The Canadian Government has outlawed masked protestors during "unlawful assemblies", but what does that mean for our freedom of expression?
Anarchopanda, a crowd favorite at protests in Quebec this year, could be criminally charged under a new law that bans masks at unlawful protests.
In a move that comes with an unsettling brand of legislative style, tongue-in-cheek humor, the Canadian government passed a bill on Halloween that aims to outlaw masked protestors during riots or “unlawful assemblies.” In a way, it’s not surprising. Canada has had a tricky few years for riots and protest related carnage. As you may have seen in our documentary, the streets of Montreal were torn up this year by students, anarchists, and anarchist students who were protesting tuition hikes. When the G20 summit came to Toronto in 2010, cop cars were burned, the Black Bloc smashed up retail windows, uninvolved civilians were held by police blockades in the rain, and many protestors were detained in a make-shift detention center on the east end of the city. People in Vancouver also got super upset when the Canucks blew it in the Stanley Cup finals. However, the move to ban masks entirely appears to be an unrealistic measure that will do more to prevent the freedom of protestors, than limit the amount of violence and anarchy on Canadian streets during trying political times.
The politicians and law enforcement representatives in Canada have mixed feelings about all this. Bob Rae, the interim leader of the Liberal party, is pro-mask. As the CBC reports, Bob asks: “Are we going to ban people from appearing in a protest because they are wearing a burka? Are we going to say that on a cold day that people can't wear a mask?" On the other side, a guy named Tom Stamatakis who is the president of Canada’s Police Association, thinks he knows better: “In my experience when someone shows up at protest with mask, their intentions are violent... There is no good legitimate reason for someone to protest peacefully and show up wearing a mask.”
The definition of what is and what is not an unlawful protest is also troubling. During a fairly uneventful version of Occupy (compared to its New York counterpart, anyway) that reached Toronto streets in November of last year, protestors took over a park in the downtown core of the city and had their protest camp declared as illegal by a Toronto judge. The Globe and Mail is reporting that this new law against masked protestors "provides a penalty of up to 10 years in prison." So, that seems to indicate that someone who is demonstrating at a peaceful yet illegal protest, during a very cold time of year while wearing a balaclava, could be criminally charged and imprisoned for a decade.
I spoke to a Quebec lawyer named Julius H. Grey this morning who is against this outright ban on masked protestors. Juius does not think this law is fair, or set-up to be an effective measure against violent protests. He also believes it violates our basic freedom of expression: “Freedom of expression is not only verbal expression or written expression. If you can’t point or gesticulate, or do whatever it is you need to do physically to express something, then that is a violation of freedom of expression.”
Canada has certainly seen destruction on its streets at the hands of masked protestors, which Julius addressed: “There is no question that there is a pressing objective to have have peaceful demonstrations, and to be able to identify people, in order to prevent people from committing vandalism during a demonstration.”
“The criminal code provides police with the power, at all times, to be able to read the riot act and say: ‘This demonstration is out of hand, please disperse.’ You can have that. During a demonstration that is getting out of hand, you could ask people to remove masks. That may pass. But to pass, in advance, a law that says I cannot put on a mask... I think that’s a violation of freedom of expression.”
There are a myriad of fair reasons why a person may want to hide their identity during a protest. It is not simply a way for vandals or violent protestors to disguise their identity in an attempt to escape criminal prosecution: “People may want to wear masks of a particular political leader. They may want to disguise themselves with a Stephen Harper mask or a Romney mask in order to demonstrate their displeasure with those gentlemen.”
“You can imagine that a young student may be afraid of his parents, may be afraid of his priest or his rabbi, may be afraid of his University’s authorities. Somebody working for a very strongly Zionist employer who is taking part in a pro Palestinian demonstration, or vice versa, could lose their job if they were identified. There are all sorts of legitimate reasons why a person might want to be at a protest, in solidarity, without being identified.”
Evidently, this catch-all legislation that sets out to ban masks from any protest that the government or the police designate as illegal, is an imprecise kneejerk reaction to the growing problem of violent protests in Canada. While we have certainly seen unnecessary destruction on the streets of Vancouver, Toronto, and Montreal at the hands of protestors, both masked and unmasked, limiting our freedom of expression that truly is the basis of why we're allowed to have protests and demonstrations in the first place, is doing the civilians of this country a great disservice.