Sunday, May 13, 2012

When Does An Assembly Become Unlawful?

Because we were rather busy yesterday preparing a small celebration marking my sister-in-law's retirement at an enviably young age, I am just getting caught up on my Saturday newspaper reading. One of the issues that caught my attention is the private member's bill making its way through Parliament as an amendment to the Criminal Code. Introduced by Alberta Conservative Blake Richards, Bill C-309 is the preventing persons from concealing their identity during riots or unlawful assemblies act.

While the proposed amendment presents itself as a strong response to the violent depredations of anarchists like the Black Bloc during the 2010 G20 Summit demonstrations in Toronto, many infer a more sinister motivation behind Richards' initiative. Curious as to the truth in this matter, I checked out the Criminal Code's definition of unlawful assembly:

Unlawful assembly

63. (1) An unlawful assembly is an assembly of 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.

You can perhaps appreciate the ominous implications of this definition, most notably the subjective nature of fear that demonstrators will disturb the peace tumultuously, an elastic definition if there ever was one. As my wife pointed out to me, does that mean that if three people were picketing their M.P.'s office, their behaviour, whether masked or not, could constitute criminal behaviour based on someone else's reaction to the assembly?

Bill C-309 does indeed carry ominous implications, epecially since existing law already gives police all the power they need to arrest rioters and those committing crimes while masked.

As outlined in Section 351 of the Criminal Code,

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.

So yes, I think there is much merit in the argument that this private member's bill is just another move by the Harper regime to stifle dissent. That is also the view of many Star readers, who have responded to this issue with their usual vigour and thoughtfulness. I am posting a link to those letters here, but because access to readers' letters on the Star website is frequently of limited duration, I am going to later put up a separate post that reproduces several of them for your consideration.

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