Thank you very much, Mr. Chair.
I'd like to thank the chair and the clerk and the committee members for inviting the BC Civil Liberties Association to appear and provide our comments and views on Bill C-309 and the proposed amendments to sections 65 and 66 of the Criminal Code.
The BCCLA would like to express its concern and opposition with Bill C-309 and its attempt to increase criminal sanctions for those who wear masks or face coverings at riots or unlawful assemblies. To be clear, the effort here is not to create a new offence; it's to create more significant penalties or sanctions for those who wear masks at unlawful assemblies or riots. So it's someone who's already committed some kind of crime.
I'd like to set out our concerns in four areas of civil liberties: one, freedom of expression; two, privacy; three, the presumption of innocence; and four, protection.
With respect to freedom of expression, whenever people organize and gather to express their views or opinions on a law or other public issues, whether it's a rally or a demonstration or protest, I think we all have to recognize that's a very good thing. When citizens and people organize, it's always a good thing. The exchange and expression and communication of ideas in a peaceful assembly reinforce the vitality and vibrancy of a democracy. The right to freedom of expression is described as a fundamental value in Canada, because, to quote the Supreme Court of Canada:
...in a free, pluralistic and democratic society we prize a diversity of ideas and opinions for their inherent value both to the community and to the individual.
The question is, how does Bill C-309 inhibit free expression? Simply put, it creates a chilling effect for those who may wish to wear masks at popular protests and rallies. Contrary to some opinions this committee may have heard, there are legitimate reasons for wearing masks that are tied to expressive activity.
First, masks can be a powerful aid to unpopular speech. For those who wish to convey messages that are likely to offend governments or others, the anonymity that masks provide may encourage the uninhibited expression of views by offering security against reprisal from government, employers, family, or others.
Here are just a few examples. How will people—who wish to—protest against the treatment of refugees by the Canadian Border Services or Canadian Security Intelligence? People who attend those kinds of rallies or protests may well be concerned that they are then going to come under the surveillance of CSIS. Or what if a person who was a refugee wanted to protest the atrocities against Tamils in Sri Lanka a couple of years ago? Some of you may recall those protests. There were many flags of the Tamil Tigers, which is recognized as a terrorist group in Canada. But if someone was a refugee attending that, would they be concerned or fearful that in some way they're going to be wrongfully targeted because they're attending such a rally?
What about the young, first-year Bay Street lawyer, perhaps not so enamoured with his or her job, who wants to attend the G-20 demonstrations in Toronto, or people who work for investment banks, like Goldman Sachs? There was a famous op-ed a couple of weeks ago of a person who quit Goldman Sachs because of their disagreement with that industry.
What about those who may choose to rally for or against same-sex marriage? Perhaps the son or daughter of a cabinet minister wished to attend the legalized marijuana rally at Parliament Hill a few weeks ago. Or perhaps an NDP MP wishes to attend the tuition rallies in Quebec. These might all be reasons why someone might not want their identity conveyed at a rally.
Secondly, in some circumstances the masks themselves may convey a message to observers. People wear politician masks, surgical masks, like doctors protesting for medicare, or Guantanamo Bay orange jump suits with sleep deprivation goggles. Guy Fawkes masks are now popular at Occupy protests, and so on. In short, the mask or the disguise is part of the message.
Assembly and freedom of expression are not simply something that democratic society should tolerate. It is something that should be encouraged and celebrated. This committee and Parliament should think about to what extent these new provisions inhibit that.
Secondly, it's privacy. The BCCLA has concerns about the use of facial recognition software and how it might be used for police or intelligence watch lists. There's been an expansion of no-fly lists. What does it take to become a target today? We don't know.
What about university students attending a protest today about something very unpopular, or maybe even the Occupy movement? That person may end up with an intelligence file for the rest of their lives because they attended a certain kind of protest in their youth.
The presumption of innocence is the third area of civil liberties that we're concerned about. Intention or state of mind is a critical element in the criminal law, and the BC Civil Liberties Association and other civil liberty organizations have long been concerned about the unlawful assembly and riot provisions in the Criminal Code because it is often very unclear when a lawful assembly becomes an unlawful assembly.
If you're someone who is at the front of a protest, wearing a mask, how do you know that there's not a small group in the back that do start engaging in criminal activity, thus rendering that entire assembly unlawful? You have, then, apparently, under the Criminal Code, immediately committed a crime. Now, with these new provisions, it's a crime where you could be subject to five years in prison. That's a concern.
Fourth, and finally, protection is the last point I want to make. I was here earlier and heard the comments by Inspector Rai from the Vancouver Police Department. I have to say that some of the things he said are a little bit disconcerting. We are worried that these provisions will in some way encourage police officers to engage in what he called preventative activity.
There's no question that the crimes that were committed at the Stanley Cup riots are completely unacceptable, and those who committed those crimes should be prosecuted. But the concern is when police, at demonstrations and rallies, get their own ideas about who may or may not be someone who is acceptable or about what kind of rally or protest is or is not acceptable. This idea of pre-awareness, or an agenda, or surgically removing people—these ideas are problems.
The other point Inspector Rai was making is that it can be used for de-escalation. That's not the experience of the BC Civil Liberties Association.
I will make this one last point. We obviously know about the terrible consequences of the Stanley Cup riots in Vancouver in 2010, but we often forget the numerous, very well-attended rallies and protests during the 2010 Olympics. These protests were largely peaceful. There were thousands and tens of thousands at some of those rallies.
One factor, we believe, as to why they were peaceful is that the BC Civil Liberties Association had organized an illegal observer program. Four hundred people with notepads were trained to attend these rallies in special, bright T-shirts, identifying who they were. That ended up creating very much a deterrent effect. There was not violence, there was not escalation, because we will say, from our experience, from activists who attend these kinds of rallies, that it's often the police who can cause the escalation of violence at rallies.
Those are the concerns we have.
I'd just conclude and emphasize to the committee that Bill C-309 does infringe or inhibit some of our most fundamental freedoms. It is disproportionate and unnecessary to address the concerns raised. Someone committing a crime can and should be prosecuted, and this bill will not change that in any way. What it will do is cause a chilling effect on free speech, and several other problems that I've raised with you today.
I thank you very much.