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Banning masked protest threatens Canadian freedoms

By in Opinions

On Oct. 31 the federal government passed a private members’ bill with far-reaching implications for Canadians that signals a desire on the Conservative government’s part to erode citizens’ civil liberties.

Bill C-309, introduced by Alberta Member of Parliament Blake Richards, makes it illegal for members of an unlawful assembly to cover their faces, and carries a punishment of up to 10 years in prison for those doing so.

Participating in an unlawful assembly is already illegal, as per the name. But it is only a summary conviction, while the new law makes masked protesting an exponentially more serious crime.

At a time of increased civil unrest both globally and within Canada, the sole purpose of this redundant bill is to increase police power and discourage citizens from protesting.

Protests on the rise

C-309 comes in the wake of a few notable protests and popular movements in Canada.

The 2010 G20 protests in Toronto saw hundreds of people detained without charge, the destruction of the government-sanctioned free speech zone and a public far more fixated on the actions of some rogue “black bloc” rioters than on police abuses of power, such as the aforementioned unwarranted detentions.

Following the Vancouver Canucks’ 2011 Stanley Cup loss, aggrieved fans took to the streets and caused destruction and property damage totalling around $5 million.

Students brought Montreal and much of Quebec to a standstill for months earlier in 2012 over a tuition dispute with the provincial government, creating one of the most dynamic Canadian protest movements in recent memory.

At least as important, though not Canadian in origin, is Occupy Wall Street. The popular movement began in October 2011 in New York City’s Zucotti Park. OWS and its thousands of offshoots, now collectively referred to as “Occupy,” quickly became a worldwide phenomenon and focused global attention on the staggering income inequality and dubious financial practices that have contributed to the ongoing global financial crisis.

With protest movements developing rapidly around the world and even gaining footholds in our usually sleepy country — albeit largely in Quebec so far, long a stronghold of Canadian political clashes and protest culture — it is unsurprising that politicians are growing uneasy and looking to discourage Canadians from registering their dissatisfaction.

Civil liberties at risk

According to proponents of this bill, its measures will deter black bloc protesters and other dangerous riffraff. Black bloc is a protest tactic that involves participants wearing matching black garb and covering their faces, but it is also shorthand for the mysterious group believed to have caused most of the damage during the G20 protest.

And as Canadian Police Association president Tom Stamatakis told the Globe and Mail recently, “In my experience when someone shows up at protests with a mask, their intentions are violent. There is no good legitimate reason for someone to protest peacefully and show up wearing a mask.”

This argument is specious at best.

There are several reasons people might want to cover their faces while peacefully protesting, from religious or climate reasons to the fact that some employers are likely to disapprove of workers participating in protests. Bandanas and other face coverings offer at least some protection against the threat of tear gas, rubber bullets and other forms of police intimidation. The House of Commons recognized this in part: a “lawful excuse” clause was added to allow for women sporting the niqab or burka and for weather-related coverings.

How can a police officer tell, though, if that person is cold or is using a plaid scarf instead of a black bandana? Are all cold-weather protesters automatically exempted from arrest? What if people begin to wear burkas instead of balaclavas in an effort to skirt the law?

On the often-contentious frontlines of a protest, when there is no time to dispassionately consider the situation, police officers will sometimes be tempted to arrest first and ask questions later. This bill makes it significantly easier to do that, and to make such arrests stick.

That is not a hypothetical. Police arrested over 1,000 people during the 2010 G20 protests on June 26 and 27, the largest mass arrest in Canadian history. Only 317 were charged at all, and according to the Globe and Mail, 187 of those had their “charges withdrawn, stayed or dismissed by a judge.” One can only imagine how many more would have been detained if Toronto police had known they were allowed to arrest people simply for wearing masks while protesting.

Redundant, but still harmful

As the language of the bill itself makes clear, this legislation is entirely unnecessary. The bill’s alternative title is the “Preventing Persons from Concealing Their Identity during Riots and Unlawful Assemblies Act.” As should be apparent to most readers, unlawful assemblies are already illegal, as is rioting. Vandalizing and causing property damage likewise are already against the law.

Bill C-309 does nothing except increase police power to arrest protesters involved in “unlawful assemblies.”

This, again, raises important questions that are left unanswered. For example, what constitutes an unlawful assembly? Occupy protesters refused to evacuate Zucotti Park in late 2011, insisting that the park belonged to the public. They were forcibly evicted.

Toronto’s G20 protests had a designated “free speech zone” in which to congregate, but as the Canadian Civil Liberties Association noted before the summit, “Freedom of expression is protected throughout Canada: our country, and all of Toronto is a ‘free speech zone.’  Protesters cannot be prevented from demonstrating outside of the “designated demonstration area,” particularly when the area set aside is situated in a place that is so remote from the meetings that protesters cannot be directly seen or heard by the leaders.”

The new bill serves as a signal to both police and citizens that tolerance for public protest in Canada is decreasing.

Under the provisions of Bill C-309 police will enjoy increased power to detain even peaceful protesters, while protesters will face outlandish potential punishments for exercising their freedom of speech in a way that makes police and politicians uncomfortable. With all of the activities mentioned in the bill already illegal except for covering one’s face, the principle outcome of this bill will be the intimidation and disempowerment of citizens.

Illustration: Samantha Bruan/The Sheaf

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