House of Commons Hansard #171 of the 41st Parliament, 1st Session. (The original version is on Parliament's site.) The word of the day was c-45.

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Preventing Persons from Concealing Their Identity during Riots and Unlawful Assemblies Act
Private Members' Business

October 29th, 2012 / 11:05 a.m.

Conservative

Blake Richards Wild Rose, AB

moved that Bill C-309, An Act to amend the Criminal Code (concealment of identity), be read the third time and passed.

Mr. Speaker, it is a pleasure to open debate on Bill C-309 on the concealment of identity.

I first introduced this bill a little more than a year ago on October 3, 2011. At that time, I asked the members of this Parliament to stand up for the business owners and operators, the emergency service workers, the cities and the citizens of our nation left vulnerable by the holes in our current laws.

I am extremely thankful to all the members who have done just that, allowing this legislation to proceed to this critical juncture. Today I ask for the support of this House once again.

Before I get to the technical details of my private member's bill, Bill C-309, I ask my fellow members of Parliament to turn the clock back to the summer of 2010. A full week before the G20 summit, orderly and legal protests began in Toronto. Demonstrations proceeded peacefully for the most part, until a violent group of vandals showed up. On June 26, the first day of the G20 summit, a demonstration of about 10,000 people assembled downtown. A black bloc of about 200, led by hard-core criminals covering their faces and wearing black clothing, broke away from the main group. I ask my fellow members of Parliament: Why did they cover their faces?

Sadly, our nation was about to meet an insidious new form of criminal. These thugs began maliciously destroying vehicles and buildings with previously hidden weapons that they brought for just this purpose. Hammers, flag poles, mailboxes and even chunks of the street were used to cause as much damage as possible. The purpose was not just to terrorize the business owners and communities along Yonge Street, Queen Street West and College Street. They also had an ulterior motive. It was to draw the police away from the main group allowing their accomplices to rouse the peaceful protesters into storming the convention centre. Thankfully, our expertly trained police refused to take the bait and the black bloc of criminals changed back into street clothes and melted away into the crowd.

As the weekend continued, despite the thousands of police officers who were deployed, these masked rioters were successful in turning many ordinarily peaceful citizens into members of a violent mob. Police were forced to use tear gas for the first time in the history of Toronto. They also needed to use rubber bullets and pepper spray. In the end, these criminals caused $2.5 million in damages. Nearly 100 police officers and about 40 private citizens were injured.

They were also successful on another front. They stole the media spotlight from well-meaning citizens who were exercising their rights to expression and assembly. In the aftermath of this disgusting display orchestrated by such thugs, the then mayor of Toronto, David Miller, stated that calling them protesters was “not fair to the people who came to protest”. He was right. These criminals were not protesters. They were something else entirely.

In the wake of the G20 protest, it became apparent that the police needed a new tool to arrest these mask-wearing urban commandos before innocent protesters were incited to such blind destruction. Yet one year later, no such tool had been provided to police when the so-called Stanley Cup riot cut through the heart of Vancouver. We all remember the video images of Wednesday, June 15, 2011, but to truly grasp the desperation of that day, I believe we should turn to the words of Vancouver resident and newspaper columnist Brian Hutchinson, who was at the scene. He wrote:

Blood in our streets. I saw people on the ground, bleeding. Shattered glass everywhere. Police cars set alight. Major bridges are now closed, preventing public access into the downtown core. Transit is plugged up, there’s no way out. More police and fire crews are arriving, from the suburbs, but again, it seems too late.

And as I write this, the sun has just set. Vancouver, what a disgrace.

Rioters caused at least $3 million in damages to the city, as well as to about 90 businesses. Many vehicles, including police cars, were set ablaze. Nearly 150 people were injured, including nine police officers. The damage to Vancouver's reputation and economy is still being felt, so too is the sense of fear.

Speaking before the justice committee earlier this year, Mr. Tony Hunt, general manager of loss prevention for the London Drugs that was pillaged by more than 300 criminals during the riot, put it in terms that we can all understand. He said:

Thirty staff watched in horror as thugs ravaged through the burglar-resistant glass and steel security gates, pounding their way into the store. The staff fled to safety in our basement room barricade, while thieves stole $450,000 worth of expensive merchandise and inflicted $224,000 in physical damage.

The property can be replaced, but the emotional trauma on our staff is just not...acceptable....

Inspector Steve Rai, of the Vancouver Police, reported something similar. He told the justice committee:

Some employees had to lock themselves in back rooms or security rooms, and some of them remain traumatized to this day. We had a famous store that blends coffee near the heart of the riot, and this poor victim had to lock herself in while she heard a mob outside attacking and destroying her business. These kinds of things happened throughout the downtown core during that riot. It affected people's lives.

This was another example of mass criminals leading common, everyday citizens to greater destruction.

As Police Chief Jim Chu told reporters:

These were people who came equipped with masks, goggles and gasoline, even fire extinguishers that they would use as weapons....

