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Masked protesters take part in an anti-capitalist demonstration in Montreal, Tuesday, May 1, 2012. Conservative MPs have agreed to impose a maximum 10-year prison term on protesters who wear masks while inciting a riot, and lesser sentences and fines for the mere act of being present at a riot in a mask. (CP)
Masked protesters take part in an anti-capitalist demonstration in Montreal, Tuesday, May 1, 2012. Conservative MPs have agreed to impose a maximum 10-year prison term on protesters who wear masks while inciting a riot, and lesser sentences and fines for the mere act of being present at a riot in a mask. (CP)

THE WEEK

Let’s face facts: Ottawa’s new mask ban goes too far Add to ...

A stream of trick-or-treaters visited 24 Sussex Dr. on Halloween, but before they could get to the Prime Minister’s door, they had to pass through a metal detector. It was a security precaution, apparently. There was a chance that My Pretty Pony might have a shiv concealed in her glossy pink mane, or that someone would come as the ghost of the Kyoto accord, with a ruined umbrella stuck to his head.

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The CBC footage of the night showed a tiny superhero skirting the outside of the metal detector, a sly move that bodes well for his future in politics. Forbidden weapons sat on a nearby table, including Satan’s pitchfork and Bluebeard’s sword. Perhaps it was merely a showcase for the products of our new best friends, the novelty manufacturers of China.

On the day that the masked hordes descended on 24 Sussex, the government was busy banning masks of a different sort: Bill C-309, which makes it “an offence to wear a mask or other disguise to conceal one’s identity while taking part in a riot or an unlawful assembly,” passed third reading in the House of Commons. If it survives the Senate, anyone who’s caught wearing a mask during a riot faces up to 10 years in the clink.

Blake Richards, the Conservative MP who sponsored the private member’s bill, said that C-309 “is going to further strengthen our laws, protecting public safety by deterring trouble-makers and others who are looking to use public gathering of any type to instigate riots or unlawful assemblies.” It is intended to put a stop to the kind of reprehensible behaviour on display during the Stanley Cup riots in Vancouver.

Really, with so many other pressing issues calling for the government’s attention, is there any need to criminalize mask-wearing? As the Globe’s story on C-309 points out, it’s already illegal to wear a mask while committing a crime. Interestingly, if you look at the photos released by Vancouver police this summer of 10 Stanley Cup rioters still at large, only two of them had their faces obscured in any way.

Mr. Richards says the proposed law isn’t intended to have any effect on how people behave, or dress, at a lawful protest. But what happens when you’re wearing a scarf over your face at some calm demonstration and suddenly things turn ugly? What if you went to a rally and ended up at a riot? Are you then a criminal?

Critics of the bill say it might hinder people’s right to protest anonymously. If you’re at a politically sensitive demonstration, there is good reason you might not want your spouse, your mom or your employer (let’s say it’s a major newspaper that sounds like Groan and Wail) to know you’re there. Not everyone who wants to protect their identity is a rock-throwing anarchist.

We’re deeply unsettled by masks, a fact that has allowed the makers of Friday the 13th Parts 1 through 7,000 to become rich. We sense that faces are incapable of lying, where words are much more slippery. You see this apprehension every time a story about veiled women arises: We may couch the argument in cultural terms, but underneath there’s a suspicion of hidden motives and murky intent.

Bill C-309 isn’t about citizenship ceremonies or cultural tension, it’s about politics and protest. It’s become increasingly common for protesters to disguise themselves with scarves or the ubiquitous Anonymous masks. During last year’s Occupy Wall Street rallies, several people who had covered their faces were arrested under a little-known 167-year-old New York law that prevents two or more masked people from gathering in the same place. That law is now being challenged in court, The New York Times reported last week.

In England, it’s common to see signs on the doors of malls and movie theatres: Remove your hoods before entering. Hoods are not suddenly a fashion faux pas, but they do hide faces from CCTV cameras. Even if the hoodie has done nothing wrong, the assumption is that he might, in which case his face should be on camera. Increasingly, surveillance and facial-recognition technology are part of everyday life – in advertising, in retailing and, yes, in political protest. For the people watching the protesters, a hidden face is one that can’t be tagged and identified. When Minnesota Senator Al Franken worried publicly about the FBI’s new facial-recognition technology – that it “could be abused to identify protesters at rallies and target them for selective jailing” – was he being paranoid or prescient?

Perhaps Mr. Richards’ bill will only ever be used for its expressed purpose – to deter criminal activity. Maybe it won’t have a chilling effect on protest, and maybe no one will be wrongly caught in its net. But I wouldn’t want to bet 10 years of my life on it.

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