A Conservative MP had a ghoulish treat in store on Halloween: a ban on masks.
Not just any mask. No one is slapping cuffs on trick-or-treaters quite yet. “I am not looking to criminalize pandas, Frosty the Snowman or seals,” said MP Blake Richards, sponsor of private member’s Bill C-309, which passed third reading on Wednesday.
The new law would apply to masks upon the faces of people engaged in unlawful protest, which, if it wasn’t clear, is already unlawful. There’s also an existing law against wearing a disguise while committing an indictable offence.
So it would seem the country is well equipped to charge the masked bandits responsible for much of the damage during Vancouver’s Stanley Cup riots and Toronto’s G20 protests.
“There’s already a provision in the [Criminal] Code against wearing a disguise in context of criminal offence,” said Nathalie Des Rosiers, general counsel of the Canadian Civil Liberties Association. “We’re concerned that if it is used it would simply create a chill on protests and prevent people from protesting peacefully altogether. On its face, it looks more symbolic than anything.”
Not so, say the bill’s backers.
Currently, it’s an indictable offence to engage in a riot, but only a summary conviction to participate in an unlawful assembly. So what’s the difference? An unlawful assembly is much broader. It applies to any group of three or more people who provoke fears or have intentions of disturbing the peace “tumultuously.” The term “riot” ignores intent, and only applies to unlawful assemblies that are in full tumult, according to the Criminal Code.
“The current provision around masks is more aimed at burglaries and robberies and that sort of thing,” said Canadian Police Association (CPA) president Tom Stamatakis. “This makes the law a little more specific.”
When the bill was before the House justice committee, members raised concerns about legitimate concealments like religious head garments and toques. The bill now contains a “lawful excuse” clause that address those concerns, according to the government.
“Wearing a scarf to protect oneself against the elements during a lawful gathering is a lawful excuse,” Conservative MP Michelle Rempel told the House on Monday.
Beyond the law’s potential redundancy, there are other worries. Much of it centres on the hazy definition of unlawful assembly. What does it mean to “disturb the peace tumultuously” anyway? Does disrupting traffic qualify? How about chanting the same monotonous slogan over and over?
“I was in New York last fall during the Occupy protests and my fear is that people who were engaged in Occupy-style protests wearing masks could be captured under this bill,” said Jennifer Koshan, associate professor in the University of Calgary’s law faculty.
And that could be the point. It’s not necessarily the crime that’s the concern, but the mask itself. Images of Guy Fawkes masks at Occupy protests and black bandanas at the G20 in Toronto have become fear-provoking symbols – a belief Mr. Stamatakis of the CPA, the national voice for Canada’s police personnel, holds firmly.
The message is clear, he said, even if the law is not.
“In my experience when someone shows up at protest with mask, their intentions are violent,” he said. “There is no good legitimate reason for someone to protest peacefully and show up wearing a mask.”