Evidence of meeting #33 for Justice and Human Rights in the 41st Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament’s site, as are the minutes.) The winning word was assembly.

A recording is available from Parliament.

On the agenda

MPs speaking

Also speaking

  • Charles Gauthier  Executive Director, Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association
  • Jamie Graham  Chief Constable, Victoria Police Department

11:05 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Dave MacKenzie

Seeing the clock says 11 o'clock, we'll begin this meeting of the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights. This is meeting number 33, pursuant to the order of reference of Wednesday, February 15, 2012, Bill C-309, An Act to amend the Criminal Code (concealment of identity).

For the first hour we've scheduled Mr. Blake Richards, the member of Parliament from Wild Rose, who is the sponsor of the bill.

Mr. Richards, as standard practice we'll give you 10 minutes for an opening address. I'll let you know at nine minutes that you have one minute left.

11:05 a.m.

Conservative

Blake Richards Wild Rose, AB

All right, Mr. Chair, and I know you'll hold me to that.

Thank you.

It is a bit of a unique position to be at this end of the table. It's the first time I've had this opportunity, so thank you very much. It's a pleasure to be here today to speak to you all about my private member's bill, Bill C-309. I'd like to spend a little time outlining some of its provisions and some of the outcomes I hope it will achieve.

Over the past few years cities across Canada, from Toronto, to Vancouver, to London, to Montreal, have all fallen victim to violent riots. These events often begin as peaceful demonstrations of one type or the other, and end up being escalated by masked criminals who are hiding in plain sight. The intent of my bill is, first, to be able to prevent these occurrences from happening. Secondly, the bill will help police officers ensure public safety by providing them with tools to prevent, de-escalate, and control riots and unlawful assemblies when they happen. It will also ensure that those who engage in violence and vandalism during such events are more easily identified, charged, and brought to justice.

My bill will achieve all of this by making it a new Criminal Code offence to wear a mask, or to otherwise conceal one's identity when police are working to control an unlawful assembly or riot. Measures that strip criminals of the ability to hide in plain sight in the midst of public disturbances will provide a strong deterrent to engaging in other criminal acts. It will also allow police to intervene and arrest those who wear masks in defiance of the law, defusing tense situations, and ensuring that private citizens and public and private property are protected.

The need for this legislation cannot be overstated. In the G-8 and G-20 demonstrations about two years ago, a breakaway group of violent protestors caused $2.5 million in damage to Toronto businesses and destroyed four police cruisers. Overall, 97 police officers and 39 citizens were injured. In all this chaos only 48 offenders were charged with criminal offences. The riots last year in Vancouver were even worse. Rioters caused at least $3 million in damages to 89 businesses and the City of Vancouver, including the destruction of almost 40 police vehicles.

The investigation that followed, hampered by the difficulty of identifying masked suspects, has cost Vancouver police an estimated $2 million over and above their normal operating costs. Despite the great work of the Vancouver Police Department in identifying 15,000 separate criminal acts, only 85 people have been charged. Despite a heavy media presence, access to closed-circuit television cameras, and a proliferation of mobile devices, many criminals have been able to escape justice for their misdeeds.

Those two instances stand in sharp contrast to the riot at Fanshawe College in London, Ontario, in March of this year. This event involved about 1,000 people and caused an estimated $100,000 in damages. I recently spoke to London Police Chief Brad Duncan, who confirmed that rioters there did not actually conceal their identities. As a result, in just over a month London police have already identified and charged 42 individuals with 103 offences.

It's clear that the measures proposed in my bill are sorely needed. I've met with police officers and police chiefs across the country in Vancouver, Victoria, Calgary, Toronto, and elsewhere, and all of them support this bill. They believe that not only will it help police investigate the aftermath of riots, it will also prevent disturbances from becoming so dangerous in the first place.

To quote Victoria Police Chief Jamie Graham, who is here with us today:

I welcome any legislation that reduces the potential for violence at public gatherings.... This bill is a meaningful step towards preventing those with violent intent from hiding behind disguises, masks and facial coverings.