Despite the great work of the Vancouver Police Department in identifying 15,000 separate criminal acts, very few people were charged. Despite a heavy media presence, access to closed circuit television and a proliferation of mobile devices, all of which provided ample footage of their misdeeds, many criminals have been able to escape justice.

I cannot emphasize this point enough, the criminals who incited the worst of the violence are not protestors. I have trouble finding the appropriate words to describe the tactics that were employed to turn everyday citizens into crazed mobs. It is insidious. Within the chaos of an all-out riot, they added gasoline to a simmering fire, propelling the mob forward and causing an explosion of violence.

Police have told us that in such volatile situations, law and order could be maintained and public safety protected, if only they had the ability to remove these criminals sooner.

Unfortunately for the citizens and shopkeepers of Montreal, police were not given this ability prior to the vandalism and violence coinciding with this year's student protests. Once again, masked criminals went to work within the crowd, inciting further destruction by rampaging throughout the streets, smashing windows and assaulting police.

We know that something must be done. It is clear what we must do. That is why I brought this legislation forward, and that is why it has received such widespread support both inside and outside this chamber.

Bill C-309, the concealment of identity act, will create two new Criminal Code offences. The first is an indictable offence, targeting those who take part in a riot while wearing a mask or disguise to conceal identity without lawful excuse. The maximum penalty on indictment for this offence would be 10 years in prison.

The second is a hybrid offence, targeting those who participate in an unlawful assembly while wearing a mask or disguise to conceal their identity without lawful excuse. The maximum penalty on indictment for this offence would be five years, and on summary conviction the maximum penalty would be six months imprisonment and/or a maximum fine of $5,000.

The bill would protect the public, police and legitimate protesters. Moreover, it protects freedom of assembly and freedom of expression precisely because it only applies to the criminal thugs who are already breaking the law.

I believe Canadians recognize that there is a difference between honest protesters and the criminal thugs seeking to hide in plain sight behind their masks, inciting mobs to greater violence. That is why I have received such widespread support from police services and chiefs, neighbourhood associations, business groups and individual citizens. Police chiefs in Calgary, Toronto, Vancouver and Victoria have all supported the aims of the legislation.

Chief Constable Chu has endorsed the bill stating:

The Vancouver Police Department is pleased to support this bill. When we see protestors in a crowd donning masks and hoods we know there is a very good chance that violence will soon follow.

Police in neighbouring Victoria also want this problem addressed and in a resolution that was drafted to the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, Chief Jamie Graham urged the federal government to take action. According to his resolution, wearing a facial covering allows an offender to blend in and mix with a larger lawful group of peaceful individuals without being identified. There an offender may commit unlawful acts under disguise, then remove their masks or facial coverings and blend in with peaceful protesters. Chief Graham has reviewed the bill before us today and he says:

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.

The Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association, comprised of members who were the hardest hit by the riot in their city, has unanimously endorsed the bill. According to its statement:

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.

On behalf of this group, Charles Gauthier asks that we support the bill. He says:

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.

All of these groups have watched as criminals have refined their black bloc tactics for years in cities around the world. They have also seen other jurisdictions grapple with the same issues that this House faces today.

Laws created to tackle similar situations were written and approved in the United States, the U.K. and France. Like Canada, these are democratic nations where the rights to expression and assembly are vigorously enforced and defended. The courts in these nations have rightly upheld these laws recognizing the distinction between legal protest and illegal rioting.

The masked criminals who work the riots arrive at the scene well prepared. They are armed. They are motivated. We equip and train our police to enforce our laws and to keep our streets safe, yet we know that one key tool is missing from their toolkit: a tool that would help police prevent, de-escalate and control riots; a tool that would spell the difference between legal orderly expression and total destruction of a neighbourhood; a tool that would protect our nation's citizens, emergency service workers, private businesses and public property; a tool that would protect lawful demonstrators' ability to put voice to their beliefs; a tool that would prevent violence on Canadian streets. Let us give our police that tool. Let us do it now. Let us do it today.

Preventing Persons from Concealing Their Identity during Riots and Unlawful Assemblies Act
Private Members' Business

11:15 a.m.

NDP

Françoise Boivin Gatineau, QC

Mr. Speaker, I listened with interest to the speech by my colleague from Wild Rose.

The main message at the end of his speech was that we must provide the police with tools.

Is he saying that there are currently no tools in the Criminal Code that can achieve the intended purpose of his private member's bill?

Preventing Persons from Concealing Their Identity during Riots and Unlawful Assemblies Act
Private Members' Business

11:15 a.m.

Conservative

Blake Richards Wild Rose, AB

Mr. Speaker, I would point out that the member did mention one main message: it would give the police a tool to help protect public safety. That certainly is an important part of what we are trying to do today.

However, I would also point out that there is another key element to it: we are looking to protect the rights of legitimate protestors, legitimate demonstrators, not to be infiltrated by groups that would look to take away from the message that the protesters are trying to convey. That is a very important point, as well.

