The Canadian Government has recently passed a bill that will affect all future protests in Canada. The Canadian House of Commons recently passed Bill C-309, officially banning protestors from hiding behind masks during violent riots. Passing with a majority of 153-126, protestors can face up to 10 years in prison if they are successfully convicted. While the passing of the bill seems to be a timely precaution – November 5th is a widely celebrated holiday for Anonymous and other similar organizations – Canadian MPs claim that the bill is in response to the Stanley Cup Riots that destroyed the city of Vancouver in 2011.
Ultimately, the purpose of Bill C-309 is to give police officers an effective tool in the battle against violent protestors. Masked protestors, like the black-masked ones who assaulted Toronto in the G20, are the characteristically violent members of a protest. The nature of their crimes and the persecution that follows requires the extra precaution for when police come searching for them post-protest. Although this is not true for all masked rioters, the menacing intent that is commonly associated with masks justifies this form of persecution, and allows police a way to single out individuals in a mixed and chaotic protest.
This bill has already faced harsh criticism from extreme activist communities, who rely on anonymity both for the protection of their members as well as for symbolic association of their specific masks (such as the infamous Guy Fawkes masks that Anonymous members commonly wear during their protests). The prohibition of the masks has essentially crippled their protest movement.
However, this bill will also affect even moderate and peaceful organizations. Since the law prohibits masks of all sorts, it means that even full-body costumes and mascots are also prohibited. The birds that you see during anti-wind protests, or the seals that you see dotting anti-clubbing marches, or even the pandas that you see holding signs for wildlife parades are suddenly dangerous offenders. While the bill directly addresses the extreme end of the activist spectrum, even environmental groups (which traditionally hold peaceful protests) are feeling the pressure.
Of course, the law only holds if the protest is violent; peaceful protests are allowed to wear masks and mascots as they wish. However, because peaceful protests have the potential to degrade into violent riots quite quickly, it is still the police’s discretion whether or not the circumstances warrant arrest. The power to arrest masked protestors could be easily abused by police in order to detain a merely rowdy or assertive – but not violent – protestor. While such a bill does not directly prohibit peaceful activists from wearing masks and mascots, it means they have to seriously consider the risks of wearing it.
The world exists in a chaotic time, where riots, protests, and fighting against the unfair norm is becoming more and more commonplace. While these protests have the possibility of becoming violent, we need to retain our freedom of speech – and that means retaining both our freedom to riot as well as to reform.