In the wake of the Occupy protests and continuing student protests in the heart of French Canada, the city of Montreal recently passed a bylaw making the wearing of masks or bandanas illegal during an unlawful protest or riot. This crackdown comes in the face of years of ongoing struggle between students in the province of Quebec -- Montreal in particular.
Some history -- last year, tens of thousands of students took to the streets in a protest which dwarfed the turnout at even the historic 1995 referendum rally. Stretching for miles, protesters marched against the Charest government’s plan to increase tuition. Quebec, along with Newfoundland, are the provinces which offer the lowest tuition rates, by far, amongst all Canadian provinces -- and both provinces have a very muscular student movement, unionized and otherwise.
On the anniversary of the 2012 protest march -- late this past March -- Montreal police arrested 294 individuals in a single day during a number of mass arrests to quell discontent.
"When a cause is just, why hide behind a mask?”
The above quote can be attributed to Montreal Mayor Gérald Tremblay speaking in favour of the proposed city bylaw restricting the right to wear facial coverings (ie. masks) during an unlawful gathering or riot. Passing by a slim but still notable margin of 33-25. The Mayor and Police Chief Marc Parent would go on to defend the move against questions being posed by opposition parties while civil liberties activists protested outside city hall.
One woman wearing a surgical mask held a sign stating “CAUTION: Masked Protestor = Social(ist) + Terrorist Threat”.
Quebec City has stated that they do not plan to follow Montreal’s lead.
Canada Bans Masks During Riots or Unlawful Gatherings, Protests
Montreal may be setting somewhat of a precedent when it comes to the larger picture of Canadian politics. The House of Commons -- Senate -- passing third reading on May 23 and becoming law as announced in the Canadian upper chamber on June 19th as it received Royal Assent.
Its passage was all but guaranteed by a majority government held tightly by the Harper Conservatives who have made great political hay of being a “tough on crime” party with a decidedly authoritarian perspective on the justice portfolio. Victims rights are heralded as justification in most instances -- in this case by extension the general “keeping of the peace” befits a law and order mandate as the Conservative majority would suggest.
Ethical “lines in the sand” and what this unmasking may mean
Negotiating a compromise between liberty and security has been a focus of both North American nations, particularly in the post 9/11 era. While some extremists on either side of the spectrum may advocate their respective poles, most of the electorate understands the need for a balance of both privacy and personal liberty and respect for offices of authority and certain security processes.
Much like the common Orwellian refrain “If you haven’t done anything wrong, you have nothing to be afraid of.” with regard to surveillance societies, “If you have nothing to be ashamed of, why cover your face and obscure your identity?” is a dangerous presupposition to make about the motives for wanting to remain anonymous during political protest, particularly over controversial subjects and particularly in cases where identification with a cause could mean punitive loss of career, relationships, or even life in some instances.
It would appear that Canada and the United States struggle equally with this unhappy compromise, unmasked and in the spotlight.