However, with respect to her specific question, certainly, in discussing with police officers in all the cities where we have had these kinds of instances, what we are hearing is that the tools currently do not exist. What what we are finding is that people are coming prepared. They are coming with a bag full of tools that they need, masks being one of those things, black clothing often, tools used to break windows and to start fires. These people slip into their disguises, create the incident, create the riot, and then slip out of their disguises and walk away undetected. Even though we live in a society where cellphone cameras are prevalent and we have all kinds of footage and evidence, we are not able to identify the individuals involved.

So, yes, it would protect the rights of individuals to peacefully protest, but it would also create a tool for the police to ensure public safety.

Preventing Persons from Concealing Their Identity during Riots and Unlawful Assemblies Act
Private Members' Business

11:20 a.m.

Liberal

Marc Garneau Westmount—Ville-Marie, QC

Mr. Speaker, I have a couple of questions for my hon. colleague.

Is it not a fact that it is already an indictable offence, under the Criminal Code, for somebody to riot whether they are covered or not? That is my first question.

I believe, also, the member is claiming that it would allow police to pre-emptively arrest somebody who is wearing a mask. I believe that would not be possible for the police to do. Is that correct?

I would like to have his answer on both of those, please.

Preventing Persons from Concealing Their Identity during Riots and Unlawful Assemblies Act
Private Members' Business

11:20 a.m.

Conservative

Blake Richards Wild Rose, AB

Mr. Speaker, first, I should point out that we are hopeful this would have a deterrence effect, and we believe it would. For individuals who come to a peaceful gathering of any type, whether it be a demonstration or otherwise, anyone who comes to a peaceful gathering looking to make a point, we are looking to protect their rights. The way we would do that is to ensure that this would create a new offence for the individuals who come prepared with the toolkits and the masks, once an incident like that starts. It would allow police to have a tool to be able to prevent these kinds of incidents from occurring and would ensure that the individuals involved are brought to justice if they do occur.

I do believe it would have that deterring effect, but it would also give police the ability to better protect public safety, to deter these kinds of incidents from occurring in the first place and to allow the demonstration to remain peaceful, which is what everyone in this chamber would want to see and I think—

Preventing Persons from Concealing Their Identity during Riots and Unlawful Assemblies Act
Private Members' Business

11:20 a.m.

Conservative

The Acting Speaker Bruce Stanton

Order, please.

Questions and comments.

The hon. Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of the Environment.

Preventing Persons from Concealing Their Identity during Riots and Unlawful Assemblies Act
Private Members' Business

11:20 a.m.

Calgary Centre-North
Alberta

Conservative

Michelle Rempel Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of the Environment

Mr. Speaker, just to follow up on some of my colleague's questions, it is my understanding that subsection 351(2) of the Criminal Code, which I believe is what they are referring to, does not apply to summary conviction offences. This means that the Criminal Code does not specifically address the situation of persons participating in an unlawful assembly who wear a mask or other disguise to conceal their identity without lawful excuse.

So, perhaps my colleague would explain why this correction would fill a gap in our law and why it would be important, with regard to catching people or enforcing the law, especially with people who have concealed their faces during recent riots in Vancouver, Montreal and Toronto.

Preventing Persons from Concealing Their Identity during Riots and Unlawful Assemblies Act
Private Members' Business

11:20 a.m.

Conservative

Blake Richards Wild Rose, AB

Mr. Speaker, yes, certainly, there is a current provision in the Criminal Code that I have had many refer to, which is the section that was quoted by the member. That section, the police tell us, was created more for armed robbery, those types of situations. Although there are instances where they have attempted to or been able to apply this provision to these instances, it is one they find very difficult to apply, for two reasons. First, it was not really created for these types of situations and, second, as the member correctly pointed out, it only deals with indictable offences, not summary conviction offences, which portions of this bill would cover.

So, it is very difficult to apply to these kinds of situations, and this would be a new tool that police require to ensure public safety.

Preventing Persons from Concealing Their Identity during Riots and Unlawful Assemblies Act
Private Members' Business

11:20 a.m.

NDP

Françoise Boivin Gatineau, QC

Mr. Speaker, Bill C-309, more than any other bill, epitomizes the Conservatives' approach to criminal law: a front page and then a bill. It is that simple.

My colleague gave a very thorough explanation of the reason for Bill C-309 and why the Conservatives brought it forward. Riots occurred after a sports event, the final game of the Stanley Cup. This should have been a very happy occasion, even though the home team had just lost. Unfortunately, it degenerated into a riot, and consequently the Conservatives introduced this bill. This is a private member's bill. The government would never have dared introduce it directly; therefore, it did so indirectly.

There is a problem, which we already raised at second reading of the bill: our Criminal Code should be coherent. That is our concern. It is not about preventing riots or siding with rioters or people who want to use violence. The main problem is that section 351 of the Criminal Code already provides the solution to this problem. In fact, police already have this tool. They can go to a crown prosecutor and lay criminal charges against anyone who wears a mask while committing a crime.

