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Jul 3, 2013 | Commentary

In late June Bill C-309 became law in Canada, rendering it a criminal offense to wear a mask or otherwise conceal one’s identity during a riot or unlawful assembly with a punishment of up to ten years imprisonment. The Bill responds to the June 2010 G20 fiasco in Toronto, the June 2011 Vancouver Stanley Cup riots, and the 2012 student demonstrations in Quebec, all of which saw wanton destruction of property. In the latter two cases, however, masks were relatively rare; but in reference to the G20 summit in Toronto we can easily recall the masked masses of the so-called ‘Black Block anarchists’ laying waste to city streets. I would thus like to raise several concerns about Bill C-309 in light of my own ground-level experience of the Toronto G20 summit.

Over the weekend of June 25-27, I grabbed my camera and ventured downtown to find out exactly what 1.2 billion dollars in security spending meant for a city like Toronto. I set out not as a protestor, but as a student of conflict and security with a keen empirical spirit. From a flaming Police cruiser at King and York, I followed the Black Block up Yonge street as they wantonly smashed storefronts (the Police opted not to intervene, even as the vandals marched past Police Headquarters), before moving over to Queen’s Park (the ‘designated protest area’ far away from the wall guarding the actual G20 meeting several kilometers to the south). At Queen’s park, the riot police showed up en masse, and the Black Block quickly removed their bandanas and disappeared into the crowd of peaceful demonstrations crowding the area. After the Black Block had dispersed and ceased to present a threat, the riot police forcibly, and without any communication, pushed the demonstrators back, and eventually cleared the ‘protest zone’ altogether.

Based on these experiences, I fear that Bill C-309 represents a step towards the criminalization of legitimate dissent while simultaneously obscuring the greater security governance issue to come out of the G20 summit. While many of these concerns have already been raised elsewhere by others, I hope that the illustrations I draw from the G20 summit lend them greater credence.

For many, the issue begins with a simple question: why would anyone want or need to wear a mask at a protest unless to conceal their identity while committing a crime? I would like to highlight two legitimate reasons (though I’m sure there are many more). In each case, Bill C-309 threatens freedom of expression and the right to peaceful demonstration.

First, we must recognize that protests and demonstrations are exercises in spectacle. These are public events that are often meant to be fun as well as thought-provoking. Whether through colorful banners, humorous costumes, repetitive chants, or other dramatics, the whole point is to grab attention and challenge an audience to engage with a significant issue. At the G20, for example, I enjoyed the antics of a group of clowns (around the world, clowning has become a poignant medium of political satire). A more frequent example is the ubiquitous Guy Fawkes mask, derived from the graphic novel and film V for Vendetta as a symbol of the struggle against tyranny. Such pageantry is a quintessential part of peaceful demonstration now threatened by Bill C-309.

Within the social media panopticon, secondly, many fear that a publicly broadcast record of their presence at a protest or demonstration may be used to unjustly discriminate against them based on their political views (on the part of employers, officials, colleagues, family members, etc). One immigration rights group I met at the G20, for example, was protesting global border and migration policies (indeed, one of the largest hypocrisies of the neoliberal economic order is that it has liberalized capital and trade without liberalizing labor, the third pillar of classical liberal economic doctrine). These demonstrators chose to obscure their identities with black bandanas for fear that their participation in the peaceful demonstration would be used against them to nullify their immigration status. Further, we now know that Police deliberately infiltrated activist groups and placed many activists under a pre-emptory house arrest in advance of the summit. Such targeted acts provide ample reason for many to hide their identity in order to safeguard their right to freedom of expression and participation in peaceful protest.

By the Bill, of course, neither of these concerns should really be an issue during a peaceful protest; it is only when such an event becomes a riot or ‘unlawful assembly’ that wearing a mask becomes criminal. Yet the ambiguity and arbitrariness of the transition from ‘peaceful protest’ to ‘riot’ or ‘unlawful assembly’ creates a dangerous chilling effect and a vulnerability for anyone in the above two scenarios. The forcible closure of the ‘designated protest area’ of the G20 summit provides a disconcerting example.

Towards the end of the afternoon of Saturday, June 26, and long after the Black Block had dispersed, the Police forced all demonstrators out of Queen’s Park using batons, shields, and asps. It was a scene of great panic and confusion: the demonstrations in this specifically designated area had been entirely peaceful, the Black Block was nowhere to be seen, and there was no apparent reason for the crackdown. Without actually communicating the decision or the reasons behind it to the crowd, the Police had arbitrarily decided that the show was over. The Police also neglected to explain where they expected this already crammed crowd to move, creating further pandemonium into which they fired rubber bullets. Both the decision to shut down the demonstration and the execution of the order were arbitrary, excessive and unjustified. While the distinction between ‘peaceful protest’ and ‘unlawful assembly’ may look clear on paper, this incident demonstrates the significant potential for abuse, to the detriment of basic civil liberties. (If we recall that during the G20 the police deliberately lied to the public about an obscure Public Works Act it used unlawfully to keep people away from the fence, the concerns for such abuse multiply).

Additionally, Bill C-309 raises an important public health and safety issue. I am fortunate enough to have never suffered a tear gassing, but from what I’ve heard and read, I understand it to be an excruciatingly painful experience. Yet Police around the world (including the Police at the Toronto G20 summit) often use this weapon wanton disregard. Given how hard it is to escape a crowd in general, let alone once tear gas has been deployed and everyone is panicking, many demonstrators have learned to carry and use either a gas mask or a bandana soaked in vinegar to mitigate the effects of the gas cloud in which they are trapped. Now this basic health and safety precaution risks a ten-year prison sentence.

Perhaps most importantly, as a Bill intended to identify the perpetrators of violence during demonstrations, C-309 sorely misses the bigger security governance issue. I witnessed the black block destroy property in ways that easily could have hurt someone, but I never saw them deliberately and directly try to harm another human being. Sadly, I witnessed Police officers doing exactly that. In dozens of incidents I saw them use excessive and unnecessary force against peaceful protesters and bystanders with a zeal that continues to disturb me three years on.

Most problematically for security governance, many of these officers removed their badge numbers and other forms of identification and covered their faces; practically none were held to account for the violence they inflicted on innocent, peaceful demonstrators and bystanders. The destruction of property is surely expensive and disruptive, but isn’t mass physical violence against citizens a much greater issue – especially when it is perpetrated by officers of the state ostensibly charged with protecting the public and upholding rights? There was a startling dearth of accountability for the conduct of violent Police officers. Sadly, Bill C-309 does not apply to the Police or have anything to say about officers who obscure their identity whilst committing violent acts against peaceful demonstrators. In this sense, it sorely misses the bigger issue to come out of the G20 summit.

Of course, I am not a lawyer and remain an outsider to the minutia of legal procedure in Canada.  Surely many would respond to my concerns by arguing that there are clear provisions, procedures and other laws that could alleviate the risks and abuses I’ve highlighted here. I sincerely hope so, but am hardly reassured. If the G20 summit demonstrated one thing, it is that contemporary protest is easily met with a legal ‘state of exception’ in which basic rights and civil liberties disappear, officials and authorities are not held to account for their actions, and ‘security enforcement’ becomes arbitrarily and even violently inflicted upon citizens.

Conservative MP Blake Richards, who first introduced Bill C-309, said upon its passing: “We can all rest easier tonight knowing our communities have been made safer with its passage.” For those concerned with civil liberties and democratic security governance, the situation is quite the contrary.


Michael Lawrence is a Security Governance Group Associate.