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Friday, 21 June 2013 09:13

Canada Outlaws Wearing of Masks at Unsanctioned Government Protests: Punishing Dissent

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maskca6 21The conservative Canadian government, as of June 19, has made the wearing of a mask during an "unlawful assembly" a crime punishable by up to 10 years in prison.

According to the Canadian Broadcasting Company website, the bill's sponsor in the Canadian parliament claims it is aimed at rioters who cause vandalism or violence (which sometimes is, however, precipitated by police intervention). However, it would be up to the police or prosecutors to determine if a spontaneous protest without a permit is a riot or just an exercise in free speech. That leaves a lot of law enforcement discretion in terms of criminalizing dissent.

The CBC provides the background:

Bill C-309, a private member's bill introduced by Conservative MP Blake Richards in 2011, passed third reading in the Senate on May 23 and was proclaimed law during a royal assent ceremony in the Senate this afternoon.

Richards, MP for Wild Rose, Alta., said the bill is meant to give police an added tool to prevent lawful protests from becoming violent riots, and that it will help police identify people who engage in vandalism or other illegal acts. The bill is something that police, municipal authorities and businesses hit hard by riots in Toronto, Vancouver, Montreal and other cities in recent years, were asking for, according to Richards.

"The provisions of my bill are effective immediately, which means police officers across Canada now have access to these tools to protect the public from masked rioters," Richards said in a statement being released today.

Of course, civil liberties proponents – let's just call them people who believe in democracy and the right to express viewpoints publicly – are objecting to the clamp down on protests:

Civil liberties advocates argued the measures could create a chilling effect on free speech and that peaceful protesters can unintentionally find themselves involved in an unlawful assembly. They also noted that there are legitimate reasons for wearing masks at protests; some may be worried about reprisals at work, for example, if sighted at a political protest."

Any law that infringes upon civil liberties needs to be held to a test of absolute necessity, and I don't think that test has been met in this instance," said Michael Byers, a political scientist at the University of British Columbia and a board member of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, in an interview. Byers testified at the Commons justice committee that studied the bill.

Byers appears to be engaged in cautious understatement as to the gravity of this Canadian step toward stifling those who would advocate changes in the status quo.  Clearly, a law that would, due to police enforcement discretion, make a Halloween march against tar sands oil a crime, for example, is more than a law enforcement tool; it's the suppression of a core right in a democracy.

Many Americans are unaware of how far right the conservative government in Canada has moved in recent years, but this law should disabuse anyone of the notion that Canada's parliament and prime minister  -- Tory (officially Conservative Party PM) Stephen Harper – are not also sock-puppets for vested financial interests, just as in DC.

The Conservative Party holds a clear majority in the House of Commons, along with the PM's position.  

So the Canadian parliament has passed a law that makes wearing masks during rowdy protests subject to a penalty of years in prison.  There is no masking that the once seemingly civil liberal society to the north has become a handmaiden to US pro-global corporate policy at the expense of a vibrant right to dissent.

(Photo: Ben Fredericson)