Subsection 351(2) reads as follows:

Disguise with intent

Every one who, with intent to commit an indictable offence, has his face masked or coloured or is otherwise disguised is guilty of an indictable offence and liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding ten years.

This is fairly broad and covers almost all the cases mentioned, including those that fall under section 65 of the Criminal Code, the provision targeted by Bill C-309, about taking part in a riot. We will come back to this provision. It is clear what the hon. member is trying to do: he is saying that, if a person conceals his or her identity and participates in an unlawful assembly or a riot, which falls under sections 63 and 64 of the Criminal Code, that person is guilty of an indictable offence in one case and an offence punishable on summary conviction in the other.

It is true that subsection 351(2) does not cover the second type of case covered by the hon. member's bill. However—and this was denied by the government throughout the committee process—it is also true section 351 of the Criminal Code does not apply. In fact, we heard it in the answers to questions asked here in this House: the section would apply instead to armed robbery or theft-related cases. The government therefore did not see how it could be used in the case of riots or unlawful assemblies, even though it was proven in committee that this subsection of the Criminal Code has all the latitude required to cover these types of situations. This is so true that the government itself, through the Conservative members on the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights, proposed an amendment to insert the sentence set out in subsection 351(2) of the Criminal Code into the bill.

Those who were in the House and who participated in the debate will recall that the hon. member for Wild Rose's initial bill set out a maximum term of imprisonment of five years. I asked questions in committee that showed that subsection 351(2) sets out a maximum sentence of 10 years for committing an offence while wearing a mask or other disguise. In fact, I asked the following questions. Is there not a risk that this will cause confusion for the courts? We know that the Conservatives do not always like court rulings. Once this is before the court, how will it be analyzed? What charges will be brought against the offender? Will the offender be charged under subsection 351(2) or under subsection 65(2)?

It is not always clear. That is why our main point about the government's crime bills has not changed: the government must be careful about using a piecemeal approach.

They change little provisions here and there, because they see the headlines in the paper and decide that they have a mission and they must change something. The tools are sometimes there, but they are simply not used. That is the first thing to consider. It is true that this does not cover offences punishable on summary conviction, but is this the direction we want to go in? Based on the wording of the bill, I have my doubts.

There are some problems with the way the member drafted his bill. Since it covers offences similar to what is found in subsections 65(1) and 351(2) of the Criminal Code, it is problematic that he did not use the same words. We proposed an amendment to at least try to create some logic in the Criminal Code, but the government flat out refused any kind of amendment that would have made sense.

However, in changing the maximum sentence to match subsection 351(2), the Conservatives admitted that what we were saying in committee must not have been so stupid after all. We were saying that there was a connection between subsection 351(2) and what the member was trying to do in his bill, especially in cases of riots. After being amended, the bill now has exactly the same sentence.

That said, according to the bill in front of us:

Every person who commits an offence under subsection (1) while wearing a mask or other disguise to conceal their identity without lawful excuse is guilty of an indictable offence and liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 10 years.

That is the other problem I want to address. Police officers told the committee that they needed tools. I believe it. We all saw see what happens when we watch riots on TV, whether they are in Montreal, Toronto or Vancouver. They are absolutely disgraceful. No one supports these kinds of things. No one thinks that freedom of expression means that people are free to break windows, hit others or do whatever they want. Freedom of expression, which is protected in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, does not protect that kind of thing. However, our charter clearly states that we have freedom of expression.

If my colleague wants to participate in a protest and what she wants to wear covers her face, no matter what it is, this is not in itself an offence, because she is expressing her opinion. It is a way for her to express herself. That is the problem.

Several witnesses told us very clearly that these kinds of measures would definitely discourage many people from expressing their opinions. Some of my colleagues can explore this issue a little further.

If someone taking part in a legal, peaceful protest decides to wear a mask depicting a prime minister, for instance, to express his or her opinion during the demonstration, and the police suddenly declare that the protest has become a riot or an unlawful assembly, it is not always easy for the people marching at the end of the demonstration to know that it has been declared unlawful and that they are therefore committing an offence under the Criminal Code and are subject to prosecution.

This means there is an extremely dangerous reversal of the burden of proof. The biggest difference between subsection 351(2) and the provisions the member is proposing in this bill is the reverse onus; in other words, it will be up to the accused to demonstrate that he or she had a lawful excuse.

The Conservatives even rejected the amendments aimed at defining lawful excuses, such as a burka or other religious attire. No one knows what “lawful excuse” means in the context of Bill C-309 in its current form.

The major flaws in this bill are cause for serious concern. The committee process certainly did not calm any of these concerns. The only purpose it served was to make the government admit in a roundabout way that this provision already exists and assign the offence an equivalent sentence.

Preventing Persons from Concealing Their Identity during Riots and Unlawful Assemblies Act
Private Members' Business

11:30 a.m.

Liberal

Scott Brison Kings—Hants, NS

Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to rise to debate Bill C-309 and its proposed amendments to the Criminal Code pertaining to riots and unlawful assemblies engaged in by those who cover their faces to avoid being identified and/or charged.

