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 police.

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

11:50 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Dave MacKenzie

Monsieur Côté.

11:50 a.m.

NDP

Raymond Côté Beauport—Limoilou, QC

Thank you, Mr. Chair.

Mr. Richards, in an ideal world, intentions would be fairly well-known and the police could therefore arrest anyone with harmful intent. But I'm concerned about one thing because everything changes very quickly in society. I'd like to talk about wearing a mask for health reasons, which we hardly ever see in Canada outside of health care institutions, but it's very common in Asia. They wear a surgical mask. Moreover, I've got a cold and I could wear one to protect the people around me.

During a demonstration or a riot, how could we identify people who are wearing a mask to be good citizens and avoid spreading an illness, if that practice were to be adopted in Canada?

11:50 a.m.

Conservative

Blake Richards Wild Rose, AB

Thank you for the question.

Again, it goes back to the point that what we're talking about here is an offence that deals with individuals who are participating in an unlawful assembly or in a riot. This isn't going to apply every day on the streets. I want to make that very clear. I hope that's been made clear. I think it's important that is clear. It's not intended to apply every day on the streets. It's not intended to apply to individuals who are legitimately at a peaceful public gathering of any type. It's only intended to deal with individuals who are participating in an unlawful assembly or a riot.

As I mentioned, there are provisions for lawful excuse. Certainly medical bandages, as I said, and religious head coverings, are a couple of good examples of that. What this is intended to do is to deal with individuals who are participating in an unlawful assembly or a riot. By this very definition, this means that there is now tumultuous activity taking place. This is, as I've stated a number of times, comprised of things like objects being thrown through windows, vehicles being lit on fire, innocent individuals being assaulted. When that kind of activity is taking place, those who are there for peaceful purposes generally are looking to flee the scene, to leave the area. I certainly think that would be what most reasonable individuals would do.

May 1st, 2012 / 11:55 a.m.

NDP

Raymond Côté Beauport—Limoilou, QC

Mr. Richards, sorry for interrupting, but I just saw a demonstration in my riding. A philosophy teacher at the Limoilou CEGEP, someone I know personally, wanted to teach a class on dissidence. She wanted to illustrate the demands that could be made. Seventy-nine people were stopped by police, including one student who was clearly anti-strike. It was in the context of the student strike movement. Unfortunately, these things happen, and we have also seen this in Toronto.

Wearing a mask can be interpreted in many ways. I'm thinking of things like the Anonymous movement where people wear a typical mask to send a message. Couldn't we ultimately fear that your bill criminalizes a person expressing an opinion?

11:55 a.m.

Conservative

Blake Richards Wild Rose, AB

Well, I believe those kinds of expressions of opinion or legitimate public demonstrations are actually protected by this piece of legislation. I think it's very important to point that out. They're protected by this piece of legislation because what it does is it targets those individuals who would come to any kind of legitimate public gathering, whether it be a demonstration or otherwise, looking to use the fact that there's a large gathering to engage in criminal activity. These are the types of individuals, as I mentioned earlier, who come prepared with these tool kits, including disguises and other tools, to cause mayhem and damage.

That puts a stain on the demonstration or the gathering, and I think their message gets lost in the fact that now there's property being damaged and destroyed. I think that's really unfortunate, because I think it's important that we have the ability to demonstrate peacefully in this country. It's a democratic country, and we all should have that right. But when individuals like this come and become involved in this kind of situation, take advantage of the situation, they take away from the message that the individuals are there to try to demonstrate.

So to your point, I think it actually is a very strong tool in terms of protecting the rights of individuals to make legitimate points in peaceful demonstrations.

11:55 a.m.

NDP

Raymond Côté Beauport—Limoilou, QC

Do I still have some time left? No? Thank you, Mr. Chair.

11:55 a.m.

Conservative

The Chair Dave MacKenzie

We're done. Thank you, Mr. Richards.

Now, we have a fill-in clerk, who's done an excellent job, and she's pointed out to me that this clock is out by five minutes. It is now 12 noon, which means we're at the time allotted for our first session. I appreciate that.

We'll suspend for about five minutes until we get the video conference arranged and the next witnesses before us.

12:05 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Dave MacKenzie

We'll call the meeting back to order.

We're pleased today to have Chief Jamie Graham from the Victoria Police Department, and by video conference, Mr. Charles Gauthier, the executive director of the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association.

Welcome, Mr. Gauthier and Chief Graham.

Can you hear us okay, Mr. Gauthier?

12:05 p.m.

Charles Gauthier Executive Director, Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association

I can, thank you.

12:05 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Dave MacKenzie

I think you received correspondence from the clerk indicating that you could make an opening address of up to 10 minutes.

Mr. Gauthier, if you would like to start, go ahead. I'll let you know when you're at nine minutes so that we don't run over.

