moved that Bill C-309, An Act to amend the Criminal code (concealment of identity), be read the second time and referred to a committee.
Mr. Speaker, I am pleased to open debate today on my private member's Bill C-309, the preventing persons from concealing their identity during riots and unlawful assemblies act.
This legislation would add new penalties for wearing a disguise to those sections of the Criminal Code that deal with individuals who participate in a riot or an unlawful assembly. This bill is a measured response to a problem that law enforcement officials have grappled with for years, and the need for which has been further highlighted by recent events in the cities of Toronto and Vancouver.
At the G20 meetings in Toronto, and again in Vancouver after game seven of the Stanley Cup playoffs in June, law-abiding citizens were assaulted; businesses were broken into, vandalized and looted of their merchandise; and public property owned by taxpayers, such as police cars, was torched and destroyed. These violent events had a theme in common that was noted by law enforcement officers who were working to protect public safety at the time. They noted the prevalence of people who wore masks or facial coverings to conceal their identities during the commission of criminal acts.
According to police, some of the perpetrators deliberately masked up prior to the gatherings becoming violent, while others mingled in the crowd and covered their faces in order to carry out criminal acts of opportunity. These offenders vandalized property and assaulted police officers and innocent bystanders. They say a picture is worth a thousand words. Who here can forget the images from Vancouver of looters with their shirts, jackets or hockey jerseys yanked up over their face while streaming through broken store windows with heaps of stolen merchandise, or thugs jumping into the crowds to kick or hit an innocent bystander in the thick of the rioting?
These images tell a very revealing story. They tell us that criminals are well aware in this age of social media and all-pervasive cellphone cameras that they run a very high risk of their behaviour being recorded and they had better hide their identity if they want to avoid being caught and brought to justice for their actions. More and more of them are doing exactly that. In too many cases, these offenders escape identification by covering or obscuring their face at the time of the offence. This is an unacceptable state of affairs. No one should be able to commit violent and destructive crimes against persons and property with impunity under a cloak of anonymity, yet that is exactly what we have seen happen in these cases.
Police have long advised that their inability to pre-emptively deal with individuals who were concealing their identities in the middle of such explosive situations is hindering their ability to maintain control and to protect the public. Currently, there is no authority for police to pre-emptively stop people from concealing their identity in a riot. They must observe an offence before they can move to stop it, even by a masked individual and even in a riot. Their powers in these dangerous situations are reactive rather than proactive. Our Criminal Code does provide a penalty for disguise with intent in subsection 351(2).
When police in Vancouver recently recommended charges of participating in a riot against some of the suspected rioters there, they did in fact propose charges under that section in a very small number of cases, but why only in a small number of cases? In only a small number of cases where people had their faces concealed were police able to verify the suspect's identity afterwards.
The charge of disguise with intent can be a challenging one to apply, and since it is applied in the aftermath of an incident, it is not altogether helpful in actually controlling riot situations as they occur.
A police officer trying to maintain control in the midst of a riot has little time or means to meet the high level of intent needed to satisfy subsection 351(2). They are too busy defending life and limb, their own and those of the citizens they were sworn to protect. Yet police repeatedly tell us that it is these very people, those who disguise themselves and mask their faces, that are most often the instigators and the ringleaders of such trouble.
What if there were a measure designed to strip away anonymity from criminals during such disturbances? What if the very act of wearing a disguise in a riot became in and of itself an offence? What if police had the means to order those who were concealing their identities in a riot to remove their disguises or risk detainment or arrest? That would change the stakes dramatically.
People would then have a very clear choice in front of them. They could choose to remove their disguise, show their face and be identified and held accountable for their criminal actions, or they could choose not to and risk arrest for the offence of wearing a mask in a riot. Either way, public safety would be improved.
It would improve public safety by providing a new deterrent for people to wear disguises in the first place. If people think twice about concealing themselves, then surely the prospect of committing a crime without the benefit of anonymity would give them even greater pause. This would allow us to better identify people who engage in criminal riotous behaviour and it would improve the police's ability to deal with people who are wearing disguises at the time of an incident, thereby preventing them from rioting at all.
This bill is a good idea, but it is not necessarily a new idea. Other democratic governments, such as those in the United Kingdom, France and the State of New York, have developed legislation that would either limit or prohibit the wearing of disguises, masks or facial coverings. For example, in 2001, the United Kingdom passed the anti-terrorism crime and security act, which includes sections regarding the use of masks and disguises.
It is only when a peaceful protest or assembly turns into a riot or an unlawful assembly that the provisions of the bill would come into force.
When does a peaceful assembly become a riot or an unlawful assembly? The Criminal Code tells us when. It tells us that an unlawful assembly has occurred when:
--three or more persons who, with intent to carry out any common purpose, assemble in such a manner or so conduct themselves when they are assembled as to cause persons in the neighbourhood of the assembly to fear, on reasonable grounds, that they
(a) will disturb the peace tumultuously; or
(b) will,by that assembly needlessly and without reasonable cause provoke other persons to disturb the peace tumultuously.
