Friday, June 21, 2013

Let's All Be Good, Quiescent Citizens, Eh?

It is no secret that this country, under the 'leadership' of the Harper cabal, has suffered a significant loss of democratic freedoms reflected in the abuse of and contempt for parliamentary procedure, the subversion of senate inquiries, the muzzling of civil servants, and the extollment of opacity in place of transparency (anyone made a freedom of information request lately?) to name but four 'crimes' of the government. A new threat, of which I have already briefly written twice, is the new law, Bill C-309, which makes it a crime punishable by up to ten years in prison to wear a mask during a riot (cue the misdirection here) or an 'unlawful assembly'. It is the latter stipulation that should be of concern to all of us.

First, what constitutes an unlawful assembly? It would seem that it is in the eye of the beholder. The Criminal Code defines it this way:

"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 will disturb the peace tumultuously; or will by that assembly needlessly and without reasonable cause provoke other persons to disturb the peace tumultuously."

You can see that one of the problems here is the rather subjective nature of an unlawful assembly, the determination of which would ultimately fall to the authoriteis on site to make. For example, if a group of people, without a permit, assemble to loudly and very publically protest, for example, environmental degradation, and one of them, because he/she fears retaliation from an employer, dons a disguise, if the authorities call it an ulawfual assembly, that person is potentially facing a very protracted period of incarceration.

Are people who might be present at a current protest in Westover over Enbridge plans to pump tar sand crude to Montreal but don't want to run afoul of employers thereby deterred from this 'unlawful assembly'? Those who embrace the corporate agenda would doubless be hearted by such deterrence; those who can think beyond the bottom line, not so much.

While the author of the bill, Conservative M.P. Blake Richards has insisted that the law is necessary for dealing with protesters "pre-emptively,", Osgoode Hall Law School Professor James Stribopoulos [has] pointed to the possible "chilling effects" posed by making it unlawful to disguise one’s identity at a protest, say to prevent against reprisals from your boss or coworkers, or to avoid facial recognition software.

Given that existing law already makes it an offence to wear a mask during the commission of a crime, some are suggesting the new law will not withstand a constitutional challenge. Writes the Huffington Post's Marni Soupcoff:

The problem with the new law is that it threatens to chill the political and social activities of completely innocent people -- or to land them in jail for doing nothing more serious than trying to stay anonymous. What if a .... particularly creative environmentalist wanted to make a point at an anti-oil sands demonstration by wearing a handmade sludge-covered duck mask?

Can the government really get away with this level of intimidation, dampening, and punishment of public demonstrations... Not if the Charter's protections of freedom of expression and peaceful assembly mean anything. Which is why I hope the new law will be challenged in court -- and soon. It deserves more serious constitutional scrutiny than it has been afforded, and it deserves more outrage too. Canada should not feel comfortable joining the ranks of Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia -- countries (none of them exactly known for their respect of civil liberties) that have ... recently banned Guy Fawkes masks.

So the choice becomes a very basic one: Will we play the role of the quiescent citizen that coroporate/governmental interests are so avidly casting for? Or do we think that democracy is something well-worth vigourously fighting for and defending?


  1. Someone should organize a rally of thousands of people on the Hill, everyone wearing masks.

    1. Or all over the country? Canada Day?

  2. Dissent -- from citizens or from its own backbenchers -- is beyond their tolerance, Lorne.

  3. That is a capital idea, Kirby, especially since there are so many metaphorical masked men and women currently in both Houses anyway.

  4. There's nothing like having a group of zealots protecting us from upsetting ideas, is there, Owen?