Behind the mask

By Deborah Jones

As of today, it’s illegal in Canada to wear a mask during a riot or unlawful assembly. Under Bill C-309, just passed, conviction of breaking that law carries a maximum 10-year prison sentence. 

Mixed thoughts.

First, a 10-year sentence, even if rarely imposed, is just crazy.

Second, I think if citizens of a democracy have a point to make, under *most* circumstances we’re honour bound to stand up and be counted – in public, by identifying ourselves. Democracy can’t function otherwise.
Third, in countries lacking rule of law, it might be impossible to protest governments or private corporations (think mining in South America or South Africa) and survive *without* a mask.

But, but, but … most Western democracies including Canada are still relatively civilized. Canada’s new law seems apt for the last guy I saw in a mask at an “unlawful assembly:” the young thug who raced through the crowd smashing windows at Vancouver’s hockey riot.

Rule of law and not man still exists in Canada, even though the country’s democracy is eroding and the courts are hide-bound, log-jammed and in the dark ages administratively. I lean – hard – to the idea of standing up and being counted. Any fool can don a mask, or a clown suit, and say and do anything without taking responsibility for it. But, but, but … there are those niggling exceptions.

One example: Anonymous mask-wearing demonstrators outside the Church of Scientology in a world-wide protest that I covered a while back. Those demonstrators knew they’d be video-recorded, and the church has a history of targeting those it considers opponents.

Another example, far more ominous: Canada’s current national ruling party keeps an electronic database of supporters and non-supporters. The Constituency Information Management System was used to direct known opponents away from their polling stations in the last election in a case the Federal Court ruled was widespread election fraud. The same ruling party has characterized democratic actors on environmental and other files as “terrorists,” and the RCMP knocked on the door of a senior citizen who wrote a protest letter to the Prime Minister’s Office.

These days if I were a Canadian (or American) who wanted to protest any government action, I would not be surprised to find myself video-recorded, and to have partisans target me down the road in unpredictable ways, from getting their pals to Tweet about skeletons  in my closets, to foiling my voting intentions, or worse. I’m a child of the continent’s civil rights revolution, and the era when a Canadian won the Nobel Peace Prize for the notion of peace-keeping, so even writing this stuff makes me feel a little looney, paranoid and conspiracy-minded – except that there’s proof from the sublime (electoral fraud) to the ridiculous: witness the young woman, a university student, who attended an NDP event and was later escorted out of a Conservative event because of her past association with the NDP. (She later told reporters she was a non-partisan, and exploring politics.)

I get why a Canadian would want to wear a mask and take political action. I find this new law deeply disturbing. Still, even now, if I were to be a political actor (outside of journalism) I would trust Western institutions to protect me in that role; I would not wear a mask. It bothers me, deeply, that I understand those who do.

Copyright © 2013 Deborah Jones