Recently we have seen lawful student demonstrations in Montreal turn violent by a small criminal minority who conceal themselves to avoid detection. Police and journalists have been assaulted, stores and other private property have been vandalized, and over 85 people have already been arrested.

Lieutenant Ian Lafrenière of the Montreal police has said to the media that some protestors were using Black Bloc tactics by masking their faces, coordinating as a group, and using weapons they had hidden along the protest route. In fact, Montreal's Mayor Gérald Tremblay directed the city's commission of public safety to examine the issue. They're expected to recommend a law banning the wearing of masks during violent demonstrations.

However, it's not just the police and civil authorities of our major cities who are asking for these measures. As you will hear from many knowledgeable witnesses over the next week or so, the aftermath of a riot can have devastating consequences to the local economy.

You'll be hearing from business leaders in our cities who have been victimized by the actions of rioters and who believe that Bill C-309 is a needed piece of legislation to help prevent them from being victimized again in the future.

The Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association is comprised of member businesses that were hardest hit by the riot in that city, and their members are supporters of my bill.

I will quote their resolution. It reads:

June 15, 2011 is a dark moment in our city's history that traumatized thousands of residents, employees and hard-working business people. The property damage incurred that evening combined with the looting that took place is in the millions of dollars. Vancouver's picture postcard image was sullied by the actions of reckless and irresponsible individuals who have no respect for the laws of our country.

The Building Owners and Managers Association of British Columbia, at their recent board of directors meeting, also endorsed Bill C-309. The Building Owners and Managers Association of B.C. represents over 400 corporate members that own or manage commercial real estate in the province of British Columbia, many of whom suffered loss in the Vancouver riot. In their letter to me advising of their unanimously supported resolution, they say, and I quote:

Downtown Vancouver building owners and business tenants were seriously affected by the June 2011 post hockey riots. We believe this proposed amendment will be a valuable enforcement tool going forward to mitigate damage from any future unlawful acts of violence during riot situations.

I'm aware that some of my colleagues in the opposition have opposed this bill because they believe it would impair a citizen's right to protest. But let me be clear, these measures do no such thing. When a protest or any other public gathering, for that matter, evolves into an unlawful assembly or a riot, it is by definition no longer a charter-protected assembly. It has become a Criminal Code offence to which individuals are subject to sanctions if they choose to participate in it.

In fact, I believe that Bill C-309 actually helps to maintain the rights of all citizens to peaceful protest by providing a way to deter or to deal with those who would use the cover of a peaceful assembly to engage in criminal acts.

Bill C-309 is a measure that police and law-abiding citizens and businesses have been asking for. It would defend Canadians and their livelihoods from senseless violence while helping maintain the right of all citizens to peaceful protest, which is consistent with our government's commitment to Canadians to protect law-abiding citizens and to keep our communities safe from criminals.

I'm also aware that some of my colleagues have suggested that we should look at harmonizing the penalties in my bill with those that are already existing in the Criminal Code for wearing disguises, under section 351, and I would welcome amendments from the committee to address that concern.

I'd like to close my remarks by urging my colleagues in the opposition parties, who have expressed reservations about the bill, especially those who represent ridings in Montreal, Vancouver, and Toronto where we've seen these incidents, to listen very closely to what their constituents are saying. The support I have received from citizens of those cities is inspiring.

I also want to sincerely thank the members on both sides who have already voted in support of Bill C-309 at second reading.

The true test of their resolve to take a stand against criminals who would assault citizens, vandalize neighbourhoods, and destroy private and public property in their cities will be realized in their vote at final reading. I therefore urge all of you to use your questions to the witnesses to learn about Bill C-309 and how it can be an effective tool to prevent such terrible events in the future.

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

11:10 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Dave MacKenzie

Thank you, Mr. Richards.

Now we begin the back and forth, and Madam Boivin will be first.

11:10 a.m.

NDP

Françoise Boivin Gatineau, QC

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

Mr. Richards, thank you for tabling this private member's bill. Still, I would like to explain the problems that the New Democratic Party has with the bill. There are things that need to be clarified, and I hope it will be of use to the committee.