When do we know that police are dealing with a riot situation? Again, the Criminal Code, in section 64, tells us a riot is occurring when “an unlawful assembly has begun to disturb the peace tumultuously”.
We see in law that an unlawful assembly evolves into a riot when there is tumultuous conduct by participants. Typically this involves acts of violence or threatened violence, or destruction of property.
Both definitions provide us with clear indicators of when a peaceful assembly has ceased to be such and when police are now intervening in an illegal act. It is therefore no infringement on charter rights to peaceful assembly for police to intervene when such an assembly has degraded into either an unlawful assembly or a riot.
It is in those same situations when police are working to restore order that the provisions of Bill C-309 would make it necessary for any masks or disguises worn by participants to be taken off immediately.
Riots and unlawful assemblies already carry Criminal Code penalties. Bill C-309 would simply amend already existing sections of the code to make it an added offence to wear a mask or other disguise to conceal one's identity during these illegal acts.
Let us be clear. Anyone who is wearing a mask or a disguise to conceal his or her face in the midst of a riot is exhibiting aggravating behaviour. Law-abiding citizens who get caught up in a riot will naturally be seeking to clear the area on police orders. It is hard to imagine that others who ignore police instructions to depart the area and who, in addition, continue to linger in the vicinity while wearing a disguise are seized by any innocent motives or good intentions in those kind of circumstances.
This bill would not remove police discretion. Police who are trying to restore order and protect safety in a riot situation are not likely to be interested in pursuing anyone who is already obeying orders to leave the area. In fact, someone fleeing the scene of a riot on police orders may in a real sense be seen as no longer participating in a riot as defined by the code.
It is not the people leaving the scene of trouble who have the police's attention. It is the loitering, masked troublemakers who concern the police. Someone with his or her shirt up to block out tear gas for example is not likely to concern riot control police if that individual is actively running away from the scene. However, individuals who come prepared with gas masks or bandanas and are wearing them in the trouble spot in defiance of police directions to move on is another story.
There is evidence that at these riots many of the people wearing masks and facial coverings were part of organized groups with premeditated intent on confronting the police and causing mayhem. In addition to targeting the criminals of opportunity that we see at riots, this law also targets anarchists, those individuals who come to protest with the premeditated intent to use the assembly as a cover for their criminal behaviour.
Anarchist groups are increasingly employing the tactic of concealing their identity by wearing disguises, masks, or other facial coverings for the purpose of committing unlawful acts in a riot situation. Police have seen it time and again, individuals with their faces concealed mixing into a group and then instigating riotous behaviour, such as throwing objects at police, tossing marbles under the legs of police horses to trip them up, or covering up their faces before smashing windows, setting fires, stealing, assaulting people or flipping over vehicles. These individuals then remove their facial coverings and slip away in the confusion, some never to be apprehended. It is vexing for police and dangerous for the public to see such individuals escape the consequences of their actions.
I would argue that their clean getaways in fact embolden them to redouble their efforts and engage in criminality again, but Bill C-309 presents a new tool for police to deal with them. These people would now risk arrest for wearing their masks in a riot. Police would no longer have to wait for them to start assaulting people and destroying property before they could move against them.
Police know they need this ability to act pre-emptively against disguised individuals in riot situations. Police chiefs in a number of Canada's major cities, including Calgary, Toronto, Vancouver and Victoria, have all told me they support my bill.
Vancouver Chief Constable Jim Chu had this specifically to say about my bill:
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.
In a resolution that he drafted this year for the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, Victoria Chief Constable Jamie Graham urged the government to take aim at this particular problem. His resolution had this to say about masked individuals: “Wearing 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 protestors.” It goes on to say: “Wearing a disguise, masks or other facial coverings allows a person to conceal their identity whose intent it is to commit an unlawful act prior to, during or immediately after a lawful assembly or protest.”
Police know through hard experience that it is often the organized ring leaders or instigators of such trouble who come prepared with materials to conceal their identities, or it is people who decide in the thick of things to assault others or destroy property who will attempt to conceal their identities, as we saw in Vancouver. Whoever they are, organized or not, no one in Canada should be able to hide in plain sight while committing crimes.
I have heard some suggest that if this bill passes, it may target individuals who wear facial coverings for religious or cultural reasons, but that view fails to take into account the exemption in this bill for lawful excuse. My bill states:
Every person who commits an offence...while wearing a mask or other disguise to conceal their identity without lawful excuse is guilty of an indictable offence--
What are examples of a lawful excuse? Someone who legitimately wears cultural or religious dress that obscures the face, or bandages for legitimate medical purposes, for example, might fall under the exemption. Someone who could demonstrate a lawful excuse that is legitimate and provable for wearing a face covering would not face the penalties of Bill C-309, although the person would still face the existing penalties for participating in a riot.
I will close by urging my colleagues in the House to support Bill C-309. I am convinced that no one in the chamber of any political persuasion wants to see repeats of the destruction and violence that took place in Vancouver and Toronto. This bill has the potential to deter and de-escalate such unfortunate events in the future to protect persons and property. I sincerely hope that all members will join me in moving the bill forward.