Universal adoption of homemade face masks would have huge health and economic benefits in the current global coronavirus pandemic, says a paper published a few days ago by seven Yale professors.

“We estimate that the benefits of each additional cloth mask worn by the public are conservatively in the [US]$3,000-$6,000 range due to their impact in slowing the spread of the virus,” concluded the researchers from the Ivy League university’s School of Management, Institute for Network Science, department of epidemiology and infectious diseases, and School of Public Health.

“We must both encourage universal mask adoption and deal with the urgent policy priority that front-line healthcare workers face shortages of personal protective equipment, such as N95 respirators and surgical masks,” they wrote.

An analysis by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration of the spread of influenza indicates that if 50 per cent of the U.S. population wore masks, transmission would be cut in half, and if 80 per cent did, the virus would be “essentially eliminated.”

So the time, obviously, has come for the government of Canada to repeal the unneeded and dangerous Preventing Persons from Concealing Their Identity during Riots and Unlawful Assemblies Act, which stands in the way of successfully implementing such a common sense policy.

In addition to its infringement of our rights and the fact appropriate restrictions on the use of masks while committing crimes were already in the Criminal Code when the act was passed, this law now also presents a genuine public health threat in the face of rampant COVID-19 infection.

The act was passed in 2013 by the Harper government as a bit of tough-on-crime virtue signalling at a time suburban voters were growing weary of the Conservatives’ counterproductive austerity and worried about their increasingly obvious hostility to science and sound environmental policy.

The target was supposedly activities like the large student demonstrations in Quebec the previous year and the G20 protests in Toronto in 2010, in which there were a few instances of violence. The large demonstrations presented, however, a much greater political threat to the kind of policies pushed by the Conservatives.

The 2011 Stanley Cup riot in Vancouver was also trotted out as an excuse, although very few participants in that violence wore masks.

With his policy emphasis on turning Canada into a petro-state, the foolishness of which is now fully exposed, prime minister Stephen Harper was also doubtless seeking ways to suppress protests against pipeline megaprojects. He may have thought the iniquitous maximum 10-year prison sentences included in the act might just do the trick.

A craven Liberal party, then still the third party in Parliament and looking to shore up its appeal to soft Conservative voters in places like suburban Toronto and Montreal, went along with the charade. The New Democrats, Bloc Québécois and Parliament’s only Green stuck with democratic principles and voted no.

The law was unneeded — Section 351 of the Criminal Code includes the offence of disguise with intent to commit an indictable offence. Inconveniently from the Conservatives’ perspective, however, that law requires prosecutors to prove the masked person intended to commit a crime. In other words, due process.

The Preventing Persons from Concealing Their Identity during Riots and Unlawful Assemblies Act is almost certainly unconstitutional, since it interferes with constitutionally protected fundamental and legal rights, and allows authorities to declare legal gatherings illegal and then implement harsh penalties.

And while it includes a throwaway reference supposedly exempting face coverings worn for “lawful excuses,” it fails to define just what those might be. It is far from clear, for example, that legitimate fears of the propensity of Conservative supporters to stalk and harass public opponents of their policies would qualify.

Consider the recent activities of a certain Alberta minister if the Crown, or the sight of a United Conservative Party political staffer photographing public employees protesting Kenney government policies with telephoto lenses at recent political protests in Edmonton if you want legal circumstances in which wearing a face covering in a crowd is reasonable.

Typical of the Harper government’s sneaky contempt for Parliament, the legislation was snuck in as a private member’s bill by an otherwise undistinguished Conservative MP from Alberta, allowing the government to avoid the scrutiny a government bill would have received.

Blake Richards, the former real estate agent who was MP for Wild Rose at the time (and is now MP for Banff-Airdrie), was once being kicked out of the House of Commons for “excessive heckling.” More recently, he put his signature on the execrable Buffalo Declaration, a nearly-6,000-word separatist screed of astonishing twaddle now largely forgotten as Alberta turns to begging Ottawa for handouts in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and the Russian-Saudi oil price war. To give Richards his due, while others have shut up about this embarrassment, he continues to tweet about it.

Richards boasted in House of Commons debate that his bill, with its low burden of proof and long prison terms, “would change the stakes dramatically” for protesters. He had the cheek to argue it was needed because police found it inconvenient to have to prove intent to commit a crime under Section 351 of the code.

In other words, from start to finish the passage of this bill was a dismal performance by almost everyone involved.

But as tends to happen with lousy legislation passed for lousy reasons, that’s all been forgotten while it squats on the books awaiting an opportunity to be misused.

Under normal circumstances, the main perpetrators, the Conservatives, and their enablers, the Liberals, would do nothing — out of malice in the first case and embarrassment in the second.

The extraordinary public health crisis we now face, however, provides an opportunity to achieve two positive goals: to rid ourselves of this dangerous and unneeded law while reducing the harm done by the terrible viral scourge that is sickening and killing Canadians.

As they are now in Asia, our atavistic cultural objections notwithstanding, anti-viral masks are likely to be part of Canadian life going forward. This includes homemade masks that don’t do much to protect the wearer, but protect others from the wearer’s coughs and sneezes.

We need to fix the law to acknowledge that urgent necessity. If it saves us the cost of seeing our tax dollars wasted to defend an unconstitutional law, so much the better.

David Climenhaga, author of the Alberta Diary blog, is a journalist, author, journalism teacher, poet and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions at The Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. This post also appears on his blog,

Image: Elvert Barnes/Flickr​

David J. Climenhaga

David J. Climenhaga

David Climenhaga is a journalist and trade union communicator who has worked in senior writing and editing positions with the Globe and Mail and the Calgary Herald. He left journalism after the strike...