The Criminal Code already has section 351. I would like you to explain to me what your bill adds to the Criminal Code. The Criminal Code already sets out stricter penalties than those in your bill. So I'm wondering what the purpose of your bill is. It also follows on events that made the headlines. I have the impression that it's for show more than anything else.

Don't the police and the Crown already have the authority to file an indictment against an individual who commits an offence, meaning if the person takes part in a riot or an unlawful assembly wearing a disguise? That's already covered in the Criminal Code.

11:10 a.m.

Conservative

Blake Richards Wild Rose, AB

Thank you.

I want to make it clear that this is a real response to a real problem. You mentioned the existing provision in the Criminal Code, section 351, that deals with disguises during the commission of an offence. I can tell you that I've spent a lot of time talking to police officers, police chiefs, and those directly responsible for riot squads, in dealing with these kinds of situations in a number of cities and communities across Canada over a number of years. They tell me that the biggest problem they have in dealing with these situations, both in trying to prevent and deter them from happening in the first place, is also in laying charges to ensure that people are brought to justice when they do commit crimes like destroying property, looting, and assaulting innocent bystanders. The biggest problem they are facing is trying to identify the individuals involved when so many of them are wearing masks and disguises. They'll see these individuals masking up and they'll see them removing disguises, but in the middle of that there's a period of time where there's been damage and assaults have taken place, and the police are not able to identify with clarity who was involved.

You mentioned the existing section. They're telling me that they're not able to apply that section. It's more geared to instances like armed robbery, those kinds of offences. They find they're not able to successfully lay charges when dealing with individuals involved in disguising themselves in a riot situation. There is a need to have a specific offence underneath the provisions in the Criminal Code, sections 65 and 66, which deal specifically with riots and specifically with unlawful assembly, so they can deal with what's involved in those situations.

11:15 a.m.

NDP

Françoise Boivin Gatineau, QC

Mr. Richards, I've been trying to see how the police would be able to enforce that new legislation, and I'm seeing the same problems will occur with sections 65 and 66. Do you disagree? For the sole purpose that....

Let's take the example of what's happening in Quebec right now. You're talking Montreal. I can talk to you about my riding of Gatineau, because we have the CEGEP where there are some manifestations. We have UQO, the Université du Québec en Outaouais, with the same situation. Most of the students

are protesting peacefully. The students are wearing scarves because they don't want to be photographed by the press, not to hide their identity. Their goal isn't to take part in a riot or unlawful assembly. They simply don't want their pictures taken, which is entirely reasonable. I don't think you would refuse them that right.

At what point can the police say that it's becoming a riot and must ask people to remove their scarves and so on? I have a problem seeing the bill's practical side and whether it truly attains the objective.

During the Vancouver riots following the Stanley Cup final, photographs of people were distributed, but finding those people was difficult. I think this very impractical aspect will complicate the work of the police. We will ask our police forces to determine when it becomes a riot, an unlawful assembly, or if it's free expression on a matter. This won't be obvious.

11:15 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Dave MacKenzie

Only a short response.

11:15 a.m.

Conservative

Blake Richards Wild Rose, AB

Well, I'm not sure that will be easy to do in a short period of time.

11:15 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Dave MacKenzie

Maybe we can explore it with someone else.

11:15 a.m.

Conservative

Blake Richards Wild Rose, AB

If you want to allow me a few seconds, certainly this is a tool that police have identified a need for. You mentioned there were photographs. This isn't intended to deal with people in a peaceful protest. This is when a situation has become an unlawful assembly or riot.

Once that situation is declared, at that point it becomes illegal to be wearing a disguise. It's for the very situation that police have identified—the problem that they are unable to identify those folk who come prepared with a tool kit. You'll hear from police themselves about this, but individuals come prepared with masks and other tools to destroy property and cause mayhem. Those are the individuals that this is designed to deal with. Police tell me they believe it will, and I have full confidence that this will be the case.

11:15 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Dave MacKenzie

Thank you.

Mr. Goguen.

11:15 a.m.

Conservative

Robert Goguen Moncton—Riverview—Dieppe, NB

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

Thank you, Mr. Richards, for presenting this bill.