Like my colleagues on all sides, I was disturbed and saddened by the images from the Vancouver riots and the lawlessness that was part of them. I can appreciate the desire of the sponsor of the bill to seek legislation to address the incident. However, and regrettably so, this legislation is not the answer for the following reasons, which became evident at committee. There is absolutely nothing to suggest that had this legislation been in the Criminal Code last year, the Vancouver riots would not have happened or that they would have been policed differently or that those who have been punished would face stiffer penalties.

Police officers told committee that rioters who cover their faces to conceal their identities are a particular problem, not only because they are often among the most violent participants but also because they are harder to identify and thus more difficult to bring to justice. To deal with this challenge, police forces across the country have been increasing training and resources for public safety units. They have been developing new approaches and shared best practices to deal with unruly crowds. I applaud these efforts on the part of the Canadian emergency services, as these are indeed what are required to combat rioting effectively.

What is not required are amendments of this nature to the Criminal Code, because laws to deal with rioting and mass rioting already exist. For the sake of comparing the bill before us with the existing law, I refer to section 64 of the Criminal Code, which defines a riot as “an unlawful assembly that has begun to disturb the peace tumultuously”. Section 65, in consequence, states that “Every one who takes part in a riot is guilty of an indictable offence”.

The indictable offence is crucial. If we turn to subsection 351(2) of the Criminal Code, it states: “Every one who, with intent to commit an indictable offence, has his face masked or coloured or is otherwise disguised is guilty of an indictable offence and liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding ten years”. As we can see, the Criminal Code already gives law enforcement the legislative tools necessary to deal with masked rioters. Bill C-309 does not add to them.

The sponsor of the legislation, the member for Wild Rose, has previously stated in the House that the bill differs from the existing law because it gives police the ability to deal pre-emptively with people who conceal their identities in the context of a riot. In his own words, the bill was concerned with “loitering, masked troublemakers”.

If one looks closely, Bill C-309 creates a subsection to section 65 of the code. As such, it can only apply to people who have already committed an offence under section 65 as it presently exists. Simply put, one has to be already engaged in a riot, an offence under the code, to trigger the application of this new subsection. As such, while the member seems to seek a pre-emptive catch-all in the code to prevent masked rioting, this is actually not what is contained in Bill C-309. Even if that were the proposal before us today, it would warrant extensive critique. Any bill that would allow police to detain people simply for standing around while wearing a mask and subject them to as many as 10 years in prison would raise significant issues with respect to the charter and civil liberties.

If law enforcement were to interpret Bill C-309 in this way, as the member for Wild Rose apparently intends, we could expect court challenges on the grounds that such an application of the law was in violation of section 2 of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms with respect to free expression, or section 7 with respect to the protection of “life, liberty and the security of the person”.

Amending the statute to allow for pre-emptive arrests of people wearing masks, as the member suggested was his intent, would be a constitutionally suspect approach. Amending the statute without allowing for such arrests, as Bill C-309 does, is redundant. To be clear, rioting while wearing a mask is denounced by the code. Prosecutors lay charges against those who do so and judges enter convictions in these types of cases. There is nothing to suggest that somehow the addition of this to the Criminal Code would change the course, or would have changed the course, of the Vancouver riots.

I understand why colleagues and those who are listening at home may wonder why, if I am saying that the bill is redundant and would do nothing, I would still express my opposition to it. The truth is that even as it is written, Bill C-309 is problematic from a charter perspective. It states that it applies to those concealing their identity “without lawful excuse”, a term not defined in the statue. I appreciate that all members agree that this law is not meant to target people who cover their faces for religious reasons or sports fans whose faces are painted with team colours. However, I am concerned that if we do not further clarify the bill we risk unintentionally subjecting these people to charges under this legislation.

Surely, if a person with a religious face covering attends a public gathering in good faith and the gathering then becomes a riot in which the person participates, he or she should be charged with rioting. That would be an unintended consequence. However, he or she should not be subject to charges under a statue intended to apply to masked provocateurs. For that reason, it would be preferable to add a clarifying clause specifically denying the “lawful excuse” exemption to include face coverings worn as part of a traditional practice of a culture or religious group, as was previously proposed by the Liberal member of the committee. Such a definition would be a clear demonstration that Canada was eager to defend religious freedom both at home and abroad.

Moreover, beyond the religious concern, colleagues have raised concerns about freedom of expression. For example, those protesting at a rally against a political leader and who wear masks that depict the leader may be doing so not necessarily for the purpose of concealing their identity, even though this would be the result. Ultimately, even if these scenarios were not contemplated by the statute, it would not alter the fundamental problem that this bill criminalizes what is already in fact criminal.

There can be no doubt that rioting is a profoundly troubling phenomenon that Canada must deal with in a serious and effective way. For parliamentarians, that means we must support police efforts to develop better training methods and better crowd control techniques, including increased and strengthened resources to improve communications with revellers and demonstrators, to share best practices, and to increase the number of qualified officers available to deal with large public gatherings. We must ensure that those who violate the law by encouraging rioting and by concealing their identity while doing so face appropriate consequences.

