish law-abiding firearms owners across Canada.

As Prime Minister, I can guarantee to all Canadians that I will never take advantage of a tragedy like this to push a political agenda.

Peter MacKay tweet on gun ban

The tragedy to which MacKay was referring was the mass shooting in Nova Scotia of April 18 and 19, which left 22 people dead.

While Prime Minister Justin Trudeau did mention the deadly rampage in Nova Scotia in the preamble to his announcement of the ban, he also mentioned other mass shootings in Canada. These included the:

  • 1989 École Polytechnique tragedy in Montreal that left 14 women dead
  • 2005 killing of four RCMP officers in Mayerthorpe, Alberta
  • 2007 shooting at Montreal’s Dawson College that killed one student and left 19 injured
  • 2014 killing of three RCMP officers and wounding of two others in Moncton
  • 2016 killing of four and injuring of seven in La Loche, Saskatchewan
  • 2017 shooting by a legal and trained gun owner of Muslim workshippers in a Quebec mosque, leaving six dead and injured 19
  • 2018 shooting by a gunman armed with a handgun stolen in Saskatchewan in 2016, which happened in Danforth, Toronto, leaving two dead, 13 injured
  • 2018 shooting in Fredericton that left four dead, by a gunman with a firearms licence using a long gun that was not restricted or prohibited, and thus could be legally obtained in Canada

Well before it announced the ban on May 1, the Liberal government had stated its intention to prohibit military-style assault rifles; this task was included in Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s 2019 mandate letter to Bill Blair, Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness.

Nevertheless, during the CCFR town hall MacKay again accused the government of using the Nova Scotia tragedy for its own political ends when it brought in the firearms ban:

Much of what we have seen was a political act of opportunism in the aftermath of the worst mass shooting in Canadian history in a community near where I grew up, in Portapique, Nova Scotia. Of course I think it bears referencing that this happened because of a mad man, and an individual who had no right to own firearms, based on prior criminal acts. And was using guns that I think any objective inquiry will determine were obtained illegally and were probably illegal, by definition. This is what was so offensive, and why I came out within days of the announcement condemning the government for what they were doing.

Requests for an interview sent to Peter MacKay (by email and direct messaging) were not answered.

O’Toole is an NFA A-student

So far, MacKay has not appeared on the National Firearms Association series, “NFA Talk” — “the show that talks about guns and gun rights. ” But his CPC fellow leadership candidate, Erin O’Toole, has.

When he was vying for the leadership of the CPC in 2017, the National Firearms Association gave O’Toole an “A” on its report card, the highest grade it accorded any of the 14 candidates. Coincidentally – or not – O’Toole’s campaign manager, Fred Delorey, was a registered lobbyist for NFA with the federal government in 2018 and 2019.

On the April 16 episode of NFA Talk, O’Toole chats with three members of the (all-male) NFA executive — president Sheldon Clare, executive director Charles Zach, and director and social media/digital chair, Jordan Vandenhoff.

In welcoming O’Toole, Clare says they want to “make sure we’re talking to someone who’s gonna really be doing a good job for us.” He asks O’Toole if he sees firearms as “a winning issue for the Conservative Party in the next election,” and notes that during the COVID pandemic, gun sales had gone “way up.”

"NFA Talk" with Erin O'Toole (lower left), Sheldon Clare (lower right), Charles Zach (upper right) and Jordan Vandehoff (upper left)
“NFA Talk” with Erin O’Toole (lower left), Sheldon Clare (lower right), Charles Zach (upper right) and Jordan Vandenhoff (upper left)

O’Toole, a veteran of the Canadian Armed Forces and now an MP in southern Ontario, responds that since he was elected in 2011, he has always been “an ardent supporter of firearms rights.” He says his aim would be a “line-by-line” review and overhaul of all gun legislation, and that new laws would involve manufacturers and users, and safeguard “property rights.”

Email requests for their gun law platforms were sent to Erin O’Toole, as well as the two other leadership Leslyn Lewis and Derek Sloan. None were answered.

“Get those pro-gun Conservatives elected”

Six weeks after O’Toole’s appearance on NFA Talk, the same NFA trio were back with a new episode, called “The RCMP puts gun owners on notice.”

Vandenhoff, wearing a sweatshirt emblazoned with the words “FREEDOM SHALL NOT BE RESTRICTED,” launches the show by holding up his copy of the letter that the RCMP had been sending out to notify gun owners about the recent ban on military-style firearms. Vandenhoff says many people were sending their letters back to Trudeau.

