The private member's bill passed third and final reading in the House of Commons. The legislation makes it a serious crime to be masked or otherwise disguised while participating in an unlawful assembly or riot.
It was not lost on anyone that Bill C-309 was passed in the House of Commons on Halloween. The bill passed 153-126 with MPs voting along party lines. The governing Conservatives voted to pass the legislation while members of the opposition all voted against the bill.
Participating in a riot or an unlawful assembly are already criminal offences. Those found to have taken part in a riot are guilty of an indictable offence and are liable to imprisonment for up to two years. Participation in an unlawful assembly can result in a conviction of a summary conviction offence.
Bill C-309 is known as the Preventing Persons from Concealing Their Identity during Riots and Unlawful Assemblies Act. It provides that anyone who is found guilty of participating in a riot while wearing a mask or disguise is liable to a sentence of 10 years in prison. Someone who is found guilty of wearing a mask or disguise while taking part in an unlawful assembly is liable to be sentenced to up to five years in prison if prosecuted by way of indictment.
The mask or disguise must be worn "without lawful excuse" before it becomes a criminal offence. Those whose faces are covered for religious or medical reasons would not be guilty of a crime. But the onus would be on the person to adduce evidence that he or she had a lawful excuse to wear a mask or disguise in the midst of a riot or violent protest.
The criminal sanctions would not apply to those taking part in a peaceful demonstration or protest.
Bill C-309 was introduced as a private member's bill by Conservative MP Blake Richards on Oct. 3, 2011 when it received first reading. The legislation was brought forward in response to the Stanley Cup riots that took place in Vancouver the previous June after the hometown Canucks were defeated by the Boston Bruins.
While bills introduced by private members instead of the government rarely pass into law, Bill C-309 garnered support from the governing Tories who hold a majority of seats in Parliament.
Members of the opposition argued this is nothing more than a further restriction on civil liberties as taking part in riots or unlawful assemblies are already crimes. NDP MP Charmaine Borg was quoted in the Chronicle Herald as saying, "An individual is not necessarily going to commit a crime just because he or she is wearing a mask at a riot. It is reasonable to think that the person just wants to remain anonymous and protect his or her identity."
Richards countered by saying, "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."
The bill is now before the Senate and is expected to be passed into law.