On June 19, 2013, a private member’s bill became law that makes wearing a mask at an unlawful assembly a criminal offence.

Bill C-309 was introduced into Parliament by Conservative MP Blake Richards in 2011 in a response to the G20 riots in Toronto and the Stanley Cup riots in Vancouver.

The bill passed its third reading in the Senate on May 23, 2013, and was proclaimed law during a royal assent ceremony in the Senate on June 19, 2013.

Bill C-309, passed with the support of Conservative MPs but opposed by the opposition, passed by a vote of 153-126.

The penalty for wearing a mask at “tumultuous demonstrations” can now be up to 10 years in prison.

Bill C-309, first introduced before the House of Commons last year, would amend the Criminal Code of Canada and impose an up to 10-year prison sentence for anyone convicted of the offence and make such an act an indictable offence. A “tumultuous demonstration” could be defined as a “riot” or an “unlawful assembly”.

There is already an existing law in Canada entitled “Disguise with Intent” which has already criminalizes the wearing of a disguise while engaging in illegal activities and itself carries a jail sentence up to 10 years, but this old bill has a “higher burden of proof” where the state must prove that the individual with their face covered was actually engaging in an illegal act while wearing the disguise or otherwise covering their face.

Bill C-309 on the other hand has a “lower burden of proof” with just intention to commit an illegal act. The new bill if passed would allow the courts to convict — as an indictable offence — anyone wearing a mask who has attended a “tumultuous” demonstration even if they have been pre-emptively arrested without any evidence of conspiracy or illegal act.

According to Christine McLaughlin, “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.”

Writer Steffanie Pinch summarizes how this mask ban can affect activists:

“1) Activists are more likely to be arrested.

Police arrest activists for a variety of reasons, including helping disperse a crowd. In larger demonstrations, like the G20, this can mean mass-detaining protesters. Protesters can only be held if they are charged with something, which is often ‘obstruction of justice.’ Bill C-309 creates a brand new charge police can add, giving them the chance to target protesters wearing masks.

2) Activists will have a harder time defending themselves.

Because an action can go from legal to not in a matter of seconds, there’s often confusion when police get involved. Conservatives have concluded that anyone not wanting to be arrested would leave a violent protest but the lines are so blurry it’s easy to get caught in the fray. Protesters in costumes who don’t even know things have gone south could be taken in and have almost no way to challenge the charges.

3) Fewer people will show up to protests.

For many folks, getting arrested isn’t an option. Criminal records make it harder to find employment and multiple charges can mean hefty fines. Even if someone is just detained and then let off, the process can still impact them later on.

Concealing one’s identity at a protest is also something that a lot of people just have to do. Much like Caitlin Curran, a journalist fired after being photographed participating in an Occupy Wall Street protest, there are countless activists who need to be anonymous to protect their jobs. Many people want to take action but when the stakes seem too high, they’re less likely to come out.

4) Mainstream media coverage of protests will suffer.

Artistic resistance isn’t just a form expression: it makes a scene. Towering puppets of CEOs, giant paper-mâché Harper masks and groups of activists dressed as endangered animals attract photographers and television crews. Take away the masks, the costumes, the art from protests and mainstream media will continue to cover the status quo.

5) Protests will become less safe.

Once a protest is deemed a riot, police will often shoot tear gas to dissolve the crowd. But with Bill C-309, using a bandana or gas mask as protection from the onslaught is now grounds for arrest. This could make it more difficult for street medics to get to people who need help, risking arrest themselves just for protecting their faces from toxic gas.

Though Bill C-309 risks challenging more than just whether or not that guy in the Guy Fawkes mask will show up, the outcry so far has been muted. Activists need to come together to challenge this legislation for what it is: an unconstitutional affront to civil liberties.”

Krystalline Kraus

krystalline kraus is an intrepid explorer and reporter from Toronto, Canada. A veteran activist and journalist for rabble.ca, she needs no aviator goggles, gas mask or red cape but proceeds fearlessly...