His response, however, was to tear the letter up, which he does on screen.

RCMP letter to gun-owners

Both of Vandenhoff’s NFA colleagues on the show, Sheldon Clare and Charles Zach, applaud as he does so.

Clare tells the audience (the video has had 31,224 views as of this writing) that the next federal election is the “Conservatives’ to lose” and that that they — those watching and supportive of NFA goals of repealing gun laws — need to work for more votes in Quebec, the Maritimes, and the Greater Toronto Area.

Zach says that before the next election, their “side” needs to get politically and socially active, “counter the mainstream biased media.”

The NFA, he says, “spent a lot of money in the last election un-electing undesirable Liberals like Ralph Goodale. We had a big hand in that. And we’ll be targeting high Liberal brass again” in the next election. He speculates that the Liberal government is “probably going to pull the trigger” this fall, and call a federal election.

Clare declares that they are “getting ready for an election,” developing a plan that will:

… target and un-elect Liberals and get pro-gun Conservatives — they’re the only ones out there that I can see are going to be backing us — get those pro-gun Conservatives elected. And then we don’t have to worry about becoming criminals in two years. Because I can tell you this: there are an awful lot of people out there who are having quiet conversations on the back deck, about what happens in two years. And it doesn’t involve handing in their guns.

He is referring to the two-year amnesty that the federal government has given owners of the firearms prohibited by the May 1 Order-In-Council, which would make it illegal to possess those firearms after that. Says Clare:

I’m not scared. I’m angry. I’m really fed up with this. I’ve been through six gun bans and I’m not going through more gun bans. This is it. This is the line and they have crossed it. So here we are. And if Mr. Blair thinks for one second that everybody’s going to roll over and take this, he’s wrong.

Zach chimes in, claiming that the May 1 firearms ban is just the beginning:

I just want to speak to the people out there that think that this particular gun ban is … maybe it’s not catching them now. But make no mistake. The next round will affect you one way or the other. The ultimate endgame here, and it’s based on the UK model from 25 – 30 years ago, is ultimately wholesale civil disarmament.

Says Clare, a middle-aged white man, not a demographic that is generally considered an oppressed minority in Canada:

This is the biggest property grab by a government using Order In Council since they took away the property of the Japanese in 1942. It’s as big as that, or bigger. And it’s based on targeting a minority — us — and it’s based on a purely ideological war against our culture. That’s what this is.

Clare doesn’t mention that the government ban involves a government buy-back program for the prohibited firearms. Rather, he compares the perceived injustice to Canadian gun owners whose assault-style firearms will be bought back by the federal government, to the horrendous injustice and racism suffered by Japanese-Canadians during World War, who became prisoners in their own country, some contained behind high wire fences like caged animals. According to the Canadian Encyclopedia:

Beginning in early 1942, the Canadian government detained and dispossessed more than 90 per cent of Japanese Canadians, some 21,000 people, living in British Columbia. The majority were Canadian citizens by birth. They were detained under the War Measures Act and were interned for the rest of the Second World War. Their homes and businesses were sold by the government to pay for their detention.

Nevertheless, the persecution complex seems to be alive and well in the National Firearms Association. Its executive director Charles Zach picks up on Clare’s argument:

You know we’re that minority now that is being treated prejudicially by society based on this rhetoric. Legally, we’re being treated prejudicially in the courts.

Clare announces that he is not going to accept this:

This is not the Canada I want to live in. This is not the Canada I’m going to live in.

Zach explains that this is why they are getting in touch with the Conservative leadership, because one of them will be the future prime minister and help them in the future regain their “liberty and freedoms.”

Clare says that the NFA has been working hard to build good relationships with all the leadership candidates, and that:

… very clearly we need to get rid of Liberals. And we need to make sure that we’re getting rid of Bloc candidates in Quebec, we’re getting rid of NDP candidates in areas as well, and make sure we’re replacing them with pro-gun, pro-freedom, pro-liberty Conservatives.

As the Examiner reported here, according to Dr. Michael Ackermann, national vice president for a third major gun lobby group, the Canadian Shooting Sports Association, the CSSA has spoken to all four Conservative leadership contenders, and they are all “very engaging.”

An email to the CSSA asking if they would say when those meetings were held, why, and if CSSA was supporting any particular candidate, resulted in this reply from CSSA Executive Director Tony Bernardo: “No, no and no.”

