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.