Culture | The meaning behind the mask

Exploring the significance of Guy Fawkes to the Occupy movement

As the recent global financial crisis evolved into a recession, hundreds of thousands took to the streets across the world to demonstrate their indignation against a system that, they believe, has failed them. Beginning with Occupy Wall Street, a movement baptized in New York City, it has expanded into a global phenomenon, from Hong Kong to Rio de Janeiro, as well as right here in Montreal. Footage from these demonstrations repeatedly show images of protesters wearing masks with a moustache and a pointed beard. The proliferation of this image has aroused curiosity as to the provenance of the reappearing emblem.

Known by some as the V for Vendetta mask, this symbol of social rebellion has its origins in a much earlier era. In fact, it dates back to early 17th century Britain, when the failed “gunpowder plot” took place against British King James I. The plot was instigated by a group of provincial English Catholics, of which Guy Fawkes, the man depicted by the famous mask, was a member. With the aim of restoring a Catholic monarchy in Britain, the assassination attempt against King James I and the Protestant aristocracy and nobility consisted of blowing up the House of Lords on November 5, 1605. Although the plot was a failure, its legacy lingers to this day. Despite being only one of 13 conspirators, Fawkes stands out as an individual, considering he was assigned the job of igniting the explosives.

Ever since, November 5, “Guy Fawkes Night” or “Gunpowder Treason Day,” has become an annual holiday celebrated primarily in Great Britain. Exported by settlers to British colonies around the world, it became an underground tradition in North America, much to the chagrin of authorities. In fact, Quebec has been directly influenced by this tribute to Guy Fawkes. The Quebec Act of 1774 guaranteed French Canadians free practice of Catholicism in the province. This Act infuriated Americans, as did the opposition from the Church in Europe to American independence, which threatened a revival of Gunpowder Treason day. In fact, Guy Fawkes had such an impact that his mask is used by Canadian police and military explosives technicians even today.

Embraced by political figures campaigning for civil disobedience such as Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, the Internet-based group known as Anonymous, and made famous by the 2006 movie V for Vendetta, the Guy Fawkes mask has become an international symbol for anti-establishment protest groups.

On October 15, the Global Day of Action, at around 4 p.m., over a thousand people gathered in Square Victoria (newly named La Place du Peuple) in solidarity with the Occupy movement. As a display of revolt, the Guy Fawkes Mask was placed on the face of Queen Victoria’s statue. More than a concealment of identity, the mask became a symbol of commitment to a shared cause and group spirit. The mask displayed a sentiment that was shared amongst Montrealers, and represented the reason for which many were there.

As much as corporate greed, influence over government, and social and economic inequality are denounced by the Occupy movement, the most fundamental cause may be much more subtle than that. It involves a growing feeling of disapproval that’s been building up in recent years – especially among youth – against the ways society functions, in the most primitive sense, and a growing need for the feeling of social belonging. The Guy Fawkes mask illustrates this defiance and thirst for integration by homogenizing faces to one universal expression. By wearing the mask, protesters are sending a message of unity, indifference to response, and unlimited audacity.

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