However, by enacting legislation that is redundant on its face, we do not help combat the problem. By wording the bill in such a way that it may unintentionally violate Canadian charter rights, a new problem may also be created.

For these reasons, we find it difficult to support the bill. We encourage all members to recognize that the Criminal Code already deals appropriately with masked rioting. It is our parliamentary duty to correct gaps that exist in the law, but we must also be aware that the law does what it is supposed to do today, and the matter is in another realm entirely.

In conclusion, while we share the hope of colleagues that we will not see riots and unlawful assemblies that result in property damage, injury or worse, this legislation neither accomplishes this purpose nor gets us any closer to doing so.

Preventing Persons from Concealing Their Identity during Riots and Unlawful Assemblies Act
Private Members' Business

11:40 a.m.

Calgary Centre-North
Alberta

Conservative

Michelle Rempel Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of the Environment

Mr. Speaker, it is always a pleasure to speak in the House, especially on a Monday morning with a colleague who has the more beautiful riding, his with the Rocky Mountains and mine with Nose Hill Park. However, that unfortunately is not the subject of debate today.

I am here to support Bill C-309, which was introduced earlier in the year. As a representative of a riding in the core of one of our nation's larger urban centres, I sympathize with the residents and business owners impacted by the destructive activity that occurred during recent riots in the Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal areas.

One of the key priorities of government is to protect its citizens' security. In all of these three cities, the public servants who put themselves at risk to protect innocent bystanders and the homes and property of business owners conducted themselves in an exemplary manner.

As the member for Wild Rose and the Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Justice have noted during previous debates in the House, Bill C-309 would give our police an effective tool to better defend our communities against those who choose to engage in violence during a riot, while ensuring that Canadians who choose to express their views in peaceful protest are further protected under the law.

However, some in this chamber do not think police should have this new tool for protecting public safety. For example, on May 7 of this year the member for Saanich—Gulf Islands took to Twitter stating: “Minister of Justice announces full support for PMB [private member's bill] on criminal offence to be masked in protest. No more polar bears in climate marches”.

While there are so many things wrong with this statement, the tone being one of them, frankly, let me start by noting that the member in question seems to have trouble distinguishing between a riot, which is not lawful and the subject of the bill, and peaceful protest, which is lawful. For her benefit I will clarify.

As we recently saw in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, lighting objects on fire and projecting them at law enforcement officials and wilfully destroying public and private property are hallmarks of a riot or unlawful assembly. A gathering of people choosing to stand peacefully in a law-abiding forum in support of issues, for example, climate change, would not be classified as a riot or unlawful assembly. As I enjoy debating the member in the House and in other forums and know her well, I find it hard to believe that she does not understand this distinction and has chosen to be flippant about the true purpose of this legislation. Actually reading the bill clearly shows it would not target people who wear masks or costumes that may conceal their identity while they are engaged in lawful protests, marches, gatherings or other activities commonly associated with the exercise of freedom and expression of lawful assembly.

I will re-emphasize for extra clarity that this bill would not affect people who are protesting peacefully or are within the context of a law-abiding activity. This legislation would affect people when the riot act has been invoked or a gathering has been deemed an unlawful assembly, as defined by the Criminal Code of Canada, and who don a mask to conceal their identity for that purpose.

I will go back to clarifying some of my colleague from Saanich—Gulf Islands' further misconceptions about the bill.

On September 19 the member returned to Twitter and wrote: “If a peaceful event gets out of hand and it's winter and you have a scarf on. 20 years in jail?” This statement is false, blatantly misleading and hyperbolic. However, it is the perfect example of false arguments that have been used to attack the bill. As such, I will walk through the flawed logic of this statement as well as some of the other similar statements made in the House today.

As I said earlier, for Bill C-309 to apply the accused must be wearing a mask or disguise for the specific purpose of concealing his or her identity during a riot or unlawful assembly.

However, what about the case of a gathering that descends into a riot? To this I would say that the best way to avoid participating in a riot is to not participate in a riot. I do not make this statement in jest or flippantly, because I hold the hope that the majority of our constituents would profess to be able to distinguish between engaging in a peaceful, lawful protest and a riot, as I have outlined in my speech, particularly as our country has a proud and strong tradition of our citizens engaging in peaceful protest to effect change.

It seems that I must also address the member's issue with scarves. This legislation specifically states that the accused must be wearing the disguise without lawful excuse, which is at the core of some of the arguments that have been made in this place this morning. Wearing a scarf to protect oneself against the elements during a lawful gathering is a lawful excuse. Wearing a scarf to conceal one's identity while engaging in violent behaviour, such as wilfully damaging property or attacking police officers during a riot or unlawful gathering as defined by the Criminal Code of our country, would not be a lawful excuse.

The same day that this member made the statement on Twitter, she attempted to completely gut Bill C-309 by proposing amendment after amendment, not with ideas to improve the legislation or debate it, but by replacing clause after clause with empty pages. In doing so, the member failed to note that Bill C-309 would fill a gap in the current law.

