Alarm is spreading among Cree hunters and trappers as the December 31 deadline approaches for gun owners to have a firearms license under the new federal Firearms Act.

The law imposes harsh penalties for firearm owners who don’t have a license by Dec. 31, including fines, criminal charges and confiscation of weapons.

But hundreds of Crees don’t have either the old Firearms Acquisition Certificate or the new possession license created by the law, Bill 68. Gun owners won’t need the new license if they have a valid FAC. They will have to eventually get the new license when their FAC expires.

And time is running out for the many Crees without either permit. It takes six months for the application to be processed and background checks to be done.

Edward Tapiatic, a firearms-safety instructor in Chisasibi, said only 20 to 30 percent of his community have permits.

“It’s true a lot of people are concerned about the deadline,” he said. “We’re in a bind. We are trying to give out as many courses as we can by the deadline.

“If they try to enforce the act on that deadline, I guess they are going to be up to their necks with people who do not agree with the legislation,” Tapiatic said.

A Cree police official agreed there is a problem: “In some communities with 2,000 people, maybe 15 people are trained.”

The Cree Trappers’ Association mounted a major campaign to inform gun owners about the law and get people registered. But there were complaints that the forms and firearms-safety courses were hard to translate into Cree because of technical language, and hard for Elders to understand.

“There is a lot of red tape. It’s a hassle,” said Tapiatic.

The new gun licenses have a picture of the permit holder, so it won’t be as easy to lend it to someone else. Under the law, gun owners have until Dec. 31, 2002, to register all their weapons.

Thomas Coon, president of the trappers’ association, said the federal government should extend the deadline. “In the whole country, there will be a lot of people who will not meet the deadline, not only Crees,” he said.

Other First Nations are also worried. Nunavut Tunngavik Incorporated, which represents the Inuit of Nunavut, sued Ottawa in June to exempt its members from Bill 68.

“It violates the Inuit right to hunt, trap and fish without a license or a fee,” said Laurie Pelly, a lawyer for the organization.

“Indications are lots of Inuit are having a hard time complying with the requirements. The forms are unnecessarily complex, the requirements are confusing, the safety-course requirement is not easily available, the requirements are not available in the (Inuit) language,” she said.

Coon said the Grand Council of the Crees is also studying legal action.

“The right to harvest is not subject to restrictions. The last thing we want is the SQ and wildlife officers harassing our people when they are trying to exercize their right to harvest,” Coon said.

Tapiatic suggested Crees could create their own community bylaws on gun safety. As for Bill 68, it has Crees so upset some are already vowing not to comply with the law, he said. “People are saying they should not be ramming it down our throats.”

No one was available to comment at the federal Canadian Firearms Centre.