Conservatives once supported gun control

The history of who supports gun control and who doesn’t is littered with interesting political flip-flops by conservative factions.

Although it may seem unthinkable today, back in the 1920s, 1930s, and 1960s the grandfather of all gun lobbies and the most ardent and rigid defender of the Second Amendment in the United States and of citizens’ rights to bear arms of any kind and anywhere they see fit, the National Rifle Association of America (NRA) strongly supported strict gun control laws.

In 1967, the NRA worked with Republican California governor Ronald Reagan to help keep guns of all types out of the hands of citizens. The reason? To keep arms out of the hands of Black people; the Black Panthers felt they needed to arm and protect themselves against racist governments and security forces.

The NRA supported laws that were passed in the US in the 1960s to regulate guns, because they were laws that targeted African Americans. In 1968, the NRA supported the federal Gun Control Act that prohibited certain people from owning guns and strengthened licensing and inspections of gun dealers.

Those days are long gone. In the 1970s, the NRA began to focus on politics, align itself with the Republican Party and conservative politicians, and actively lobby against gun control. Today, the NRA is possibly the most powerful, well-financed and strident cheerleader for firearms in the world, pushing against legislation that controls much of anything about their ownership and use.

The about-face was remarkable, but it’s not unique to the United States.

Meanwhile, in Canada

Although gun control legislation has long been contentious and hotly debated in Canada, in recent years the volume and tone of the discourse has been ratcheting up, and the debate has become polarized.

According to A.J. Somerset writing in The Walrus, the CCFR has become Canada’s “most prominent pro-gun group,” employing the “country’s only full-time, in-house gun lobbyist, Tracey Wilson.” He notes that Wilson is the fiancée of Colin Saunders, a CCFR field officer, who spoke at a 2018 rally on Parliament Hill that was organized by the “Canadian Combat Coalition (or “C3”), which experts consider an anti-Muslim hate group.”

Writes Somerset of the cozy relationships between some prominent Conservatives and the CCFR:

CCFR lobbyist Wilson is a friend of Conservative MP Michelle Rempel and recently attended her wedding. At that event, Saunders was photographed with Stephen Harper.

Conservatives in Canada were not always so clearly in the camp of the pro-gun lobby.

According to Blake Brown, just 30 years ago — in the aftermath of the Montreal Massacre at École Polytechnique — all three traditional political parties in Canada supported gun control. In an email to the Halifax Examiner, Brown continued:

Having said that, it important to note there was a split in the PC [Progressive Conservative] party over gun control even in the early 1990s. Brian Mulroney tried to keep that in check while he was prime minister, but the division became apparent with the rise of the Reform Party. The Reform Party of course scooped up many traditional Progressive Conservative seats in the west, partly because of the Reform Party’s opposition to gun control. Reform then fought hard against the gun control measures of Prime Minister Jean Chretien. When the PC and Reform parties combined, the Reform position on guns dominated the new Conservative Party.

I think the position of the current party and the potential leadership candidates reflects the ideological persuasion of a good chunk of the Conservative Party — especially its libertarian wing that emphasizes small government. My sense is that the leadership candidates are adopting relatively extreme views on gun control because they believe firearm owners are politically activated and make up a sizable portion of the party. They seem to think it is not possible to stake out a different position on firearms and win the leadership.

SMU professor Blake Brown (contributed)
Blake Brown (contributed)

Brown questions the wisdom of the Conservative Party tying itself too closely to the gun lobby, “given that the number of firearm owners in Canada has declined substantially since the 1970s (though the number has increased in the last few years).”

He has also written that both the Progressive Conservative Party and the Liberals have backed various gun control measures historically, and that, “It’s only since the 1990s that the Conservatives have been knee-jerk opponents of new gun control measures.”

tweet from Rod Giltaca CCFR
Tweet from Rod Giltaca, CCFR CEO and Executive Director

As for the sometimes bellicose tone and belligerent messaging from some members of the gun lobby groups, particularly on social media and in their own videos, Blake says:

The gun lobby in Canada has long used rhetoric that can seem to other Canadians to be over the top. In the 1970s, for example, it wasn’t unusual for gun control opponents to make comparisons between Liberal politicians and Stalin or Hitler. However, social media has made this rhetoric more public. I would also speculate that the existence of several competing organizations representing gun owners has created a “race to the bottom,” with each group trying to outdo each other in the intensity of their complaints as a means of attracting paying members. The CCFR was originally established with the goal of being a more reasonable, measured organization that would focus on public outreach. However, it’s messaging has become more and more radical.

