“Debate has now begun on [Conservative] MP Blake Richards’ Private Members’ Bill C-309. The Bill proposes creating a new criminal offence for those that wear ‘a mask or other disguise to conceal their identity without lawful excuse’ during a riot or unlawful assembly. This Bill was crafted in response to disturbances in large Canadian cities in which masked rioters assaulted civilians, destroyed public and private property and looted businesses. So this week I ask, ‘Should it be a criminal offense to mask or conceal one’s identity without lawful excuse during a riot or unlawful assembly?’”
Bill C-309 poses a severe threat to Canadians’ right to freedom of assembly, and threatens future protest movements. Anonymity, crowd action and protest have a long and storied history, a tradition which extends well into the present day. Crowd action is deeply rooted in anonymity, allowing an individual to blend into a larger group of people, reducing the risk of state reprisal and repression. In this post, I provide some historical context to this, arguing that we should not allow Bill C-309 to pass.
The use of fictional or historical characters to mask a protesters’ identity has many precedents. Historians Eric Hobsbawm and George Rudé have explored the symbolic and practical importance of figures like General Ludd to the Luddite movement or Captain Swing to the Swing Riots during nineteenth century British protests. With the latter, farm workers facing unemployment, underemployment, low levels of relief, and the replacement of their labour with threshing machines, used letters from “Captain Swing” to object to these conditions and protect their identity from the long arm of the state. Of course, the use of masks during crowd actions also have a much more sordid history – the white hood, as one example, continues to be a powerful symbol of racist oppression and violence against African Americans.
In more recent years, “Anonymous” has become a potent symbol among protestors. Popularized by the comic book (inspired by Thatcher’s Britain) and film V is for Vendetta, the Guy Fawkes masks provide a means for activists to escape state repression, rallying behind a symbol that evokes considerable meaning.
Technological developments have been a powerful force in building protest movements and activist links. So too have they made it easier for the state to crack down on dissent. Many repressive states across the world have used the Internet to trace its critics, jailing or otherwise eliminating opposition to dictatorial rule. In the Canadian context, face recognition technology has most recently enabled authorities to identify and arrest individuals caught in crowd shots.
There are many reasons why someone participating in a peaceful assembly may want to cover their face or hide their identity. Some people shield their faces in public for religious reasons. While religion may be read as a “lawful excuse”, this Bill could still limit the right of some religious groups to join in peaceful assembly.
There are many other reasons people may choose to cover their faces during a peaceful assembly. Photos are often shot continuously during protests, as participants, observers and the media attempt to document these events. Pictures can be instantly uploaded to the Internet, available to be viewed by millions. This could cause professional or personal duress for those who may live or work in an environment hostile to activist causes. Furthermore, facial concealment is also an important method for peaceful protestors to physically protect themselves from police violence. A kerchief is often the only tool a protestor may have to shield against the burning effect of tear gas or other forms of crowd control.
Supporters of Bill C-309 might point out that these prohibitions would exist only in cases where a riot or unlawful assembly was unfolding. Yet who gets to define what constitutes an unlawful assembly? Many governments have seemed all too willing to define a broad range of protest as unlawful, particularly when these protests target state authority or power, such as was witnessed during the largely peaceful G20 protests in Toronto.
Bill C-309 could pose a serious threat to Canadian rights to participate in peaceful assembly. It would also enhance the power of the state to crack down on dissenters. This is not a positive development for democracy. The Conservatives in Canada like to position themselves as the champions of smaller government, freedom and democracy. However, a state that dictates what we can and cannot wear is Big Government in all the wrong ways. Bill C-309 would place serious limitations on our democratic rights.
What does your MP think of Bill C-309? Contact information for your MP is available here if you’d like to find out.