12:05 p.m.

Executive Director, Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association

Charles Gauthier

Okay. Thank you.

Good afternoon. Thank you for this opportunity to address you. As the speaker said, my name is Charles Gauthier. I'm the executive director of the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association, a role I've had for 20 years.

The DVBIA was established in 1990 and represents more than 8,000 businesses within a ninety-block area of downtown Vancouver's peninsula. Some 145,000 employees work downtown, and more than 80,000 people live downtown.

I'm presenting today in my capacity as executive director of the association, in support of private member's Bill C-309, An Act to amend the Criminal Code (concealment of identity).

The DVBIA board of directors voted unanimously at its January 24, 2012, meeting in support of the bill, because it will provide law enforcement officials with an additional tool to arrest individuals who wear a mask or disguise with the intent of committing unlawful acts and seeking to avoid identification. We believe this amendment to the Criminal Code will also serve as a deterrent to would-be rioters.

Vancouver has a rich history of peaceful protests, but it also has a dark side: riots that have cost millions of dollars in property damage and traumatized employees, residence, and business owners.

During my tenure at the DVBIA I have witnessed two riots and a peaceful march that turned into a brief but expensive spree of vandalism and property damage. I do not have a full and complete memory of the June 14, 1994, riot that took place after the Vancouver Canucks lost to the New York Rangers in game seven of the Stanley Cup finals. What I do remember, however, is the pain and suffering our members and their employees endured for months afterwards.

Fast forward to the 2010 Winter Olympics, hosted by Vancouver and Whistler. As most of you will likely recall, there was a peaceful protest of thousands of people leading up to the opening ceremonies at B.C. Place Stadium. However, amongst the peaceful protesters was a group of individuals known as Black Bloc, who conceal their identities by dressing in black clothing head to toe. They infiltrate peaceful protests and use the crowd as a shield. Given the right opportunity, with their identity concealed they engage in unlawful acts such as assaulting individuals, committing acts of vandalism, and damaging public and private property. To avoid arrest they scurry like cowards into dark corners, shed their disguise, and then blend in with lawful citizens again.

On this first day of the Winter Olympics, Black Bloc was unable to leave its mark. This was likely due to the size of the crowd and the strong police presence. But on the following day, during a much smaller peaceful demonstration with less police presence, Black Bloc members went on a short but expensive spree of smashing in windows and spray-painting facades of banks, retail outlets, and office buildings, while also terrorizing employees and passersby. Video images of the unlawful acts were captured, including images of the cowards shedding their disguises in laneways.

This was the turning point for the balance of the Winter Games. Public sentiment turned against all types of protest, peaceful or otherwise. There were a few peaceful protests, but they were very small in comparison with those of the opening day ceremonies. Unfortunately, peaceful protesters were taunted and chastised by passersby. Thankfully what people remember most about the games is the friendly crowds that met and celebrated our athletes' victories in the streets of downtown Vancouver.

With the success of the 2010 Winter Games and a renewed confidence that we could celebrate responsibly in public spaces, the city of Vancouver welcomed thousands of people downtown during the Vancouver Canucks 2011 Stanley Cup run to watch the games on a number of large screens in the public realm. West Georgia Street, a major downtown artery, was closed to vehicular traffic to host upwards of 50,000 people each and every night during the playoffs.

As you know, just as game seven of the Stanley Cup finals was coming to an end, a riot started. I was at home watching the game. I thought about heading downtown when news about the riot was announced, but I was advised by many not to. During the course of the evening I watched the event unfold on television. I also responded to calls from the media and City of Vancouver staff, who were on the scene to board up businesses after the police had regained control of the situation after three hours.

The next day I surveyed the damage with my staff, board members, and elected officials. I met with our members who were impacted by the riot. The carnage was extensive. Sixty businesses in the DVBIA area had some type of property damage. Twenty of these businesses had been looted. Estimates of the damages have been reported in the $3 million to $4 million range. The Vancouver Police Department has labelled the night of the riot as the largest crime spree in Vancouver's history, with over 15,000 criminal acts identified.

Employees who were working that night were traumatized by the rampage. Here are some examples of what happened that night.

Department store employees fought off crazed looters by deploying fire extinguishers. The owner of a coffee shop and her employees sought refuge in the restroom while the interior of the business was being destroyed. Employees of another retailer feared that their building was on fire and panic set in. In fact, vehicles parked immediately outside the building were on fire and the smoke entered the building. Employees of another business were prepared to fend off the looters with baseball bats if they breached the doors. Thankfully, the would-be looters left.

Almost 11 months later, and with only one riot conviction, our members are disillusioned and skeptical about the effectiveness of our criminal justice system. There is evidence that on that night there was a core group of instigators who came prepared to incite a riot. They had weapons, incendiaries, and masks and disguises to conceal their identities. The Vancouver Police Department estimates there were hundreds of people masked in various stages or types of masking. It took weeks of computer time to get the exact numbers.