And, Brown adds:

The growing prominence of the CCFR (on social media, its website, TV shows, etc) has led the National Firearms Association to respond by upping its social media game. The NFA leadership seems to be hardcore libertarians.

Blake suggests that the reason Peter MacKay hasn’t yet done an NFA Talk interview with the executive of the National Firearms Association “may show his desire to keep some distance with that group, particularly given he was burned by infamously wearing one of its shirts when he was a federal cabinet minister.”

Conservatives adopt gun lobby rhetoric

Wendy Cukier is a professor at Ryerson University, and president of the Coalition for Gun Control, which was started after the Montreal Massacre 30 years ago and says it is now “supported by more than 200 health, crime prevention, victims, policing, women’s and community organizations from across Canada.

Wendy Cukier (contributed)
Wendy Cukier (contributed)

In a telephone interview with the Examiner, she recalled how, in the 1990s, under Jean Chretien’s Liberals, there was unapologetic support for gun control in Canada:

They were very clear that gun ownership is not a right, that gun control is a Canadian value focussed on keeping Canada safer, reducing death and injury, [and reducing] violence against women and suicide.

Cukier says that some of Chretien’s people believed that they won successive majorities because they took a strong stand on gun control.

In 2005, then Liberal Prime Minister Paul Martin campaigned on a promise to ban handguns. He lost the 2006 election to Stephen Harper’s Conservatives, and Cukier says some Liberals, “bought into the story that they lost the election because of gun control.”

Under Harper, the Conservatives adopted the rhetoric of the gun lobby, speaking about “protecting gun rights” for “law-abiding citizens.” According to Cukier, at that point the Liberals also began backing away from strong, clear arguments for gun control, as did the NDP that previously strongly supported it.

She laments that everything the Coalition for Gun Control worked for was “completely dismantled” under Harper, and says that today there are actually fewer controls on the sale of rifles and shotguns than there were in 1977.

In Cukier’s view, this is largely because of the gun lobby, which has become more “sophisticated in its rhetoric and strategy.”

“Their increased access into the corridors of power has been profound in the last decade,” she says.

However, Cukier points to the consistency of polls that show strong public support for gun control in the country; polls by Angus Reid and Ipsos found that the vast majority of Canadians are very supportive of the recent ban on assault-style firearms.

In a telephone interview, Dr. Philip Berger, a member of the Canadian Coalition of Physicians for Protection from Guns, told the Examiner that he is confounded by the willingness of Peter MacKay and Erin O’Toole to align themselves with lobby groups like CCFR:

… they are the prospective leaders of a mainstream political party which does have a history of respect for human rights and civil rights. And [Prime Minister] Mulroney took on Apartheid in the late 1980s, and had a significant effect in ending Apartheid. So why would [people campaigning] for political leadership [of the Conservative Party] align themselves with this group and provide credibility and moral cover to these groups? These groups are … promoting guns, which are threatening safety of Canada. I’m not talking about hunters, well-intentioned hunters or sports enthusiasts who like to shoot. That’s not who we’re talking about.

Berger continued:

When you have a political leader like O’Toole or MacKay meeting with them [CCFR and NFA] and speaking on their podcast, they give undeserved credibility to these two organizations and also undermine an informed and civil discourse on gun control. You can’t have a political leader meet with those groups and expect there is going to be civility and debate.

[1] Three prominent firearms lobby groups in Canada are the Canadian Coalition for Firearms Rights (CCFR), the Canadian Shooting Sports Association (CSSA), and the National Firearms Association (NFA). Tracey Wilson is the only woman on the 11-member CCFR “team.” The 11 members of the NFA Board of Directors are all male. THE CSSA does not list its executive or board members on its website, and its Executive Director Tony Bernardo said in an email to the Halifax Examiner that it does not publish its board or executive team members’ names for “privacy reasons.” He said only that they are made up of 10 women and 13 men.

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Joan Baxter is an award-winning Nova Scotian journalist and author of seven books, including "The Mill: Fifty Years of Pulp and Protest." Website:; Twitter @joan_baxter

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  1. Joan, this fully explains why the provincial CON leader, Tim Houston, an MLA from Peter MacKay’s own Pictou County, is so reluctant to score easy political points against Premier McNeil over growing calls for a public inquiry on the GW spree killings : mind you, the NDP & GRN leaders are hardly bolder….