It's certainly a complement to the Criminal Code. Certainly, it's a welcome addition to try to make communities safer. In Vancouver and Montreal now we're seeing what mayhem can happen, and this is probably something that's needed to try to bring some peace to the uprisings.

Just for the sake of clarity, could you tell the committee what the main objective of your bill is? There's some talk about section 351. In your mind, how does this stand out and apart from section 351?

11:15 a.m.

Conservative

Blake Richards Wild Rose, AB

I appreciate that. That's a great question.

Really, I think there are two main purposes to the bill. In talking with police, I was able to identify that the biggest problem they face in these situations, as I said earlier, is in identifying the people involved. In Vancouver, for example, I recently spoke at a meeting where the police chief, Jim Chu, also spoke that morning. He had brought a presentation with him that showed photographic evidence and video evidence they had gathered from the riots.

With just one frame alone that he put up on his screen he showed, with the prevalence of cell phone cameras, the reasons people need to wear these disguises to engage in these criminal acts during these kinds of activities, because now there's no longer that same kind of cover for them that there would have been prior to those kinds of things existing.

In just one frame alone, there were at least a dozen different people photographing, with their cell phone cameras, an instant where a number of mass rioters were beating an innocent individual. He was on the ground, being beaten. There was all kinds of photographic evidence, but they were not able to bring any of those people to justice because they were masked and disguised.

To get to your question about the main points of my bill, first, it is to try to deter those kinds of events from happening in the first place. Obviously, when people have to think twice about facing penalties for being disguised, they'll think twice about being disguised, and then therefore will think twice about engaging in criminal types of behaviour when they can be identified. With cell phone cameras out there and social media, it's very clear there's a good chance they will be identified for those kinds of behaviours. So first and foremost, the intention of this bill is to really try to deter those kinds of events from ever happening in the first place.

Second of all, it is designed as well as a tool for police to ensure public safety by being able to ensure that those individuals who do engage, despite the consequences, in a criminal act of that type will be brought to justice for their behaviours, because there will be a new provision to allow police to do so.

I think the other aspect of the bill that's important to point out is that it also, I believe very strongly, protects the legitimate right to protest. This is something I have had mentioned to me a few times, in terms of a concern, but I actually believe it's the opposite. I think it does a lot to ensure the right to peacefully and legitimately demonstrate—it's a democratic right we all enjoy in this country. It protects individuals who are looking to be part of a peaceful protest, because it will prevent those who want to infiltrate in order to engage in criminal activity.

11:20 a.m.

Conservative

Robert Goguen Moncton—Riverview—Dieppe, NB

You focus on the issues of protection and obviously deterrence, and certainly that's apparently the centrepiece. I can understand that.

Madame Boivin talked about peaceful manifestations. We all know that people have good intentions, sometimes. They show up in a very comical mask, but all of a sudden, things escalate. When the famous Riot Act is read, at that point in time, how does one identify them?

What are your thoughts on that? Isn't this basically to preclude its going the extra step? It's not really to stop peaceful demonstrations but to give the police that extra useful tool to stop further escalations, not necessarily peaceful demonstrations.

11:20 a.m.

Conservative

Blake Richards Wild Rose, AB

Absolutely. That's exactly what it's designed to do. It's designed as a measure in response to unlawful assemblies and riots when they occur.

Obviously the hope is that, in preventing people from being disguised in those kinds of situations, we may be able to prevent those kinds of situations from ever occurring. Obviously the first and foremost hope anyone would have is that we can find ways to prevent it. I believe this bill will be a strong way in which we can do that.

Yes, you're absolutely right. I think it protects the ability of people to peacefully assemble and protest or demonstrate and exercise their democratic rights without being afraid of having those individuals who come...and they do come prepared. I know police will tell the committee about these incidents when they appear before you. These individuals will come prepared with a full knapsack. They'll have disguises. They'll maybe have hammers, marbles to toss under the legs of police horses, and objects to throw at police. These are the people looking to cause trouble.

It protects everyone—businesses, law-abiding citizens, including those who were peacefully demonstrating—from those kinds of individuals who would come and try to cause mayhem in those situations.