To reiterate, at the present time persons who wear masks or disguises with the intent to commit an indictable offence, including taking part in a riot, are subject to an offence under subsection 351(2) of the Criminal Code and are liable to a maximum terms of imprisonment of 10 years. However, subsection 351(2) does not apply to summary conviction offences. This means that the Criminal Code does not specifically address the situation of persons participating in an unlawful assembly who wear masks or other disguises to conceal their identity without lawful excuse.

While some today have tried to argue that the current law adequately covers these offences, as I have just stated, our law enforcement officials have testified that this is not the case. They find this subsection difficult to apply because it was not created for this type of situation. Rather, it was primarily meant to cover situations such as armed robbery. As evidence, and this is absolutely key, out of 15,000 separate criminal acts that were documented in the Vancouver riot, many with video evidence of the perpetrator, only a handful, a very tiny number, of charges were laid under this section, as this section only covers indictable offences. That is why the bill is such an important tool for our law enforcement officials.

To be clear, what this means is that when someone participating in a riot knows that he or she would be captured on video or on a cell phone and puts on a mask during a riot, we will now have a way to hold them to account in a much clearer way than is currently outlined in our present common law.

Fortunately, many other members of Parliament have recognized the merits of debating this important legislation instead of merely gutting it, and I am not talking about government MPs only. For instance, the most recent member for Victoria voted in favour of Bill C-309 at second reading, as did 189 other members. These members recognize the need to address this issue as well as the merit in debating this legislation, rather than making flippant Twitter comments and attempting to gut the bill.

Approval at second reading allowed the House justice committee to further investigate the issue and to hear from one of the constituents of the former member for Victoria, Police Chief Jamie Graham. He called this legislation a progressive, measured and responsible step toward giving the police agencies the legislative tools they need to uphold the law and maintain public safety. That was a comment from one of our valued law enforcement officials who has over 43 years of experience working in the law enforcement field.

Police Chief Graham testified that New York State recently had similar legislation upheld by the courts, and similarly, the United Kingdom and France passed legislation, in 2001 and 2009 respectively, to address similar concerns.

It is a basic tool that Police Chief Graham believes we must give to law enforcement for the reasons I have stated earlier. Speaking to the committee, he said:

There are very specific tactics used to try to dissuade riotous behaviour. We'll do whatever you ask us to do. I provide training and equipment to the officers. The government provides the legislative tools. I am simply suggesting this is one additional tool that I think will be extremely helpful....

We watched the television coverage of the Toronto, Vancouver and Montreal riots. We saw wilful acts of violence. We saw people physically injuring our law enforcement providers, and we also saw the damage it caused to businesses.

Having seen all these things, I would like to believe that no member in this House would vote to deny police this tool to protect the public, the police and legitimate protesters, people who are upholding the Canadian value of peaceful protest.

As I have said before in this House, by denouncing behaviour that is the antithesis of lawful expression and assembly, the bill underscores the Canadian values of freedom, tolerance, respect and rule of law. It also provides additional support for the people who work on the front lines to ensure that these values are upheld. Because of that, I will ask all members in this House to support its passage.

Preventing Persons from Concealing Their Identity during Riots and Unlawful Assemblies Act
Private Members' Business

11:50 a.m.

Conservative

The Acting Speaker Bruce Stanton

Before I recognize the hon. member for Beauport—Limoilou, I must inform him that he has approximately six minutes for his speech because I must allow enough time for replies.

Preventing Persons from Concealing Their Identity during Riots and Unlawful Assemblies Act
Private Members' Business

11:50 a.m.

NDP

Raymond Côté Beauport—Limoilou, QC

Mr. Speaker, I would like to thank you for that clarification. I will take full advantage of my six minutes.

I am truly shocked by the parliamentary secretary's speech. She completely ignored a very important problem and that is the reversal of the burden of proof, a consequence of the hon. member for Wild Rose's bill. I am not going to speculate on what the courts will do with this, but this reversal could lead to many problems and nullify some or all of the provisions, the amendments that the hon. member for Wild Rose has made.

I am not going to belabour this point, but I would just like to note, as did my colleague from Gatineau, that, unfortunately, this bill is redundant and has a lot of room for improvement. People can unwittingly find themselves in an unlawful assembly or riot, as defined in sections 63 to 66. They can be victims of circumstance and arrested. It has happened to many people, to honest citizens who simply wanted to express their opinions publicly and take advantage of the opportunity to participate in our society, in the democratic process, which is fundamental and important.

I would like to give an example that is very well-known in Quebec. A philosophy professor dressed up as a giant panda called the Anarchopanda, something he will no doubt do again at other protests. This philosophy professor's main goal was to defuse problematic and potentially violent situations by giving hugs to everyone, protestors and police officers alike. In fact, many police officers agreed to be hugged in order to defuse potential crises.

