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