News  Police seek to unmask protesters

Opponents rally around freedom of speech and expression

Donning hoods, masks, or other face-coverings at public demonstrations in Montreal will be prohibited when the City Council passes a proposed anti-mask bylaw.

“Certain protests have a high risk for innocent people to be injured. The key here is criminal intent,” explained Chief Inspector Paul Chablo, the Director of Communications for the Montreal police department.

Chablo pointed to the violent rioting following the city’s last Stanley Cup Final in April.

“What’s the logic of wearing a ski mask in May?” Chablo asked.

Police proposed the idea over two months ago with the goal of identifying participants in violent demonstrations, but many people have criticized the proposal for infringing on citizens’ basic rights and for granting police excessive power.

While Claude Dauphin, the Executive Committee member in charge of public safety, has insisted that the law will allow exceptions for religious reasons or cold weather, many, including Sana Saeed, VP External for the McGill Muslim Student Association and Daily columnist, questioned how police will monitor who covers their face and for what reason.

“At [one of the rallies for Gaza], many people had their faces covered with a keffiyeh – some for solidarity as a political statement, some against the cold, some to protect their identities in front of all the rolling cameras,” Saeed said.

“Some people have a fear that maybe if their co-worker, boss, or professor sees them, it can have an effect on the way they are treated, especially if those people have different political views.”

Julius Grey, a Montreal lawyer who specializes in civil rights issues, also supported the right to wear masks at protest for the privacy that they provide.

“When an issue is very emotional, and employers are on the other side,” said Grey, “you can imagine the risk inherent in public demonstration.”

A United Nations report on civil and political rights from 2005 criticized Montreal’s long-standing mass-arrest strategy, citing it as having the highest numbers in Canada. The report also urged authorities to ensure the right of people to peacefully participate in social protests.

Canada’s Criminal Code already makes it illegal to wear a disguise while committing a serious crime, noted Gabrielle Provost, who participates in many rallies for the Coalition Against Police Brutality.

“If the city decides to adopt this law, it will give another opportunity for Montreal police to arrest people who have done nothing wrong,” Provost said.

Grey noted that the bylaw could be unconstitutional, especially if the wording is not explicit. Defending demonstrators’ right to wear masks, he also asserted that political statements are a combination of both the content and form of what is expressed.

“Putting on a costume, or a mask, in this case, is part of that expression,” Grey said.

Historically, mask-sporting protesters have commonly been associated with the political left or with anarchist movements. Many marchers at peaceful gatherings wear masks that make fun of the individuals against whom they protest. Jaggi Singh, an active member of migrant justice organization Solidarity Across Borders, also noted that masks are not worn solely for anonymity.

“[Mask-wearers] stand in unity with other members, many of whom are non-status or illegal people facing deportation orders, who can’t attend demonstrations to express their political views.”

Concealment laws already exist in Quebec City and Trois-Rivières, and New York City has had a ban on disguising or masking one’s face in public since 1945.