Wearing a Mask at a Canadian Protest Can Earn You a Ten Year Prison Sentence
Canada is now a country where a protesting panda bear can be sent to prison for a decade. Photo via JustinLing.
As we told you in November, Canada’s House of Commons passed a bill last Halloween that forbids masked protesters from joining in on an “illegal” protest. Anyone who is in violation of this new anti-mask legislation will be facing a maximum penalty of a decade in prison. Many Canadians understandably see this as the latest move by the Conservative government to criminalize dissent in this country.
The world has seen a surge in social upheaval over the past few years, as movements like the Arab Spring and Occupy have dominated headlines. Most recently, Istanbul and São Paulo have been coated in flames and tear gas clouds as crowds of protesters clash with swarms of riot police. Alongside these uprisings is a recent report by the Guardian that indicates the Pentagon is “bracing for public dissent”—which is in part why they have built a massive system of “suspicionless surveillance”—emerging from environmental activism, as the world prepares to be rocked by new natural disasters.
Over here in Canada, we have experienced our own brand of protesting and social uprising, specifically from the student movement in Montreal. Recent legislation in Montreal has made it illegal to be in a group of more than ten people without prior notification to the police. The incredibly shitty and controversial P-6 bylaw has also made it a requirement for protesters to send an itinerary of their demonstration to the police in advance. If protesters fail to send in their protest route, or the protest deviates in any way from the submitted route, their protest will be deemed illegal, and so if any of the protesters at said protest are in masks, they could lose the next ten years of their life.
Besides that insanely disproportionate penalty, so-called illegal protesters are also being levied fines starting at $500 for the first offence. Given that the crux of the protest movement in Montreal is a student uprising, kids who are living off Kraft Dinner are understandably concerned about having to pay fines that can sometime go over a thousand dollars for repeat offenses. It’s squashing the alternative voice in an alarmingly ironfisted manner. As Alex Norris, a Montreal councilor, told the CBC: “P-6… doesn’t belong in a democratic society.”
As a result of these restrictive legislations, protests are oftentimes declared illegal in Montreal. In March, 250 people were arrested at an anti-police brutality protest, including one VICE Canada journalist. At the May Day protest on May 1st, police arrested 447 protesters. VICE Canada was also there, filming a documentary about the P-6 bylaw.
Anarcopanda hanging out with a bunch of masked riot police. via xddorox
Blake Richards, a conservative MP in Alberta, introduced the anti-mask legislation to the House of Commons. He refers to the new law as “my bill,”—like a proud, crappy dad—and was quoted as saying: “We can all rest easier tonight knowing our communities have been made safer with its passage.” But why is that the case? What exactly are we protecting ourselves from? Just because wearing a mask at a protest is illegal, does not mean the Black Bloc members who vandalized storefronts and burned police cars at the Toronto G20 are simply going to stay home the next time there’s an opportunity to riot.
Then there are the headlines, like the one CBC ran today, stating that: “Wearing a mask at a riot becomes illegal today.” We know that this law is simply not a measure being used against riots—because the definition in Canada of what is and what is not an illegal protest has become so one-sided. Like I mentioned in my first article about this issue, the Occupy Toronto protest, which was by all accounts a very tame and uneventful proceeding, was deemed illegal by a Toronto judge. This was absolutely not a riot, and yet, if you were hanging out there with a Guy Fawkes mask over your face, under this new legislation, you’d likely be going to prison.
Given the wide variety of facial coverings one could possibly wear to a protest, it is relieving to hear that at least there have been “exceptions” built into the new legislation for “religious or medical reasons.” But that doesn’t help anyone who is wearing a mask to express his or her own “radical” political beliefs. While it certainly makes some sense that vandalism is made easier by mask wearing, why are we looking to prosecute non-vandals who are wearing a Guy Fawkes mask or a panda suit simply because riot police—who wear full facial and body coverings and sometimes don’t wear ID badges—can’t see their face?
This type of legislation is maddeningly one-sided. No one in their right mind wants to see innocent people hurt in the process of protesting—nor should anyone, save for the most die-hard of anarchists, wish for property damage to be included as a protest method—but the trend of restrictive legislation against political expression in Canada has reached an alarming level. And it appears to only be getting more stringent as the global climate of social dissent worsens.
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