Reversing the burden of proof would require the Anarchopanda and any other legitimate protestor in a mask to provide a legitimate excuse. The Anarchopanda, who unfortunately attended a demonstration that escalated into a riot, could be sentenced to up to 10 years in prison. It is absolutely unbelievable that the simple act of wearing this costume with the stated purpose of supporting a completely legitimate demonstration, which is a fundamental right in our society, could lead to a sentence of up to 10 years in prison. That is the sentence imposed for criminal activities such as the financing of terrorism, firearms trafficking, and sexual abuse or assault.

How far will we go? I have quickly given some examples to show that, in its present form and without our amendment, the bill is absurd. We proposed a constructive amendment so that wearing a mask would be a criminal offence in keeping with section 351 of the Criminal Code.

The opposition parties and some groups are not the only ones opposed to this bill, and with good reason. The Canadian Bar Association clearly stated that people conceal their identities for various legitimate reasons such as protecting a family member or friend in another country or for other non-criminal reasons, including medical and religious reasons. The Barreau du Québec took a similar stand and stated that people can have a very good reason for concealing their identity or wearing a mask to make a statement.

If the bill were to be passed, what would the implications be for the fundamental right of freedom of expression? The act runs the risk of being thrown out. The additional amendment to the Criminal Code could be struck down by the courts because it touches on our fundamental freedoms and fails to achieve the original objective of fighting crime during unlawful assemblies.

I am asking all members of the House to vote against this bill to avoid making a mistake that would have unacceptable consequences for thousands of innocent members of our society.

Preventing Persons from Concealing Their Identity during Riots and Unlawful Assemblies Act
Private Members' Business

11:55 a.m.

Conservative

Blake Richards Wild Rose, AB

Mr. Speaker, once again, I commend all members of Parliament for the vigorous exchange of ideas over this legislation.

I realize that the vast majority of private members' bills that are introduced in this House never make it to this stage, but they serve the public by advancing the national debate regarding various issues. This, in and of itself, is a worthy outcome.

However, on this matter, debate is not enough. The bottom line is that the perpetrators who are criminalized by this legislation are not lawful protestors. We are not talking about giant pandas, Frosty the Snowman, as some members might suggest, or as members of the media talked about, the PETA seal. I am not looking to criminalize pandas, Frosty the Snowman or seals.

What I am seeking to do here today is to deal with provocative vandalism and violence. It is the destruction of public and private property. It is armed assault. In addition to the crimes they commit, these culprits bring disrepute to the honest and well-intentioned citizens making use of their legal rights to free speech and assembly.

The sad truth is that this is a growing threat. Members of the black bloc have incited protestors to riot across Canada, and in major cities all around the globe. The tactic has been refined and taught to new generations of radical criminals. These felons recognize and fully understand how the current loopholes in our laws, and I will reiterate, loopholes in our current laws, are allowing them to evade justice.

They have been able to exploit this situation to great effect, and they will continue training new recruits in these tactics. They will keep inciting riots, victimizing business owners, assaulting emergency service workers and destroying public property, so long as they believe there is a decent chance they will get away with it.

In the meantime, we continue to send our police and emergency service workers into these volatile situations. By allowing the loopholes in our laws to be maintained, we are asking them to wait until a riot is fully out of control and then stop it dead in its tracks, without damage to private and public property and without injury to themselves or the armed culprits attacking them. It is an impossible task. We might as well ask them to hold back the ocean's tide.

These emergency service workers are more than just a uniform. They are mothers and fathers. They are upstanding citizens, risking their own safety to protect others. They do it because somebody must do it. Quite frankly, they represent the best of our nation, and I applaud them.

Again, that is not enough. It is not enough for us to sit here, hundreds of kilometres and months removed from the maelstrom of mayhem set off by armed and organized thugs, and simply shrug our shoulders. It is not enough to order a report. It is not enough to form a commission. It is not enough to return to the aftermath of riot after another riot and blame a small group of troublemakers before turning our attention to other matters.

It is not enough, not for me, not for members, not for our emergency service workers and certainly not for the citizens of Canada. I bring this proposal today to give our police a crucial tool to do their jobs, to protect the public and return safely home to their families.

This tool in no way restricts citizens' rights to expression or assembly. In fact, it serves to strengthen them. It will ensure that those who come to these events to cause trouble can be brought to justice and discouraged from those kinds of behaviours, so that the people who come to a gathering, for whatever peaceful means, whether it be protest or otherwise, have the ability to do their activities safely and freely.

It simply fulfills the Canadian government's first responsibility, which is to protect Canadian citizens. It offends Canadians' sense of justice to watch these radical criminals incite such mindless violence and then be able to slink away under the cover of their masks.

Our nation is demanding a long-term solution, and that is exactly what Bill C-309 offers. It gives police the ability to better protect public safety. I am asking for the support of all members.

Preventing Persons from Concealing Their Identity during Riots and Unlawful Assemblies Act
Private Members' Business

Noon

Conservative

The Acting Speaker Bruce Stanton

The question is on the motion. Is it the pleasure of the House to adopt the motion?