Alberta Tory MP pushes ahead with bill to outlaw wearing masks during riots

An Alberta Conservative MP's private member's bill to outlaw mask-wearing during riots is moving ahead despite questions from those who think it's redundant.

Blake Richards, who represents the southern Alberta riding of Wild Rose, wants to make wearing a mask whilst rioting a separate offence under the Criminal Code, carrying a maximum penalty of five years in prison.

Richards argues the law would actually bolster free speech.

"What this does is protect the right to peacefully protest," he told CBC News this week. "People who want to peacefully protest, who want to make a point are able to do so."

The debate began in the House of Commons earlier this month as Occupy protests, sometimes featuring demonstrators wearing Guy Fawkes masks, were beginning to wind down. Last spring's Vancouver Stanley Cup riot and last year's G20 riot, which featured masked "Black Bloc" vandals, are also still fresh in many minds.

Critics wonder why the law is necessary, since it's already illegal to participate in a riot. Richards said the Criminal Code makes wearing a disguise during commission of an offence illegal but it's a hard one to enforce in a potential riot.

Police have no power to deal preemptively with people concealing their identities while a situation is unfolding, he told CBC. His bill would strip away the anonymity of would-be rioters.

"What this does is target those people who will try to take advantage of a protest to be able to cause trouble," he said.

"It's those people who are masking up, trying to disguise themselves that are looking to cause trouble, it's not the people who are legitimately trying to make a point on a matter that they have concern for and I think what this bill will do is protect those people and protect their right to be able to protest without having it turn into a situation."

The Opposition NDP calls the measure unnecessary.

"In its current form, this bill is redundant and could have serious consequences for civil liberties in this country," MP Charmaine Borg told the House.

Liberal MP Sean Casey said the bill underscores the Tory government's "obsession with crime," and is meant to foster fear among Canadians about their safety.

Richards' bill includes an exemption for those who have a "lawful excuse" for wearing a mask, such as for religious or medical reasons.

But Dave Goulet, a columnist for Ottawa-area Barry's Bay This Week, said the law is open to abuse.

"This law simply gives the police even more power to make mistakes with their use of force — and they make too damn many of them already," Goulet argued.

"Under this bill, even a peaceful protester who might cover his face with a mask to avoid inhaling tear gas could be arrested and jailed. Likewise a peaceful protestor wearing a mask symbolically could be arrested at the whim of police.

"There's too much opportunity for abuse of this bill, and we also know from experience that officers who do abuse the law in these situations are rarely held accountable. Perhaps an officer not wearing his badge should be considered 'masked' under this bill?"

(Reuters photo)