The investigation has cost the Vancouver Police Department hundreds of thousands of dollars to process the video to try to associate the pictures of masked persons to the video of them earlier in the evening without masks. An investigation of a masked offender takes the police hundreds of hours to, in effect, get the mask off.

One retail establishment hit particularly hard by the riot has video showing masked looters coming through its front doors in waves. It is unlikely that the rioters and looters who wore masks or disguises will ever be caught. As a result, they will continue to engage in criminal acts of this nature until our laws change.

As our country's lawmakers you can begin the process of rebuilding the public's confidence in our laws by supporting private member's bill C-309 and giving notice to would-be looters, rioters, and criminals that donning a mask, disguise, or other facial covering will be met with the full force of the law. Any and all efforts to further strengthen the laws of our country to mitigate any unlawful public gatherings and demonstrations are welcomed by our association and our members. Our collective wish is that citizens across our country can gather, protest, and celebrate responsibly and lawfully in our public spaces without fear of riots or other unlawful acts occurring.

Thank you.

12:10 p.m.

Conservative

The Chair Dave MacKenzie

Thank you, Mr. Gauthier.

Chief Constable Graham, do you have an opening address?

12:10 p.m.

Chief Jamie Graham Chief Constable, Victoria Police Department

Thank you. I do, Mr. MacKenzie.

Hello, Charles.

12:10 p.m.

Executive Director, Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association

12:10 p.m.

Chief Constable, Victoria Police Department

Chief Jamie Graham

I'm very pleased to be given this opportunity to share my perspective on Bill C-309. In short, I think this is a progressive, measured, and responsible step towards giving the police agencies the legislative tools we need to uphold the law and maintain public safety.

Having served in the RCMP, as chief constable of the Vancouver Police, and now as chief of the Victoria Police Department, I have personally experienced situations, during my 43-year career, in which this legislation would have been helpful.

Civil disturbances happen from time to time, and I'm sure they will continue to occur. But what is most concerning is when these disturbances become something worse, something more nefarious. Often the disturbance deteriorates into a violent riot because of the actions of a very few people. Indeed, over the past few decades a common pattern has emerged relating to how and why riots occur.

Typically, at a certain point people within protests or assemblies don masks and other facial coverings and begin vandalizing property, hurling objects, and sometimes assaulting police officers and bystanders. Property damage is often significant, and more importantly, people can be hurt or killed. Police agencies are deployed to restore order, but the identification of those committing criminal acts is always a challenge. This is doubly difficult when they wear masks to conceal their identities.

This strategy has been adopted on a global basis among like-minded protesters, who use the same tactics of concealing their identity, committing unlawful acts, and then shedding masks and facial coverings to blend in with the larger group of lawful citizens. In my experience, these ringleaders disguise themselves so that they can conduct their illegal activities in anonymity and with impunity. This legislation would change that in Canada.

It's important to remember that we would not be alone in taking steps to counter these rioting tactics. Many other jurisdictions have implemented legislation that prohibits or limits the use of facial disguises during protests.

New York State recently had its legislation upheld by the courts, which held that the 1965 anti-mask law furthers the important governmental interest of deterring violence and facilitating the apprehension of wrongdoers who seek to hide their identity.

Similarly, the United Kingdom and France passed legislation in 2001 and 2009 respectively to address similar concerns.

I also think it's important to address some of the criticism that exists on this subject. This falls under two broad topics. The first is the criticism that there's already legislation in effect that makes “disguising with intent” an offence under the Criminal Code. The challenge with this offence is that it demands an almost unattainable standard for effective, proactive policing—it requires the crown to prove the intention to commit one or more specific indictable offences. Although that would allow for the arrest of a masked person who participates in a riot once it has started, it does very little to prevent the riot from occurring in the first place.

In contrast, Bill C-309, by creating a specific offence for wearing a mask while taking part in a riot or unlawful assembly, could allow for a pre-emptive arrest under the “about to commit” sections of the Criminal Code when an agitator “masks up”, as we call it. This would help provide proactive arrest authority to remove these instigators before things get out of control.

The second criticism I've been hearing is that there are concerns regarding the wearing of facial coverings for religious or cultural reasons. I firmly believe that this important factor is adequately addressed in the bill itself. It specifically exempts persons with a lawful excuse for having their faces covered, which would clearly apply to the wearing of religious coverings.

I hope my comments today adequately explain my support of this proposed legislation. I do so unequivocally. I firmly believe that this law would have a tremendous deterrent effect on those considering violence as part of an assembly. I also believe it would better enable the police to prevent riots before they occur, which is the desired outcome for police agencies, business owners, governments, and most importantly, the public that we all serve.

Thank you.