Nov. 14, 2012 - Issue #891: Heap and Pebble
Unmasking the law
New bill bans all face coverings at riots
Anonymity at protests is now a thing of the past since a new law was passed on Halloween banning the wearing of masks and other facial coverings at riots.
Bill C-309, Preventing Persons from Concealing Their Identity during Riots and Unlawful Assemblies Act, allows police to pre-emptively arrest anyone at a riot who is masked—regardless of whether or not they've broken any laws.
The bill was the work of Alberta Wildrose MP Blake Richards as a response to last year's Stanley Cup riot in Vancouver where considerable damage was caused, much of it by people who concealed their identity.
But former Occupy Edmonton organizer Katie Nelson, who is now involved as an anarchist with Montréal's student movement, says there are legitimate reasons people cover their faces at protests.
"We've seen it with G20, we've seen it with the student strikes and we've seen it in worker's strikes across the country that hiding your identity or hiding your face is the only thing you have left," Nelson says. "A lot of students here cover their face not because they're going to commit a crime, but because they don't want their teachers to know who they are. They don't want to be identified by their teachers and be personally punished because of their participation in the strike."
The police also target unmasked individuals in Montréal, and Nelson says demonstrators want to have at least minimal protection against that. Closer to home, protester's at last year's White Pride March in Edmonton covered their faces so they wouldn't be "attacked by Nazis" according to Nelson.
At the third reading of the Bill on October 29, Richards said that rather than restricting rights of expression and assembly, the law will strengthen them: "It will ensure that those who come to these events to cause trouble can be brought to justice and discouraged from those kinds of behaviours, so that the people who come to a gathering, for whatever peaceful means, whether it be protest or otherwise, have the ability to do their activities safely and freely."
Nelson, however, has seen peaceful protests upset by riot police on more than one occasion. "You always have to look at who's dressed for the riot. When you have somebody in your stereotypical carrying-a-flower really pacifist outfit and then you have a cop fully geared with a gas mask, balaclava, helmet, shield, knee guards, baton, tear gas, then you have to wonder where the provocation is really coming from," she says. "A riot isn't one broken window. A riot isn't 30 000 people on the street marching. And I think a lot of people have this idea that mass amounts of people is just going to be a riot."
There was some debate about the bill in Parliament—it was passed 153-126—and Nova Scotia Liberal MP Scott Brison said this law was pointless because laws against rioting already exist. "Any bill that would allow police to detain people simply for standing around while wearing a mask and subject them to as many as 10 years in prison would raise significant issues with respect to the charter and civil liberties," Brison said. "I appreciate that all members agree that this law is not meant to target people who cover their faces for religious reasons or sports fans whose faces are painted with team colours. However, I am concerned that if we do not further clarify the bill we risk unintentionally subjecting these people to charges under this legislation."
Nelson is worried about this law's impact on future events too. She and her friends believe this law has been established pre-emptively before any major protests against the Harper government occur.
"It's a big question of how far are we going to let Canada turn into a police state?"
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